The 2019 Bard SummerScape festival takes a contemporary look at Hollywood’s Golden Age in Acquanetta, a visual and musical tour-de-force inspired by the eponymous B-movie star with a mysterious past.
Combining theater, opera, and film in a haunting meditation on identity, transformation, stereotypes, and typecasting from composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon and his longtime collaborator, librettist Deborah Artman, Acquanetta originally premiered at the PROTOTYPE Festival, where it was a New York Times and New York magazine “Critics’ Pick” and one of the New York Classical Review’s “Top Ten Performances of 2018.” Starring Rebecca L. Hargrove, Amelia Watkins, Eliza Bagg, Christopher Burchett, and Timur, accompanied by members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Bang on a Can Opera ensemble under the baton of Grammy-nominated conductor Julian Wachner, Acquanetta will be presented in ten performances between July 11 and July 21 in the LUMA Theater of the Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, on Bard’s idyllic Hudson Valley campus.
Creating an Opera
To create their work, Michael Gordon and Deborah Artman drew inspiration from the obituary of Acquanetta (1921–2004), or Mildred Davenport, as she was originally named. Known for her exotic beauty, Acquanetta headlined such 1940s horror films as Captive Wild Woman, Jungle Woman, The Sword of Monte Cristo, and Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. Though thought to be of Arapaho heritage, she was billed as the “Venezuelan Volcano” and gave a different version of her past in every interview.
The catalyst for Acquanetta is a scene from the 1943 cult classic Captive Wild Woman, in which a mad doctor conducts a doomed experiment to create a woman by transplanting a human female’s brain and glands into a gorilla.
Artman explains, “We decided to make the opera based on the laboratory scene and use it as a metaphor for layers of identity. Acquanetta’s story is a quintessential story about how women often have to conceal their truth and hide in plain sight, reinventing themselves to fit an accepted narrative. It has even more resonance now in the current climate when the role of women in power structures is being reevaluated and scrutinized. I’m thrilled that Bard SummerScape is bringing our opera to my home in the Hudson Valley.”
In Artman’s libretto, the characters function both as actors playing roles and as the parts they are playing, revealing their inner longings as they wrestle with identity, stereotypes, and typecasting. Gordon says, “Deborah very cleverly looked into the background and the personal stories of the people in that scene. Every one of the characters in that scene has a story to tell that’s multi-dimensional.”
Bard SummerScape 2019
SummerScape’s theatrical track record is a stellar one. Offering a “stranger, sexier, more melancholic version of Peter Pan” (New York Times), last season’s original production of Leonard Bernstein’s rarely-performed musical theater gem was chosen as one of WQXR’s most memorable concerts of 2018 and a highlight of the Bernstein centennial. As New York Arts declares: “Bard summer drama has been consistently of the highest order.”
Tickets for all Bard SummerScape events are now on sale. For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit the SummerScape website.