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Opera illuminates dark days of Bush Administration

Lewis Whittington of Edge Philadelphia

Melissa Dunphy has captivated Philadelphia theater audiences portraying Shakespearean ingénues, but acting is actually just her sideline, she is primarily a contemporary classical composer. Dunphy will be conducting her first chamber opera The Gonzales Cantata (as in disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales) this week in the stately environs of The Rotunda in West Philly.

The Senate hearings investigated abuse of power accusations of the Bush Justice Department and Gonzales role in the illegal firings federal judges. The episode stands as one of the most outrageous scandals of the Bush years. It may seem like an unlikely scenario for a choral work, but Dunphy, found Gonzales’s repeated refrain "I don’t recall" very musical.

"Listening to the hearings, I thought, this is an opera," Dunphy said, in an interview at her home in North Philly last week. Dunphy was also intrigued by the theatricality of the grilling of Gonzales by both Democrats and Republicans.

Dunphy, born in Australia, has been here for six years and became a US citizen just in time to vote for Barack Obama. In fact, she completed the opera the day he took office, she said.

Although she calls her musical template for the Cantata "neo-baroque... with several references which parody musical forms," her musical range is infiltrated with pristine classicism. She felt that the judicial rituals of the hearings interlocked with the formalism of baroque modals.

From there, she mixes things up. The Cantata’s ensemble of 30 is comprised of mostly Philly and New York singers and musicians. In an interesting twist all of the male characters are sung by women.

The reason? It shocked Dunphy that only one woman, Senator Dianne Fienstein, was part of the Gonzales hearings, so this is an artistic protest to that. The character gender switching is also a swipe at the theater which she feels is dominated by male parts and male creative voices.

Soprano Mary Thorne plays Gonzales; mezzo Julia Mintzer is Orrin Hatch; Jessica Lennick is Patrick Leahy and Danya Katok is party flipper Arlen Specter.

Dunphy is just as passionate about politics as she is about the arts. She veers away from musical theory to cheer on Barney Frank for his blunt comments at a recent health care town hall. But she does not espouse any political bent in the opera. There was no need to: In going over the transcripts, she was amazed that even Republicans called Gonzales a liar and that he was being both vindicated and vilified.

Dunphy will still divide her time between composing and acting. She just finished playing Lady Macbeth in Harrisburg and will be reprising the role and composing music for a new production at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. She ignores the centuries old superstition talking about "the Scottish play."

"I’m writing music for Macbeth," she says straight out. "Actors get mad at me for saying Macbeth. But I’m playing Lady Macbeth, so I get to. Besides I’m not superstitious."

But while playing Ophelia opposite Goeff Sobelle’s Hamlet last spring at the Lantern Theater there was a little payback. "At a rehearsal Sobelle tripped and sprained his ankle and everybody looked at me," she said with a deadly laugh.

The Gonzales Cantata plays at The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St. Philadelphia. September 4 - 6, 2009. Tickets are $20.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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