Arts Desk

Composer Gregory Spears on Paul’s Case of Disaffected Dandyism

On Saturday, UrbanArias gives an opera treatment to “Paul’s Case,” Willa Cather’s 1905 short story that continues to make high school English class reading lists despite being seriously depressing. Cather’s “study in temperament,” or coming-of-age tale, tells of a Pittsburgh teen named Paul who is described as “dandy” with an “itch to let his instructors know how heartily he despises them and their homilies, and how thoroughly he was appreciated elsewhere,” in other words is gay and an insufferable brat. Paul steals some money and runs away to New York to live the good life for a bit before things go bad—as in suicidal.

It’s Cather’s cautionary empathy that is probably what makes the story so timeless for high school. We feel you, disaffected teens. Now refrain from doing anything stupid and get back to work.

Composer Gregory Spears sets the story to a baroque score in this new production. Spears spoke with Arts Desk prior to its debut.

WCP: What made you choose this story as the basis for a new opera?

GS: I have always loved this story. When I first read it I was struck by how contemporary it seemed. I was amazed that it had been written in 1905.

WCP: Really? What makes it relevant today?

GS: To me the story, with its tragic end, resonates with debates today concerning gay bullying and teenage suicide. Cather never mentions gayness, yet to modern readers Paul is often seen through this lens. Paul’s teachers seem particularly disturbed by his flamboyant dandyism. Part of what frustrates them is that they don’t have the vocabulary to directly articulate what seems different or “wrong” about Paul.

WCP: Why do you think this would specifically translate well into opera as opposed to a play or musical?

GS: Kathryn Walat (the co-librettist) and I conceived of the piece as being told from Paul’s perspective. As Paul is obsessed with art, music, and the theater, we figured that he would have chosen opera as his preferred medium—opera seemed more appropriate than musical theater for the time period. Opera also gave me the chance to develop the rich subtext of the story sonically.

WCP: Is there a timely aspect of writing this with regard to Paul’s sexuality and the gay marriage debate?

GS: As a teenager Paul feels he has no future. He sees his tastes and sensibility completely at odds with a normal middle-class life. If gay marriage had been a topic for debate in 1905, it would likely have transformed Paul’s attitude toward life.

WCP: Did you write this with an audience in mind of disaffected adolescents, or parents of such kids? How would you expect them to react?

GS: My hope is that the piece reminds us of how difficult it is to grow up. It’s a challenge people experience from many perspectives, as teachers, as parents, and as teenagers. It’s a universal struggle.

Paul’s Case opens 8 at p.m. Saturday, April 20 and runs to April 28 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. $22. (888) 842-2787.

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