Bella Dinner

It is one of the most nourishing, intoxicating and satisfying ways to spend an evening: the dinner party, where food is conversation and conversation is food, and secrets spill across the table as wine drains from the bottle.

When the lights go up on the world premiere of Bernard Rands's opera, Belladonna, at the Aspen Opera Theater Center, those in the audience will be at such a dinner party, one that involves five women in an American college town. The hostess is a visiting professor from China; her guests include an alcoholic classicist smitten with a student, an opera singer involved in a menage à trois, a divinity student devoted only to God and the director of a fertility and abortion clinic.

The five key scenes in the chamber opera--which has been described as "music theater" or a mise-en-scene by composer Rands and librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer--each focus on one woman and her views on love, her desires, fantasies and fears. But the female-centered Belladonna actually revisits two patriarchic scenarios: Plato's Symposium, the Socratic dialogue in which great male thinkers from different walks of life debate love during a dinner party; and the Last Supper, a feast of bread, wine, love and sacrifice paralleled in the Belladonna scenes titled Temptation, Solitude, Betrayal, Accusation and Trial, and Execution.

In the fantastical Trial scene, for example, activist Agatha Liu, charged with "wicked beliefs and practices," stands before a puritanical jury. The judge finds her innocent, but the jury sentences her to death. As her situation becomes more surreal, Agatha imagines the jury would clear her name--if only she were a man.

Librettist Dunton-Downer has an eclectic resume--she's worked as a pop DJ at a Paris nightclub and earned awards teaching literary theory, medieval culture and Shakespeare at Harvard and Tufts. She has published academic articles on obscenity, werewolves, incest and psychopathological cannibalism and recently collaborated on the opera Ligeia, based on an Edgar Allan Poe tale, with Rands's wife, composer August Read Thomas.

Commissioned for the fiftieth anni-versary of the Aspen Music Festival, Belladonna is the first opera by 65-year-old Rands, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who has written more than 100 works in diverse genres. He's known for a tender and spontaneous "human" approach to modern music, based on a firm foundation of classical masters like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók. Aspen music director David Zinman will conduct Belladonna's seventeen-piece orchestra and two choruses in the Wheeler Opera House, a restored Victorian theater.

"If traditional opera could be likened to a sculpted statue," Dunton-Downer and Rands write in their program notes, "Belladonna perhaps resembles a mobile in which seven independent, new objects [or scenes]--connected by an ancient thread--are juxtaposed to suggest ever-rotating configurations. We believe that the discontinuous, transitory, fragmented condition of contemporary experience may become meaningful when contoured to a past resonating with linked events, fictions, ideas and articulations of the sacred."

They promise some funny moments, too.
As for the music? "We don't know yet. Nobody's heard it," says festival spokesperson Betsy Furth. Like the best of dinner parties, even the host can't be sure just how an evening with Belladonna will turn out. "It's a surprise for everybody," says Furth, "which is part of the fun of it."

--Gayle Worland

Belladonna, 7 p.m. July 29 and 31 at Aspen Opera Theater Center, $20, 1-970-925-3254.