The diffuse light falling through the calm air over the hills east of San Francisco Bay on this early August afternoon beguile the mind to contemplate larger themes with wider perspective. Recently, I saw and heard Jake Heggie’s opera, The End Of The Affair, (based on the novel by Graham Greene) in a production by West Edge Opera, in Berkeley. I find this story similar to that of Frank Waters’ novel The Woman At Otowi Crossing, and also somewhat similar to W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
The themes I see here are: the fading of romantic and selfish love in the presence of expanding consciousness; the fading of ambition, and the evolution of equanimity as awareness expands beyond the narrow confines of social convention and economic utility. In each of The End Of The Affair and The Woman At Otowi Crossing the spiritual growth or awakening of cosmic consciousness is experienced by a women, and the counter-pressures to that by the mechanistic and commercial facets of industrialized civilization are represented by male characters. The sexes are reversed for these roles in The Razor’s Edge, with Larry Darrell (a traumatized World War I pilot) experiencing the awakening, and Isabel Bradley, Larry’s clever and scheming ex-fiancé, as that novel’s major agent of conventionality.
Graham Greene portrayed the spiritual awakening of his fictional Sarah Miles as Catholic mysticism. Frank Waters’ portrayed the awakening of cosmic consciousness by his fictional Helen Chalmers as an intuitive arrival at Buddhistic nirvikalpa samadhi, as influenced by her immersion in the American Southwest with ancient Pueblo Indian mysticism permeating New Mexico. Graham Greene’s image of conventionality is of stodgy pre-war British society now evidently outmoded in the aftermath of World War II, while Frank Waters’ image of frantic and inhumanly reductionist American utilitarianism is given by the story of the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos.
W. Somerset Maugham has his fictional Larry Darrell achieve his samadhi in the mountains of Nepal, Siddhartha Gautama’s own country, and Maugham has Isabel personify all the pressures of conforming to the economic rat race in expectations of achieving the American Dream of social status with a lucrative job, and a popular family expansively housed in a tony neighborhood.
Jake Heggie’s opera The End Of The Affair appeared in 2004, and Stephen Paulus’ opera The Woman At Otowi Crossing appeared in 1995. I am not aware of any opera based on The Razor’s Edge. I like and recommend the 1946 movie of The Razor’s Edge, with Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Herbert Marshall and Anne Baxter. I have neither seen nor heard the Paulus opera mentioned, so I cannot comment on it. However, I think the Frank Waters’ novel is so good that it could easily support several operatic interpretations. After all, Puccini’s La bohème was the second opera version of Henri Murger’s fragmentary novel of 1851, Leoncavallo had already composed a La bohème opera before 1896.
I should think that The Razor’s Edge could easily support an extensive operatic interpretation. Perhaps the right combination of creative impulses and copyright-holder approvals will eventually occur for such an opera to appear.
I think that the theme of the melting of conventional attachments during the emergence of cosmic consciousness could inspire the composition of very deep and enrapturing music, and affecting theatrical presentation. Put together, this would be great opera.