A Puccini-eye view

Posted on Posted in American culture, Dramatizing the world's music, My blog, Philippa - an opera in progress

Continuing my blogs on the development of the opera Philippa, about the Harlem-born concert pianist, Philippa Duke Schuyler who died in Vietnam rescuing schoolchildren in 1967.

Philippa Duke Schuyler, 1959. Photo: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer. Public Domain.

Giacomo Puccini could judge the operatic suitability of a play even if he saw it in another language. The Italian speaker saw Sardou’s La Tosca in French, and Belasco’s Madam Butterfly and Girl of the Golden West in English. The operatic potential of these plays he divined from broad stage action. How might Philippa portray its dramatic concerns in stage pictures?

Act I

Requiem Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, 18 May 1967. A mostly-segregated congregation, but George the African-American father and Jody the white Texan mother sit together. Words of praise from Sammy Davis Jr, Ella Fitzgerald, President Johnson, and others. Cardinal Spellman says they have met to celebrate the life of Philippa Duke Schuyler, pianist, composer, first US woman war correspondent to die in Vietnam. Pianism dominates the liturgical music; “Little girls everywhere who were inspired by Philippa’s example” play the music for her requiem on grand pianos. Jody wants to know how Philippa can “rest in peace when her potential lies unfulfilled”. She rejects George’s attempts at consolation.

Vietnam, September 1966. 35 year-old Philippa arrives in war-torn Vietnam. She is confronted by signs of war – machine-gun emplacements, barbed wire entanglements. She is briefed on the restrictions on her movements and shown where she will play – on a broken-down upright piano in a ramshackle hall. She bristles at the ‘control’ the embassy is trying to exercise – it reminds her of her mother, Jody – and she tries to disguise her disappointment at how far she has fallen “from Carnegie Hall”. Three black servicemen invite her to play with them. She begins with Bach, but they begin to swing it. She should feel comfortable but does not. Once again she feels neither white nor black.

In a Saigon marketplace, Philippa meets a Vietnamese necromancer who says she will “spend some time in the dragon’s mouth, but then find a way out of it”. She tries on an áo dài and is taken for Vietnamese. She realises she can give her embassy chaperone the slip.

The three servicemen take her north and after they have left, she stays overnight in a Vietnamese hamlet controlled by the Viet Cong. Yes, she can blend in, but she doesn’t belong; this does not pacify her and is not the ‘dragon’s den’ the necromancer was referring to.

Before heading back south she meets a priest who is disturbed by her frantic casting around for ‘answers’ – (necromancy, Tarot, a new-found catholic faith!) He introduces her to the ‘orphans’, the abandoned children of US servicemen and Vietnamese women. She immediately feels a kinship with these children who are between cultures like her and she wants to stay and help. But the embassy chaperone finds her, and presents her with Jody’s demand to return home to New York.

Act II

Back in Harlem, Jody is plotting Philippa’s future – guaranteeing “continuity” by finding her a Mr Right and mapping out a showcase career. It is as if she is talking to Young Philippa (who is in fact present). But adult Philippa knows she will never play those major venues again – she is no longer “safely cute”. In fact she is bitter. Angry with George who books her concerts with the John Birch Society and believes she must succeed regardless of her colour but fails to acknowledge that “colour is held against us”. (She recounts something she experienced with the three black servicemen).

Unwilling to rake over the family argument about Felipa Monterra y Schuyler (Philippa’s proposed new identity from a few years back), Jody buries herself in memories of uncomplicated Young Philippa and Young Philippa plays. In a brief moment of happy reminiscence, adult Philippa joins in. But she stops short when Jody reminds her of the scrapbooks, the books that plotted and predicted her every move. “I was merely a puppet.” concludes adult Philippa “and never stood where I could place myself”. Things are said that would have been better left unsaid, Philippa concluding that Jody controlled her every move.

Vengefully, Philippa has bedded the latest ‘Mr Right’ and he is bemused when the first thing she puts back on when dressing is a large crucifix. He mocks her beliefs and she attempts to defend herself, but a chorus of all her past men come back to back up Mr Right’s low opinion of her. One of them, an AFRICAN POLITICIAN, mourns the son she aborted because he might prove to be “too obviously black”. Philippa determines to get out of New York.


For a brief moment, George rekindles in Jody the tenderness which lay at the heart of their little family experiment to prove ‘the American genius of hybridization’. They relive the optimism of their marriage (dowtown in 1928) and their high hopes that Philippa’s birth would undo the hatred between American blacks and whites after hundreds of years of “lynchings and lashings”. But JODY feels Philippa’s mission will stall if she stays in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, Philippa gets to know the orphans (among other things, she teaches them music). A MILITARY LIAISON briefs the priest on North Vietnamese Army movements around the city. Philippa determines that, as a journalist and writer, she is in a unique position to promote the orphans’ case to the world and wonders if she has found the answer to her own torments in burying herself in their needs. But gunfire is already being heard in the streets.

9 May 1967 … the approach of the NVA; closer sounds of rifle fire: there is a desperate need for evacuation. Only one helicopter remains. PHILIPPA has run off to find one unaccounted-for orphan. Time presses. The priest is getting anxious. The sounds of gunfire get louder. Philippa returns. She had thought she would leave her mark in music, but she has left behind her music and notebooks and the voices of the parents, critics and men-friends. Placing the orphan in her lap, THE SOLDIERS strap her in; the rotors start… Then, as the sound of the rotor blades die down, we hear her voice. She is singing of fulfilment. (Epilogue) The CHOIR back at St. Patrick’s bursts into song.

Hmm, is it gaining a shape?
Other blogs in this series

1. – 16 Sep 2012 – an account of my initial thoughts on Philippa, when I was attempting to convey a more comprehensive trajectory of her life
2. – 18 Sep 2012 – containing Act I of a revised scenario, beginning the action in Vietnam
3. – 25 Sep 2012 – containing my revised scenario
4. – 7 Oct 2012 – one-page synopsis, to make sure such a story can fit into “two hours’ traffic on the stage”
5. – Becoming a Harlemite, Vietnamese and Catholic 10 Oct, 2012 – detailing some of the research I’ll be doing
6. – A Harlem Tradition? 20 Oct 2012 – detailing Harlem interest in white culture
7. – Sacrifice? 21 Oct 2012 – considering the nature of Philippa’s death and whether it was self-sacrifice
8. – Classical aspirations 30 Oct 2012 – looking at Harlem’s attitude to classical music in the age of Philippa
9. – Montagnards and Lowlanders 1 Nov 2012 – looking at some of Philippa’s writing from Vietnam
10. – A sobering thought, 13 Nov 2012 – recognising the prevalence of lynching in the US until well into the 20th century
11 –  Words, words, words, 11 Dec 2012 – considering whether Latin should be one of the Philippa’s languages given services even late into the 1960s would not have been in the vernacular.
12 – End of the rebirth, 20 Dec 2012 – some thoughts on the end of the Harlem Renaissance around the time of Philippa’s birth.

Posted By Gordon Kalton Williams to Loving Oz and the US (thoughts on Australia and America) at 12/26/2012 11:23:00 PM

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