Melinda Bargreen | 27 MAR 2023
Every good director begins with research, and stage director Maria Todaro took that maxim to heart when she first encountered Joseph Bologne’s 1780 chamber opera, The Anonymous Lover.
“To my great shame, I didn’t know about him,” she said of Bologne in a recent telephone interview prior to the Atlanta Opera “Discoveries Series” production, which runs for three performance, March 31 through April 2, at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College.
Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), was born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, the son of a French planter and a Senegalese woman. He became a noted composer, violinist, and orchestra conductor but was better known in historical footnotes than in today’s concert venues until relatively recently. Bologne also is commonly recognized as the first-known classical composer of African ancestry.
“In conservatories, Bologne’s name was not mentioned,” Todaro continued. “I was completely blown away when I began my research. He was a superhero: a fencer, a high-ranking member of society who was an advisor to Mozart, a confidant of Marie Antoinette, a virtuoso concert violinist, and the head of two regiments. And because of his skin color, he was demoted from the Paris Opera.”
The multi-talented Todaro is just the person to research and transform this work into the show that Atlanta audiences will see and hear. As an opera director, fight choreographer, composer, singer, and conductor, Todaro sees the “big picture” and knows how to implement creative changes.
To bring The Anonymous Lover forward into our time, Todaro translated the 18th-century French libretto into contemporary English and added the character of Bologne himself. His opening monologue starts the show.
“Essentially, it’s now a ‘play within a play’,” Todaro explains. “This concept allows the integrity of the original to remain intact while creating more staging possibilities. We have kept the elegance and flair of the playwright, Stéphanie Félicité de Genlis.”
In the original, the world-weary Léontine, a beautiful young widow who has become disillusioned with love, is surprised to receive a steady stream of letters and gifts from an unknown man. The “anonymous lover” professing his passion for her is really her longtime friend Valcour, who is afraid to declare himself because Léontine has sworn off love.
But in this production, Léontine already knows that the “anonymous lover” is Valcour.
As Todaro puts it: “She is playing him as much as he is playing her. We wanted to reach audiences of today, and so we wanted to make her knowing without changing a word. This subtly establishes equality between the sexes.”
Set designer Stefan Moravski has produced a new set for the Atlanta production – still 18th-century in style, with what Todaro calls “some Guadeloupe accents and a lot of Versailles flair.” Projections will transform the sets: Todaro promises that “things will happen to those walls!”
She is excited about the possibilities of the Atlanta cast: “The cast that Tomer [Zvulun, general and artistic director of The Atlanta Opera] chose is exquisite, with wonderful stage personalities. They will bring the characters to life.”
And this is important to Todaro, who has taken The Anonymous Lover to heart. She has previously staged the work for Minnesota Opera (in 2022) and has strong feelings about its content and style.
“In research, I confess that I cried many times as I read about Bologne’s life and all the adversity he faced, as when his baby son died,” she confesses. “He turned everything into a triumph. In this production, we are rendering justice to this man and his work.”
The Anonymous Lover will be presented on an intimate scale at Morehouse College as part of Atlanta Opera’s “Discoveries Series” that take place off the company’s larger home stage. Famous for its Glee Club, Morehouse is one of the 107 significant Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and thus a natural fit for this production.
The performances will be presented in French with English supertitles. Emily Senturia – violinist, conductor, and coach from the San Francisco Bay Area – will conduct the production; the cast includes Maria Valdes and Frederick Ballentine as Léontine and Valcour, with supporting roles sung by Indra Thomas, Jonathan Bryan, Cadie J. Bryan, and Christian Patterson. ■
- Maria Todaro: maria-todaro.com
- The Atlanta Opera: atlantaopera.org
Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based composer and music journalist who has been writing for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Her 2015 book, Classical Seattle is published by University of Washington Press. Her 50 Years of Seattle Opera was published by Marquand Books in 2014.
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Author: Melinda Bargreen