Grumpy Cat may be pretty, well, grumpy. But she has nothing on the feline protagonists of Hans Werner Henze’s 1982 opera, “The English Cat,” which the USC Thornton School of Music will be presenting on Nov. 21 and 23.
Edward Bond, the librettist of Henze’s opera, took his inspiration from Balzac’s “Sorrows of an English Cat.” But the libretto’s acidulous humor that conceals its outrage at a society where, despite the lip service given to egalitarianism, profound divisions based on class, race, and income persist owes more to Brecht than Balzac.
In brief, Henze’s opera is a cat’s eye view of the foibles and hypocrisies of bourgeois society.
“It’s very Bond,” said Ken Cazan, chair of Vocal Arts and Opera and resident stage director at USC’s Thornton School of Music, of the libretto. “It’s so very much like him … that searching for the violence in social activity.”
Cazan’s stage direction, which has been seen in opera houses across the Americas and Europe, has itself been noted for its mordant humor, its insight into what lies beneath the thin veneer of civil society. All of those qualities promise to work hand-in-glove with Henze’s opera as he prepares its production with his students.
“The challenges this opera poses are numerous,” he explained. “We have got to be versatile. But it’s a work I’ve been dying to direct myself.”
Cazan is also no stranger to Henze’s music. Cazan assisted in the U.S. premiere of another of the composer’s operas, “We Come to the River,” which was produced by Alfred Kirschner for Santa Fe Opera in 1984.
“I couldn’t believe that I was brought in,” he said of the production. “It was an experience that gave me the courage to take risks. I teach my students to have no fear, to follow their instincts.”
It was at this production that Cazan was able to meet the composer himself. The moment shared, though brief, left a lasting impression on the up-and-coming stage director.
“He was a lovely man, “ Cazan said of the composer. “Very sweet, very cute, very cordial. At the time [Henze] was uber famous. But he was still so humble, so grateful for performances.”
It was also a work that demostrated to Cazan the breadth of Henze’s work.
“’We Come to the River’ is very balls to the wall,” he said. “’The English Cat’ is altogether different, much more delicate.”
Despite this delicacy, Cazan finds that “The English Cat” has an uncanny ability to unsettle its audience. For him, the work is an example of opera as a living art form, a repudiation of the museum culture that encroached into the genre in the 20th century.
“Opera was not meant to be comfort food,” he said. “It was intended to provoke thought, reflection. All of us in opera are story-tellers. We need to reach out to the audience’s hearts.”
The USC Thornton School of Music’s production of Hans Werner Henze’s “The English Cat” is on Friday, Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. Admission for the general public is $18. Seniors, alumni and non-USC students is $12. Admission free to current USC students, staff and faculty with valid ID when picked up in person from the USC ticket office or the theatre box office. To obtain tickets and more information, visit http://music.usc.edu/the-english-cat/ or call (213) 740-6935.