AMOUR FOU: A Circus Opera

AMOUR FOU is about the love affair between Erik Satie and Suzanne Valadon, framed by an 1890s Paris street circus. Chef de Piste presents the lovers as the ultimate circus act, full of both chills and spills and laughs. Their actual love affair gets constantly interrupted by the judgements and gossip of those witnessing the crash, many of whom are also circus performers. The paradox of their union (experience/innocence) seems funny, but the love is real and affects their art. Their ultimate breakup is existential not just for them but for the circus itself. But the legend of their wild and crazy love fuels lovers and artists to this day.

 


Soliloquy from AMOUR FOU. Performance from
New Opera West 2022 Pop-Up Festival

“Soliloquy” is song in Act 2 of AMOUR FOU sung by the character Erik Satie. In this scene, Satie and Valadon have just spent their first night together. For Satie, this is his first time with a woman, and he is amazed and enamored with her beauty and mystery. He sings while he watches her sleep, and imagines the possibility for their future. In this performance, Valadon is represented through the beauty of the aerialist using silks above their shared bed, creating this sense of unbelievable beauty and joy that comes from sharing something so intimate.

Cast
Edmond Rodriguez, Tenor – Erik Satie
Kaylena Rose, Aerialist/Valadon
Directed by Christopher Halsted and accompanied by Sky Lee for the New Opera West Pop-Up Festival, March 5 & 6, 2022 at the Broadwater Theater in Los Angeles, California.


Development 

We are seeking collaborative development partners who share our vision of telling a story with a gender fluid cast and who love telling beautiful and compelling stories. If interested in learning more, please fill out the Contact Form.

Amour Fou is a love story written by a female composer and a Latinx librettist with a gender fluid cast playing identity-busting roles. As creators, we are highly underrepresented in opera/music theater; and as a piece, the work provides opportunities for highly underrepresented singers/actors/acrobats to be seen. From the beginning, we have embraced gender fluidity, not only in the casting of the roles but in the writing of them as well. We are open to working with female or nonbinary actors in male-presenting roles, precisely because we see the world of this play as being a forerunner to our own historical moment. Satie, Degas, Valadon, La Goulue, and the others are each in their way forging new identities beyond the cisgender expectations of their time (or, for that matter, of our own).

We envision fully staged performances with at least 8 singers, a chamber ensemble of 6 to 8 instrumentalists, and three acrobats with knowledge of silks, trapeze, clowning, juggling, and unicycle.


Workshops

Act One of AMOUR FOU was workshopped with piano during the Spring of 2023 with three performances at the
University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. Oliver and Jenni collaborated with students on the history of this era and aspects of circus, from a unicycle workshop to meeting with experts on music and history of the late 1900’s as well as weekly rehearsals on the music and simple staging with director Kenneth Noel Mitchell.


Workshop Performance Recordings

 

“The Greatest Show” comes from the Act 1 prologue of AMOUR FOU. Chef de Piste, the ringmaster of the company, presents the lovers as the ultimate circus act, full of both chills, spills and laughs. At times he works to tame the wild company back from hysteria, and at other times reminisces about love and life. Workshop Performance at the University of Southern California Schoo of Dramatic Arts, Spring 2023.


In “Never Been Kissed” and “Paradox”, Chef de Piste and the Company ridicule Satie for never having been with anyone before, and make fun of Valadon for being with too many men.
It is an attraction of opposites with an unexpected love connection which makes for a rowdy scene.


Full workshop performance of AMOUR FOU – Act I

CAST

Amour Fou embraces non-binary and Fach-bending casting, so below are suggestions of voice types that may change, depending on the performers who connect most strongly with the roles:

Chef de Piste – Mezzo-soprano or Baritone
Erik Satie – Soprano or Tenor/Baritone
Suzanne Valadon – Mezzo-Soprano or Baritone
La Goulue – Mezzo-Soprano or Tenor
Edgar Degas – Baritone or Mezzo-Soprano
Claude Debussy – Baritone or Mezzo-Soprano
Toulouse Lautrec – Tenor or Soprano
Waiter – Soprano or Tenor

Company (Cast plays both named roles and company)

Instrumentation

Currently the instrumentation is piano. However, as the show progresses, instrumentation will expand to a chamber ensemble setting including Flute, Clarinet/Saxophone, Violin, Cello, Piano, and Percussion.  Further instrumentation expansions possible.

