By Mark Childress
New Orleans, Louisiana
I knew I was in trouble at my first meeting with the Hungarian director, when he said his next project, after our opera, would be an all-white production of “Porgy and Bess.”
“You do know the Gershwin estate specifically prohibits that, right?” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “That’s why I want to do it!”
I should have fled Budapest right then. I should have known Andras Almasi-Toth, the director who would shortly become notorious with his all-white “Porgy,” was perhaps not the most sensitive person to sort out the delicate racial issues I’d raised in our opera.
Let me admit I never intended to write the libretto of an opera. I never meant for that opera to be performed in Budapest. And I never meant for that opera to feature a stunningly visible prosthetic penis in full rampancy.
In 2014, when a Hungarian composer and conductor working in Alabama proposed we collaborate on an opera of my novel “Georgia Bottoms,” that Erection weighed heavily on my decision. The novel is the story of Miss Georgia Bottoms, seemingly the pillar of a small-town Baptist church, who is secretly keeping six lovers in regular rotation — the most powerful men in town.
One scene featured a comic take on the four-hour Erection about which the TV commercials so constantly warn us. I asked the composer, “Do you think Alabama is ready for the first four-hour Erection in the history of opera?”
He assured me the opera audience is made of the most sophisticated people in Alabama.
I wrote the scene, but I worried. My ambition, odd as it may sound, was to write a sex comedy the entire family could enjoy. I was much relieved when the director of the first production, in Huntsville, Alabama, staged the scene so the Erection was suggested but never seen. The plump tenor peered down at himself behind a bedsheet, singing “Oh God, dear God, it’s been three hours and 59 minutes...” It brought down the house — our biggest laugh of the evening.
When the Hungarian composer announced he’d arranged a full production in his hometown of Budapest in 2017, I was thrilled. I’d thought the premiere performance in Alabama would be the only time I’d ever get to see our show.
Spoiler alert: My heroine, Georgia, carries another secret around with her — a half-black son she has stashed away in New Orleans.
I knew I was in trouble when I heard en route to Budapest that the Hungarian director had attempted to cast a white singer in the part — wearing blackface. Luckily, wiser heads had prevailed, and the marvelous young African-American tenor who played the role in Alabama was flown to Budapest, perhaps in an effort to keep me from having a four-hour Cerebral Embolism.
The basis for my fear was real. I am a white novelist from Alabama. My story, which takes place in a tiny Alabama town, has 14 characters who are white, and one who is black. If we were not careful, I knew, that character would become a token.
The Hungarian director said his production of my opera would be broad and cartoonish, because Europeans see America as a cartoon. Several times he told the happy tale of librettists who’d been enraged by his productions in rehearsal, stormed away mad, crept back in for the premiere, and pronounced the director a genius. Plainly he hoped I would model this behavior. But, as I told him, I hadn’t come 12,000 miles to sit silently in rehearsals. I’m not that good at silence, as any friend of mine will attest.
After a bumpy first day, I was asked not to speak during rehearsals but to take notes which I would give to the Hungarian director. My major task, as they saw it, was helping the Hungarian singers learn to pronounce Alabama English.
The first few rehearsals sounded like an opera sung by Count Chocula and his family. “Not ‘vives,’” I said. “It’s ‘wives.’ And you’re not ‘wowching for him,’ you’re ‘vouching.’”
The singers were good-humored and hard-working. “Vives” gradually became “wifes,” then “wives.” (Wowching, however, remained wowching right through the final curtain.)
The first dress rehearsal produced my first glimpse of the ... Appliance. I never saw the thing outside the singer’s pants, so I am not sure exactly what it was — a theatrical prop? A sex toy? Something the director brought from home? All I know is, from the ninth row, it was the only thing I could see.
“What the hell are you doing?” I fumed in our notes session. “A, it kills the laugh. B, it’s vulgar low comedy, call me an idiot but blah blah blah sex comedy whole family can see. C, in Hollywood the dividing line between an R-rated movie and X-rated pornography is an Erection. I don’t write porn, or if I do, I sure as hell don’t put my name on it. For God’s sake, guys. Lose the (Appliance).”
The Hungarian director and composer patiently explained I didn’t know a thing about the Budapest audience.
“The production you did in Alabama would be a flop here,” the director said. “We see America as a cartoon.”
“If the difference between success and failure is a prosthetic penis,” I replied, “I’d much rather fail.”
“Maybe if you’d written a more popular book we wouldn’t have to do this,” the director said, “but we have to do something to keep this from being a total failure.”
“No,” I said. “The answer is No. No. Lose the (Appliance).”
The director said he would study the idea, but wouldn’t make any promises.
I considered putting out a hit on the Appliance, or a kidnap contract. I could have it heisted just before curtain time, and thrown it into the Danube. My agent pointed out I would be the logical and in fact the only suspect. I abandoned that plan.
Sure enough, midway through opening night, there it was. Poking up, unmissable. There was an uneasy murmur, but not so much as one chuckle. I was delighted.
Despite that deadening moment, our little show was a hit. The singers were grand. Our leading lady was superb. The ovation lasted seven minutes. (I know because rather than join my collaborators onstage for the bows, I went out to the lobby to time the applause.) The reviews were ecstatic, at least as far as I can make out via Google Translate. Our opera was “a collaboration made in heaven,” one reviewer wrote.
“Productions come and go,” the Hungarian composer told me. “It will sell more copies of your book.”
Perhaps, like the premiere of “Rites of Spring,” it will go down in history as one of the great controversial opening nights in musical history. Probably not.
In addition to "Georgia Bottoms," Mark Childress is the author of "Crazy in Alabama" and several other great volumes.