“Paul’s Case,” the short story by Willa Cather, is excellent material for an opera. It has a simple, linear plot; but its straightforward narrative belies complex ideas—ideas that become galvanized upon dilation. (Like those odd little toys you find in drugstores. Just add water and watch it expand!) 

Published in 1905, and since then perennially anthologized, the story is taught widely in high schools across the country. It can seem, to the uninitiated, an uncomplicated fable on the dangers of amoral materialism; however, its astute, precise language and symbolism reveal a piece of writing participating in the aesthetic discourse of Verlaine, Wilde, and Huysmans.

Paul, an “insolent” adolescent is discontented with the banality of his middle-class surroundings in turn of the century Pittsburgh. Curiously detached from his family and school community, he finds solace in beauty, music, and aspirational fantasies. He wears a carnation in his lapel.

Overcome by the distaste of life among the middle-classes, Paul embezzles money from his job and heads to New York City. Here, he lives out extravagant fantasies. He stays at the Waldorf Astoria; he has a brief, ambiguous friendship with a Yale freshman from San Francisco; he fills his room with hothouse flowers.

However, once he realizes he’s been discovered and will be brought back to Pittsburgh, he chooses suicide over the stifling confines of normal, bourgeois life.

Not quite a pariah, Paul functions more as an irritating enigma. He is odd, unsettling, and different. Unable to account for his strangeness, his teachers describe his uneasy effect as a mark of “insolence” and “smartness.”

But still, these words are insufficient descriptors; as his school drawing-master astutely comments: “I don’t really believe that smile of his comes altogether from insolence; there’s something haunted about it…there is something wrong about the fellow.”

Paul’s longing for the aristocratic beauty of opera, theater, and fine living seems, at least from a post-Stonewall perspective, quite queer. And it is interesting to think of Cather, who published “Paul’s Case” in 1905, anticipating the continental philosophy of Michel Foucualt.

Cather calls her story “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament,” situating Paul’s narrative within the discourse of bureaucratic medical analytics.

Indeed, who is the narrator of “Paul’s Case?” The psychoanalyst? The psychiatrist? The judge? The social worker? The probation officer? Reading through this lens, the formulation of the “case study,” suggests that Paul is just one example of a number of examples—what Foucault might identify as a sample of a “species,” as opposed to an “aberration.”

But Paul’s sexual categorization is refused entry into the story. As the critic Claude J. Summers has pointed out, homosexuality is never explicitly mentioned in the text, but instead Cather creates a field of language in which one can glean the particular, unspeakable element of Paul’s case.

There is, perhaps, one moment where the muzzled aspect of Paul’s case almost becomes explicit; but still, it too presses up against the threshold of the closet, refusing to pass into the discourse of identity affirmation. As Paul makes his flight from Pittsburgh to New York, the narrator observes of him:

Until now, he could not remember the time when he had not been dreading something. Even when he was a little boy, it was always there—behind him, before him, on either side. There had always been the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look, but from which something seemed always to be watching him—and Paul had done things that were not pretty to watch, he knew.

The “shadowed corner,” and the structural compression of “behind him, before him, on either side” speak to the pressurized constraints of the closet. And while Paul’s sexuality is never made explicit—that, indeed, is the crux of his case—it is potently accessible to queer readers.

I am not the first to draw a connection between Paul’s “haunted” quality and an unarticulated queerness, one that is meticulously avoided through circumlocution.

Wayne Koestenbaum, over 20 years ago in his book The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, understood Paul’s aspirations as a desire to “participate in the aristocratic milieu of opera queendom.”

Other critics as well have placed Cather’s narrative within the discourses of homosexuality, childhood effeminacy and proto-gay boyhood.

But there is more to Paul’s case than homosexuality. There is the issue of the aesthetic—a rejection of banal reality for exquisite, unearthly beauty. Such a theme accounts for Paul’s propensity to tell lies. And as Cather writes of Paul’s artistic position:

…in Paul’s world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty. Perhaps it was because his experience of life elsewhere was so full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the unescapable odors of cooking, that he found this existence so alluring, these smartly clad men and women so attractive, that he was so moved by these starry apple orchards that blossomed perennially under the lime-light.

Such aesthetic alignment places Paul within the intellectual genealogy of Verlaine, Wilde, and Huysmans—dandies and flâneurs. Furthermore, Summers points out how the story functions as a signpost for Cather’s own complex relationship with aestheticism.

In his scholarship, he charts Cather’s relationship to Wilde’s sissy persona; in doing so, he clearly shows how “Paul’s Case” functions as a signal of Cather’s own intense modification—from outright contempt toward aestheticism, to an ambivalent embrace.

As Summers argues, placing “Paul’s Case” within the imbricating discourses of sexuality and art shows how the story brilliantly documents a failure of the imagination. Moreover, the tragedy of Cather’s narrative calls for resolution, possibly through imaginative, queer narratives engendered through works of art.

