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When the Devil Calls: Martinis, Opera Baltimore, and a Gilded Age Mansion

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It was the kind of blustery rainy night that could only be mitigated by martinis and opera. Throwing in a gilded age Mount Vernon mansion with a massive Tiffany skylight as the setting for the performance certainly upped the ante, at least that’s what my date and I were telling ourselves as we shivered up Monument Street. 

Cold dark rain pelted us on a diagonal, so that our one intact umbrella could shield either our heads or our feet but not both. We arrived at the Revival Hotel with wet pants legs, but some olives soaked in Ketel One provided solace. By the time we were ready to scuttle down the block to the opera, our legs were dry and our resolve was fortified, ready to accomplish our main mission: an intimately scaled version of Faust performed by Opera Baltimore at the Engineers Club. 

I had enlisted the company of one of my best friends, promised him cocktails and arias, as well as a choice venue: a decadent Gatsby-esque palazzo–in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Place.

We both admitted to wanting to back out of our plans last minute because the weather was so nasty, but instead linked arms and shared his umbrella. Mount Vernon was achingly beautiful, even in the dark and cold. There really is no place like this little pocket of old school Baltimore opulence, full of grand 19th century architecture, tiny slivers of light blinking out through thick slabs of hundred year old plate glass windows, with giant crystal chandeliers and cake icing moldings, stained glass and wrought iron lattice, the historic social clubs and ballrooms and hotels all lining the park, sentinels of a bygone era.

Both of us love opera, but neither of us are aficionados. His previous life in NY theater and a love of musical performance matched my curiosity about the archetypal Western European / German paradigm that is Goethe’s Faust. When I learned that Opera Baltimore was performing it for one weekend only, I knew that we had to go.

 

Faust is a plot that is endlessly captivating for all the wrong reasons, but also a paradigm that haunts almost every facet of living in America today.
Cara Ober

What would it take to sell your soul to the devil? Compared to when Faust was originally written by Goethe in 1808, the world we inhabit is chock full of opportunities to increase our power, pleasure, and youth so perhaps a Faustian bargain seems irrelevant. However, in the original story, considered to be Goethe’s greatest contribution to world literature, exchanging your immortal soul for youthful sexual adventure seemed like a pretty good deal.

Common sense teaches us that there is always going to be a price one pays for cheating nature, whether it’s economic, physical, emotional, environmental, or all of the above, but human nature makes us believe that we can postpone the inevitable consequences of our actions. 

I have been weirdly obsessed with Goethe’s story for a few years now, researching it and planning a series of drawings around it. Although Faust is not as familiar a tale as it was a hundred or so years ago, it is embedded in our collective unconscious. The story is a quintessential Western fantasy: if you’re unhappy with your life, mortgage your future for an untenable (but fun) present! It’s the basic plot of every Desperate Housewives series: the overt narcissism and misogyny of late stage capitalism coupled with romantic fatalism and tragedy.

When our available resources completely outmatch desires, rather than learning to love what we have, capitalism teaches us that we can acquire the object of our desire–even at such a great cost it feels unrealistic (student loan payments, anyone?), and of course, with tragic and unexpected twists. It’s a plot that is endlessly captivating for all the wrong reasons, but also a paradigm that haunts almost every facet of living in America today.

In 1808, Goethe’s Faust, Part One was so widely popular that it was performed in dozens of different theatrical versions. It captured the collective imagination of Europeans, who embraced the tantalizing equation of a Faustian bargain. It was envisioned in Michel Carré’s play Faust et Marguerite, and then translated into a five-act opera of the same name by Charles Gounod that premiered in Paris in 1859.

In the opera, the main character is a depressed and aging scholar who decides to commit suicide. Dr. Faust is essentially an early version of today’s incel, but without easy access to a firearm. Before he can drink the poison he has selected, the devil appears and offers him a brilliant new opportunity at life, as long as Faust gives his eternal soul to the devil after it’s all over. How can he refuse? 

 

Spoiler alert: Predictably, this bargain doesn’t turn out so well for all of the people who come into contact with Faust and his red-suited friend. He signs the contract, and then proceeds to seduce a chaste maiden with project management from the devil, and ends up ruining several lives, murdering her family sort of by accident, and creating a network of tragic hell.

It’s all very dire and dramatic in the way that most operas are but the part that is most disturbing to me is not that Faust destroys so many lives in his selfish pursuit, it’s that he ends up JUST FINE in the end. No really! Faust actually gets to go to heaven after all, because the woman whose life and family he has ruined pays for his misdeeds. This ending is in the book–not the opera, but the common trope of “man fails up” cannot be understated.

This is the part that feels most relevant to a modern society full of wealthy educated people careening off an environmental cliff: Faust faces no accountability for his selfish, cruel, and poor decisions–but everyone else around him does.

This plot is playing out right now in our country in battles over environmental policy where developed nations and oil companies reap the benefits of fossil fuels and pass on the disastrous environmental calamities to developing nations in floods and famine. It’s also playing out right now across the red states of the US, where men are attempting to revoke a woman’s ability to make her own medical decisions in order to control her reproductive rights–and these decisions are deadly for women, but appear to have zero impact upon the lives of the men creating these laws. The idea of accountability seems to be outside a Western cultural understanding, especially for men in a position of power.

