Chéri is a musical love story in two acts based on Colette’s 1921 novel. The story takes place in the Parisian demi-monde just before the first World War and tells of the love affair between Léa de Lonval, a 49 year old ex-courtesan, and her lover of seven years, the 23 year old Chéri.
Musically, the work defies easy categorization, containing as it does elements of both opera and music-theater. As audiences have begun to accept a blurring of categories (Sondheim is often performed in opera houses, while La Boheme had a run on Broadway), questions as to what differentiates opera from operetta, musical from music-theater, actors who sing from singers who act, are heard less and less.
I first conceived of Chéri as a work for the opera house, with full orchestra and conservatory-trained voices. In 2000, Eric Salzman, then Artistic Director of The Center for Contemporary Opera, proposed presenting back-to-back performances of Act I, on the same evening, first with a music-theater cast and then after an intermission, with an operatic cast. Was Chéri an opera or music-theater? Or some in-between genre?
I was invited to The Actors Studio to try to figure that out. It was there that I really began to grasp how much I didn’t know about music or theater. There I watched actors experiment with how fast or slow to read their lines, and whether to shout or whisper them; I learned how emphasizing different words could alter not just the meaning of what was being said, but the character saying it. And I began to better understand my role as a composer, and how my musical decisions could heighten a dramatic moment, or completely undermine it. Chéri went through a series of workshops and revisions over a three year period, all under the brilliant guidance of director and Tony-award winning actress Carlin Glynn.
Although Chéri is a story of doomed love, the lovers are not separated by race or class (as in South Pacific, West Side Story, Carousel or La Traviata); or by political turmoil (as in Fidelio, Tosca or Aida); or by illness or disability (as in La Boheme, Rent or Porgy & Bess). The affair of Léa and Chéri is doomed because of age, alas. The depredations of age are always with us, not typically as an impediment to love, but when we catch sight of ourselves in the mirror or gaze into the faces of the next generation or the one that gave birth to us. Aging will eternally be a subject that always stirs us to reflection, often to poetry and sometimes to song.
Score available through American Composers Alliance (BMI)
Listen to excerpts