Synopsis

PROLOGUE. In 1890s urban Paris, our “Chef de Piste” unveils “The Greatest Show on Earth”: the tumultuous love story of Chaplinesque pianist Erick Satie and former trapeze artist-turned-painter Suzanne Valadon. Their love, more perilous than circus acts, unfolds amidst the backdrop of a Parisian street circus. The Company of performers teeming with riffraff, intellectuals, and fellow artists, each grappling with artistic, sexual, and political self-discovery. 

ACT ONE. The action moves to L’Auberge du Clou, the local artist haunt where Satie plays piano and the gender-bending La Goulue brings down the house each night. The already-lionized Debussy is Satie’s frenemy, at turns encouraging and insulting. France’s greatest painter Degas arrives with his mentee and former artist model Valadon, who is rebounding from a series of breakups with famous Impressionist artists and is imagining her own future glory as a female artist  future as a female artist portraying women authentically and not solely for the male gaze. When Satie and Valadon meet, the Company interjects, highlighting their incompatibility. Toulouse Lautrec, Valadon’s ex, barges in threatening Satie and warning him that she will break his heart. Amidst the chaos, Valadon and Satie leave together.

ACT TWO. The Chef de Piste guides us deeper into the story and we see Satie’s tiny garret studio. Valadon sleeps while Satie realizes how deeply he has fallen in love. Satie’s cramped studio becomes their haven, but poverty and artistic constraints strain Valadon. Although their breakup seems inevitable, their outsized love for one another keeps them connected and begins to affect both their art in strange new ways. Debussy, Degas, Lautrec (and even La Goulue) serve as a chorus of witnesses, each of them also affected by the dissolution of their love affair. Valadon finds a new partner, while Satie vows to never love another.

EPILOGUE. Back in the circus, Chef de Piste dismisses the end of their dangerous and crazy love, but the Company rebels against him and retells the story from a place of inspiration and compassion, reasserting who they are through their own circus talents and artistry. The aged lovers reappear. Even Chef de Piste is made to realize that their short, wild, and unlikely union gives us all hope not only for true love, but artistic expression.

Dramatic Structure

Amour Fou is framed through the language of circus — in this case, a late 19th century Parisian street circus — including jugglers, unicyclists, clowns, and tightrope walkers. The Chef de Piste is the Ringmaster, and he carries a buggy whip that he uses on occasion to control the Company, who begin as circus performers but soon take on various other personages throughout the course of the story. The structure is inspired by Peter Brook’s take on Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, wherein the inmates of a madhouse perform scenes from the life and death of a French Revolutionary, and where sometimes the action flies off the handle because of the double exposure of the drama going on not only in the story but between the players. In Amour Fou, The Chef de Piste presents the love affair between Satie and Valadon as “The Greatest Show on Earth ” precisely because of its highwire chills and spills, and he directs his company of circus performers to embody the story. Although we move from circus to dive bar to Satie’s garret, we never quite leave the elements of circus behind. But (as in Marat/Sade), at the end of the story the players revolt against the ringmaster’s storytelling. In our piece, they let the lovers be who they are, no longer foolish Pierrot and temptress Trapeziste, but older adults who still hold a torch for one another after years apart despite that fact that they will never be together again. The story’s structure demands framing at the end, but the frame has altered somewhat, with the Chef removed of his buggy whip and the circus performers celebrating the lovers without being prompted or threatened or judged.

The Company is essential to the dramatic structure of Amour Fou. All the players function as The Company when they are not in their individual roles. This leads to a highly presentational and Brechtian style of storytelling, epic in nature and unafraid of audience interaction, with occasional use of distancing effects (ie alienation) to remind the audience that they are watching a play — for instance, seeing The Company on stage at all times whether or not they are in a particular scene.

An important strand of the story’s DNA is our embrace of non-binary players performing in roles, including at least one role that is in itself non-binary (La Goulue). We are not trying to hide any gender-fluidity that may occur, rather, we feel that this is the very essence of what the historical characters were fighting for through their art.


About Oliver and Jenni

Composer Jenni Brandon and librettist Oliver Mayer have been working together for the last decade on opera, piano concerti with choir and orchestra, and other musical collaborations. They first met through the chamber music group Definiens who played in “America Tropical,” Oliver’s opera with composer David Conte. Soon thereafter, they began to collaborate together on songs and found an array of mutual shared affinities: a strong progressive political consciousness intertwined with a compassionate urge to lift every voice and tell stories yet unseen on stage. Neither is a snob and both are eager to entertain in their work as well as break new ground. They have received commissions from The Long Beach Camerata Singers and the the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and their work has appeared at The Kennedy Center, The Congressional Chorus of Washington DC, The Columbus Flute Choir, The University of Southern California, and the Aula Nova Academii Muzycznej y Poznaniu in Poznan, Poland, and their opera 3 Paderewskis was the winner of the 2018-19 American Prize for Composition. Through their decade of collaboration, they have developed an easy can-do mode of working, open to one another’s suggestions and listening for the other’s strengths and cadences. They enjoy playing with musical and spoken language and they believe that the best art has a sense of humor as well as a deep-seated love for people, whether their foibles or their moments of joy and glory. Their strong belief in the collaborative process, from the shared experience of creating a work from the ground up, to collaborating with performers, producers, and artists is a hallmark of their projects and the success of each performance. Their working artistic relationship has sharpened over time and promises to truly break through with Amour Fou.