 

According to Julia Cooke, Executive Director at Opera Baltimore, Faust offers the theme of opera in general: “Relationships are hard and human nature never changes,” she explains by phone a week before the performance. “I know that Faust, and other operas engage in negative stereotypes, but opera actually shows us what NOT to do and how to identify negative behaviors.”

Cooke explains that the tragic but cautionary tale is common in opera, but the art form is most unique in its’ heroic athleticism of human voice, the fact that the voices are so powerful and resonant and reach the audience unfettered by AV equipment and microphones. As a historic opera, Faust offers all the rom com tragicomedy we expect from the medium, and gorgeous vocal calisthenics from several male and female leads, as well as a chorus. Gounod’s Faust is such a classic that it was the very first production that Opera Baltimore performed as a newly formed group and artist-in-residence at The Engineer’s Club, in September 2009. 

As I sit under the milky glass ceiling surrounded by gilded ornament and ornate decorations of all kinds, the majesty of the voices flows over me. Faust, played by Michael John Butler, a Bowie, MD native, offers a powerful start and his voice effortlessly modulates from mournful to a brassy, trenchant boom.

Hans Tashjian, as Méphistophélès, in a dapper maroon suit, has a penetrating and dramatic voice too, which careens from wheedling and sly to triumphant croon. Additional performances include Toni Marie Palmertree as Marguerite, with a sweet and delicate voice to match her story, supported by Daniel Rich, a Baltimore native, as Valentin, Laura Zahn as Siébel, and Zavier Joseph as Wagner. 

My date and I watch with rapt attention as, one by one, each character succumbs to calamitous outcomes, with treachery, passion, murder, and redemption served atop gorgeous vocal gymnastics. After so much research and outrage over Faust’s misogyny and selfishness, finally seeing it performed as an opera made it, surprisingly, less about the plot and more about a sensuous, dramatic, musical experience.

I felt some of my fury and disgust over the archetypal story of a man given everything who uses his gift for destruction and self interest ebb away, with a sincere appreciation for the snarky devil in red, the bumbling Faust, and the pious Marguerite–in part because their singing is so beautiful and also because their dramatic plot arc is campier than I expected and there are moments of real humor that grab the audience.

 

Faust is special for Opera Baltimore because it remains one of the great classics, and this is why they selected it for their first performance as a new organization in 2009. According to Cooke, they wanted to set a tone for the new company and it has worked.

“In 2009, Faust represented a commitment and faith for the future, that our new organization was willing to put in the work, and not realizing how hard it would be,” says Cooke, who sang the role of Marguerite at that time, largely because the organization didn’t have much funding to hire performers. 

The group of globally recognized professionals decided to continue to offer concert operas to Baltimore audiences as Opera Baltimore (formerly as Baltimore Concert Opera) rather than a fully staged production.

This means they perform at an intimate scale, with less emphasis on sets and costumes and more focus on the music and voice. At this point, Opera Baltimore is an established nonprofit organization that has been operating regularly since 2009 and their concerts regularly sell out. They occasionally host outdoor concerts in the Mount Vernon park and they engage in a robust civic practice division in Baltimore, educational programs for kids in Baltimore City Public Schools, and adult education programs as well.

Hosted in the luxurious Engineers Club theater, a space oozing with palatial glamor in red brocade wallpaper, and jewel-like golden molding under giant skylights, you are escorted back in time to an age where rich railroad barons could host these kinds of ‘home performances’ to crowds of sixty or so, and it feels transformative, to experience this athletic form of musical performance, sung by world renowned vocalists, at this intimate scale within such an historic, lavish environment.

Now, at the end of their fourteenth season, Opera Baltimore remains committed to creating unique opportunities for the medium in Baltimore. “We are building a community much larger than we expected and a place where we can all ‘find ourselves’ at the opera,” explains Cooke, who says their role has become established in recognizing emerging talent and singers about to become globally recognized in the world of opera.

 

After the performance ends, the performers all take many bows and receive a standing ovation from the audience. In the beautiful rooms surrounding the theater, the performers and crew mingle and chat with audience members and many drink a final glass of champagne. 

As I pull on my coat, I take one more wistful look at the opulent carved wooden molding, the Tiffany skylight, and the gorgeous artwork that animates the Engineers Club. I am still filled with rage at Faust’s ham-fisted approach to power and his lack of accountability for all the pain and destruction he causes, but also feeling some pathos, too.

For all the opportunities Faust receives after his bargain with the devil, he is never able to actually enjoy any of it. Thinking more broadly about all of the ‘Fausts’ in the world–the terrible humans hellbent on benefiting themselves at the expense of the planet and everyone else alive, I assume the same–that they’re acting out of a boredom and unhappiness and hunger that nothing will ever satisfy.

Whether in opera or in life, our collective existence will always be marred by the misdeeds of just a few, but for better or worse, this continues to drive a plot that so many of us find compelling and perhaps even offer insight to solve some of the world’s problems.

I wondered how many humans would sell their soul to the devil for an evening filled with such gorgeous art and architecture? Probably not that many, but the beauty of this particular event is that you don’t have to. For myself and my date, the sublime performance of great art at an intimate scale is satisfying and life-affirming, at least for one otherwise inhospitable night.

If you want to spend a timeless evening immersed in the vocal richness of opera, the architectural richness of Baltimore’s gilded age, and the larger questions of meaning and human existence–Opera Baltimore is available to anyone who wants to purchase a ticket.

 

Opera Baltimore's Julia Cooke
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