The story of the ugliest man alive falling for the most beautiful girl has been told many times. From Beauty and the Beast to Lyle and Julia, it seems as if this archetype has been beaten to death. Amazingly, the Yale Repertory Theater administers successful CPR to the ailing genre with its production of “Buwalsky: A Road Opera.” Each rescue breath is delivered by means of intermittent film clips, original music and an intriguing plot in which our homely hero, in a sort of anti-Edward Scissorhands twist, possesses the most seductive pair of mitts in the world.
Jonathan Levi ’77, the show’s librettist, describes the opera as “anything but staid and sober.” The opera tells the story of Buwalski, a hideously ugly man who possesses one anomalously beautiful body part — his hands. Naturally, this odd set of endowments causes a bit of trouble for Buwalski, because seeing his hands means instant attraction for women. Ashamed and in awe of his own capabilities, he holes himself up in his house, watching television to pass the time. From this, he “meets” and falls in love with the beautiful star of a 24-hour soap opera. Lada, as she is called, is similarly distilled to a single attribute (her good looks) by others, and Buwalski becomes intrigued. The two meet and experience a happy courtship until tragedy strikes.
“Buwalski” consists of 10 scenes, and is performed by five singers and a small ensemble. Players interact with 10 film interludes, created specifically for the production. The story is told in the format of a two-act detective thriller, and its performance at the Repertory Theater next week will mark the show’s American debut. Corina van Eijk will direct the production, which is presented by Opera Spanga and the Nine Circles Chamber Theater. Opera Spanga, a group based in the Netherlands, distinguished itself by using cow pastures, townhouses, quarries and tents as performance spaces.
Much of the music featured in the production is not classical, despite the opera genre. The score is heavily influenced by jazz, Levi said. Also featured are electric guitars, saxophones, and music excerpted from television shows and movies. Levi said this modern touch is what makes the play both entertaining for a contemporary audience and relevant.
“There’s a lot of film in it, and so a lot of the play is between the live singers and the film on the screen,” Levi said. “To that extent, it’s a lot different from 19th century opera featuring people wearing helmets with horns sticking out of them.”
But all that splicing of styles and mixing of media wasn’t easy. It was an “enormous undertaking” to film the clips, Levi said. The film score had to be written before the scenes were shot, which is quite unusual. Mel Marvin, who composed the music for the show, wrote the score and then Corina van Eijk had to edit the clips she had shot to match it. This technique added even more layers of complication to production.
Additionally, the unorthodox filming technique virtually ensures that a second American production of this quirky opera with a different cast, if it happens, will be a long time in the making.
“Part of the specialness of this is that the film clips are particular to this cast,” Levi said. “It makes it even more difficult to do second productions. One of the wonderful things about theater is that it’s so temporary. There may be only eight productions [four at Yale and four subsequently at New York University] of this in the United States ever.”
Levi said he is excited that the show is making its debut here.
“There were a lot of people interested in it,” he said. “But it’s an old tradition in Broadway to have shows premiere in New Haven — say, at the Shubert. I’m also glad because many of these Dutch [in the cast and crew] have never been here. The fact that many of their first tastes of America will be New Haven pizza is pretty great.”