Oliver Mayer is the director of the MFA Program in dramatic writing, a professor of dramatic writing, associate dean of strategic initiatives and associate dean of faculty at the USC School of Dramatic Arts.
Mayer is a playwright, poet and librettist, whose new opera 3 Paderewskis, composed by Jenni Brandon, received its world premiere at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center in November 2019, as well as in Poznan, Poland and on the USC campus. Their new musical Amour Fou is currently in development. He is the author of more than 30 plays, from his ground-breaking Blade to the Heat to its long-awaited sequel Members Only. New plays include Ghost Waltz (commissioned by the Latino Theater Company), The Dragon Tree, and Letters from the Black Sea (commissioned by the Getty Villa). Other produced plays include Blood Match and Yerma in the Desert, inspired by the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca; Fortune is a Woman, The Wallowa Project, Dias y Flores, Dark Matters, Conjunto, Young Valiant, Joy of the Desolate, The Sinner from Toledo, Laws of Sympathy and Ragged Time. Mayer also wrote the libretto for the opera America Tropical, composed by David Conte, and the book for Blue House with music and lyrics by Perla Batalla and David Batteau. He writes essays regularly for Zocalo Public Square, and has written a book of poetry entitled Body Languages. He also wrote the children’s books Big Dog on Campus Learns to be a Trojan, and its follow-ups Big Dog on Campus Goes to the Library and Big Dog on Campus Goes on Patrol.

On campus, he has received several university honors, including the USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching, Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition Award, and a Mellon Mentoring Award for mentoring undergraduates. His writing has received various awards, including The American Prize for new opera.

 

Jenni Brandon is a composer and conductor, creating music in collaboration with other musicians and artists.  She writes music that is beautiful and lyrical, telling stories through memorable musical lines often influenced by the collaborator’s story, nature, and poetry. She has been commissioned to write music for soloists, chamber ensembles, concertos, opera and orchestra and her catalogue contains over 80 works.  Her music appears on over 24 albums on labels such as Delos, MSR Classics, Blue Griffin, New Focus Recordings, Summit Records, Albany, and Centaur. Her works have been awarded the Sorel Medallion, American Prize, Paderewski Cycle, Women Composers Festival of Hartford International Composition Competition, and Bassoon Chamber Music Composition Competition, and several of her works have been used as required repertoire for international competitions such as the International Double Reed Society Conference, the International Clarinetist Corona Competition, and the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Bassoon Competition. Her works appear on university audition repertoire lists including at schools like Julliard, Manhattan School of Music, Butler School of Music – The University of Texas at Austin, Fred Fox School of Music – The University of Arizona among others. Her works are published and distributed by Boosey & Hawkes, Santa Barbara Music Publishing, Graphite Publishing, TrevCo Music Publishing, Imagine Music, J.W. Pepper, and June Emerson. She runs Jenni Brandon Music which publishes and distributes her works worldwide.

As a conductor she often conducts her own works and works by living composers. She has conducted community and church choirs throughout Southern California.  Jenni conducted her one-act opera 3 PADEREWSKIS with libretto by Oliver Mayer in the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center in 2019 following performances of the work in California and Poland. She also presents workshops and talks on collaboration and the business of music at universities and festivals across America, striving to create a supportive environment where collaboration leads to an exploration of ideas. Jenni is also the Co-Artistic Director for Heartland Marimba and helped develop several years of workshops and festivals for composers on writing for Marimba and Keyboard Percussion.

She received her undergraduate degree in Music Composition at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and her master’s degree in music composition from the University of Texas at Austin. She did doctoral work at the University of Southern California where she is currently an Adjunct Lecturer with the School of Dramatic Arts.

When she is not making music, Jenni is often on her yoga mat, either practicing or teaching yoga.  Jenni enjoys spending time with her two dogs Harrison and Chianti and loves travelling with her husband to scuba dive in tropical waters.  Visit jennibrandon.com.