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.
Susan Yankowitz and 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 on the same evening of ACT I, first with a music-theater cast and then after an intermission, with an operatic cast.
The New York Times ran a feature on the Center for Contemporary Opera’s
“Cheri experiment,” which got the attention of actress and director Estelle Parsons. She invited us to bring Cheri to The Actors Studio and develop it there. What an opportunity! At The Actors Studio, under the tutelage and direction of Tony-award winning actres Carlin Glynn, we went through a series of workshops where, over three years, we shaped Chéri into what it is today.
Although Chéri is a story of doomed love, the lovers are not separated by race or class (South Pacific, West Side Story, Carousel, La Traviata); political turmoil (Fidelio, Tosca, Aida); illness or disability (La Boheme, Rent, Porgy & Bess); or jealousy (Otello, Cavalleria Rusticana). The affair of Léa and Chéri is doomed because of age, alas. And the depredations of age are always with us, not only when they are 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. It will eternally be a subject that stirs us to reflection, to poetry and to song.
Score available through American Composers Alliance (BMI)
Listen to excerpts