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.
The relationship is doomed to fail of course, since even in our day a love affair between a middle-aged woman and a young man is assumed to be fleeting. And so, as befits a respectable Parisian gentleman, Chéri is to be married to a woman his own age, Edmée, the innocent young girl he does not love. To Chéri, the marriage will be one of convenience; still the rake, he believes his affair with Léa will resume as soon as his honeymoon is over. But to Léa, Chéri’s marriage to Edmée will mark the end of her affair: for the first time she becomes self-conscious about her age, and finally, inescapably, realizes that Chéri is “the great love that comes only once.”
Chéri and Léa stand on opposite sides of the invisible meridian that separates youth from what’s left of one’s life, and as the music begins, Léa has just begun to cross it. For though Chéri is the story’s title, Léa is its principal character. Chéri is the agent through which Léa confronts the inevitable: not just her loss of Chéri, but, more crucially, the loss of her own youth and the sexual powers on which her identity has always depended.
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, have become less and less relevant.
Susan and I first conceived of Chéri as a work for the opera house, with full orchestra and conservatory-trained voices. But then, as a result of several readings of the work-in-progress, we began to wonder whether the scale and style of Chéri were not just as appropriate to the Broadway or off-Broadway stage (and audience) as to the opera house. When 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 after an intermission, with an operatic cast we jumped at the chance.
Seeing the work presented in this way made it clear to us that we wanted the best of each world – the musical continuity and structure of opera with the intensity of character and action which can only be achieved by the actor. What better place, then, to nurture and guide a project like Chéri than The Actors Studio, which shepherded us, under the tutelage of director Carlin Glynn, through three years of workshops. There we re-examined Chéri in detail, with the goal of shaping it into a new form where music’s role is not only to motivate both speech and song but is itself a motivated component of the dramatic action.
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.
Available through American Composers Alliance (BMI)
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