Readers, you’ve got to know: we at Austenacious read what might be considered a lot of Jane Austen stuff on the internet. For everything that appears on this site, there’s an awful lot that doesn’t make the cut—and it’s all due to that wonder of the postmodern world, the Google Alert. The whole concept of this is pretty mind-boggling, when you think about it: every time anybody anywhere says anything about Jane Austen, we know about it. That’s insane! But what is equally insane to me is this: fully a quarter of the links that come through our inboxes have something to do with stage productions of Austen works, usually Pride and Prejudice.
My Beloved Sisters and I saw some live-theater Jane action once, in opera form at a weekend workshop at San Francisco State University. It was delightful, and we all came out wondering why nobody’s made their millions on Universally Acknowledged: The Musical, or whatever. So it’s not the concept or the general appeal that confuses me, exactly; it’s just that I have so many questions! Such as:
- Are there really that many theater troupes doing Jane at one time? I mean, I love Pride and Prejudice as much as (probably more than) the next girl, right? But the numbers on this just seem unreal. It’s gotta be some kind of conspiracy. By which I mean a conspiracy of sweetness and relational equality, but still.
- Is it all the same play? There are two options here, more or less: either somebody wrote the definitive Pride and Prejudice stage adaptation and I missed it, or many, many people have written un-definitive versions and are having them performed worldwide. This seems like a bizarre duplication of effort, but hey. More playwrights making it, I say! Congratulations to all of you! Enjoy your name in lights!
- Musical, or no? I’m just saying: I need my singing Mr. Collins, stat.
- Why has Jane On Stage never made it to the big time? If that many people in Cleveland/Yorkshire/Manitoba/Tallahassee are making the regional/local/village-wide production worth it, just think how many tickets Broadway could sell! I’m calling it out now: I don’t know who Neil Patrick Harris is going to play, but we’ll get him in there somewhere.
Readers, have you ever seen a Jane work on the stage? Please advise.
Okay, internet. Let’s talk about the next big thing. The trending topic. The thing all the kids are talking about, or would be if they were that cool and/or not frittering away their precious youths on ChatRoulette. We’re talking early 19th-century literature, the birth of the modern novel…sung. Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking Pride and Prejudice and that automatic pop-culture dynamite, the opera.
This Saturday, Mrs. Fitzpatrick and I did what all hot young things would on a sunny California afternoon: put on our enormous sunglasses, leggings, and gladiator sandals and hoofed it over to a Jane and the Arts seminar at San Francisco State University, hosted by the Jane Austen Society of North America, Northern California chapter, and partially featuring composer Kirke Mechem and his new Pride and Prejudice opera. Awww, yeah. Work it.
Mechem was, in fact, fascinating (and very enthusiastic when accosted at tea time to discuss Jane Austen March Madness), and spoke at length about the process of adapting Austen. From the perspective of a seasoned writer and composer, he spoke of the appeal of diverse characterization in Pride and Prejudice (and why he’d be unlikely to adapt, say, Persuasion in the same way), the humor and poignancy that attracted him to her work in the first place (see: Bennet, Jane and Mrs.), and tough decisions in the area of cutting (he left out Lizzy’s trip to Pemberley, but hear him out before you storm off in a huff). He spoke about incorporating—or not—the music of the day into his score, and about a single instance of borrowing from another artist’s work.
And then the singers came out.
And it was awesome.
It turns out that Pride and Prejudice practically begs to be set to music—not slavishly, not without edits and rearrangements, but in a way that explores the text in a new and totally entertaining light. Most striking was the way in which the music coordinated with and then illuminated each character in his or her turn—a spot-on aural representation of the people and universe of the novel. Mrs. Bennet as high (not to say shrill) soprano? Check. Darcy as graceful-yet-manly baritone? Also check. Mr. Collins as hilariously imperious bass baritone? Check check check check check. We heard Lizzy and Darcy’s awkward dance at the ball and Lizzy’s rebuttal of Collins, and capped everything off with an aria for (soprano) Jane Bennet, embellished slightly with the Sara Teasdale poem “Let It Be Forgotten”—which we loved for highlighting both the sweetness of Jane’s character and the sorrow of her situation. In terms of accessibility, there are no Viking helmets here; as opera goes, this is relatively light and totally approachable (and sung in English). If you think Jane Austen is funny, you’ll think her opera’s funny, too.
The Pride and Prejudice opera has yet to premiere professionally, and the internet has not seen fit to grace us with a video sample (we looked!), but consider this the Austenacious stamp of approval: we loved what we saw and heard, and we just can’t wait to hear Lizzy’s takedown of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In fact, we take it back: Lady Catherine just might wear that Viking helmet.