‘English Cat’ Snarls and Bites


Thirty years after its premiere, Hans Werner Henze’s opera “The English Cat,” which was performed last week at USC’s Bing Theatre by members of that university’s Thornton School of Music, retains its power to disturb. In an era where “class warfare” has reentered the popular lexicon, not to mention an awareness that the chasm between the affluent and those who live hand-to-mouth is gaping ever wider, the work not only remains topical, but perhaps even more relevant today.

At first glance seemingly only an animal fable, “The English Cat” is in fact a deadly serious parable.

Henze’s music, too, is double-sided. “Accessible” neo-classicism on the surface. But unlike Stravinskian neo-classicism, which amounted to composers ironically trying on different hats from different ages, Henze’s use of the idiom is subtler, streaked with danger. His neo-classical forms whirr and drone on stripped of their organic meanings and purposes, like insects whose brains fester with zombie fungi seem to be “alive” but in reality have become revenants acting solely on the impulse of their fungus.

Modern life is itself a void, the music intimates.

It was an aspect heavily underlined by Ken Cazan’s production, which teetered between the naïve and the grotesque. Cazan’s vision, like that of Henze’s and his librettist Edward Bond, mercilessly skewers the mores, the highfalutin hypocrisies of late capitalist society. And “merciless” it indeed was.

Throughout the opera their shared vision rang with truth, confounding ideologues and moralists on either side of the political spectrum – nobody is blameless, everyone is guilty. In an instant, the righteous outrage of the downtrodden can turn into the jackboot of the oppressor. If the audience wasn’t squirming in their seats as they listened and watched, they should have been. The desperate atmosphere of the closing lines of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” – “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!” – permeates the opera.

The acting, to say nothing of the singing by the students of the USC Thornton School of Music, met the demands of composer, librettist and producer with aplomb.

Jason Su’esu’e as the effete, bloviating Lord Puff was particularly memorable. Vicious, prone to orotundities, reveling in his affluence, Su’esu’e’s rendering of the character was nothing short of stunning. Soprano Emma Grisley as his would-be love interest/object of acquisition Minette was every bit his equal. Her light, agile voice made seemingly easy work of the composer’s challenging vocal writing, gliding effortlessly between naïveté and icy cunning.

The small orchestra was expertly conducted by Brent McMunn, who drew out precise playing and limpid textures from this pungent score.

“The English Cat” is a nasty work – sarcastic, rife with irony, too disturbing to be forthrightly “funny.” But it lingers in the mind as it ought to do – to provoke reflection. And the stunning production by Cazan and the USC Thornton School will be something that, rightfully, should endure in their audiences’ memories.

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