Cather’s narrative, with its curious investigations of art, beauty, and willful subjectivity, is primed for musical setting. And the taking up of the aesthete through the exercise of artistic expression is a wonderfully reflective form of ars poetica. Cather’s prose is clean, clear, and detached; it opens up space for musical intervention. It’s an excellent source for an opera.

With such a brilliant piece of writing, one wonders what an operatic adaptation might yield. In other words, what is the point of setting this particular piece of literature to music? What does an operatic iteration offer that the original prose telling does not?

In composer Gregory Spears’ opera Paul’s Case, one finds a fascinating, rewarding shift in narrative perspective. Where Cather’s prose style is effectively detached and observant, taking up the rhetorical tools of the medical examiner, Spears’ score inhabits Paul’s consciousness, offering a soundscape saturated with the personally subjective, a lens so achingly beautiful that it borders on aesthetic jouissance.

The score pulsates; the language is observational, declarative, repetitive; it recursively announces individual statements in a static soundscape. As our own James Jorden wrote in his review for the Observer, back when PROTOTYPE produced the opera in 2014:

It’s a perfect marriage of text and music, creating a series of tableau-like scenes, as if Paul’s story is being related through a series of exquisitely posed still photographs—exactly, in fact, the lapidary manner in which Paul envisions his life.

Mr. Spears’ music is grounded in the chugging, surging rhythm of the train on which Paul escapes from his drab hometown. Overlaying that is a dreamy haze of slowly shifting musical lines that never seem to develop or change. Instead they just drift… It’s a striking depiction of Paul’s adolescent attitude that there is neither past nor future, only a blissful, eternal present in his suite at the Waldorf Astoria.

The stasis and dilation that the score affords offer entry into Paul’s particularly queer perspective. Gone is the discursive, medical coolness of Cather’s story. Instead, we are given a lush, static paradise, where everything—even the reprimand of teachers—is aestheticized and made beautiful.

Spears is an astonishingly creative composer. And like other American composers of a certain tradition—Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, John Harbison—he demonstrates a wide, wise reading of literature.

His past works have utilized a variegated group of writers: Wilfred Owen, Richard Foreman, Coleridge, and Thoreau among others.  And in Paul’s Case he once again displays an apt attention to narrative and the ways that music can imbue language with surprising color, shade, and subtext.

The term post-minimalism has been used to describe Spears’ style, and there is a meditative ostinatogesture permeating much of his composition. But he is also lyrical, playful, and particularly attune to old-world techniques, a baroque vocabulary deploying grace notes and melisma.

His manner is never arch. He is sincere and forthright. His unyielding preoccupation with beauty feels refreshingly anti-cool—cooler than cool—perhaps naïve, but willfully so.

Kathryn Walat’s libretto for the opera is straightforward. Her characters declare their stances and stakes with simple, formal statements. Like Spears’ score, her writing does not propel the plot forward. Instead, it opens up a vast emotional field in which the characters hang, like fixed stars in constellation.

The effect has a startling emotional effect, one undergirded by a bittersweet ambivalence. Take, for example, the repetitive reading of the phrase, “I didn’t mean to be impolite, or impolite,” a prime example of Paul’s frustrating detachment.

In Spears and Walat’s handling, the phrase has an exquisite melancholy turn to it, a frustrating swerve from social connection, legibility, affirmation. Paul repeats it several times; each time, the phrase grows stranger, more abstract.

Paul’s Case premiered at UrbanArias in Arlington, VA in 2013, and it debuted in New York in 2014’s PROTOTYPE festival. UrbanArias’ new recording of the opera is a wonderful document for these performances.

Recorded at the recital of hall of the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase, where Spears serves as a Lecturer in the Composition department, the recording preserves the work of the original cast. They are uniformly excellent.

Most saliently, the tenor Jonathan Blalock triumphs as Paul. His clear, lyrically flexible tenor handles the role’s difficult tessitura; and his uncanny musicianship elevates his performance from an impressive, athletic juggling act to an exercise in artistic interpretation.

Equally startling, three female voices—which serve as maids, teachers, opera singers, and Greek chorus—offer impressive ensemble work, entwining vibrant lines with dexterous ease. Amanda Crider, Melissa Wimbish and Erin Sanzero are especially adept at handling the difficult rhythms and harmonies.

Keith Phares, as Paul’s father, is also noteworthy for his warmth and commanding sound. And special mention should be made of tenor Michael Slattery as a Yale freshman with whom Paul shares a “champagne friendship” in New York.

The orchestration for Paul’s Case is quite slim, but Robert Wood’s conducting makes efficient use of the score’s chamber-sized majesty. Indeed the textures created from such small means are a testament to both the conductor and composer.

UrbanArias’ recording contributes to an operatic culture that, at its worst, can often feel like heartless drudgery. Paul’s Case is an antidote to the intellectual pretensions that regularly drag contemporary opera performance toward tediousness and boredom.

And its outright exuberance, despite the morbidity of its subject material, offers a forceful statement on the importance of beauty and craftsmanship—valuable qualities of art, even if they remain categories of abstract contention.

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito