In November 1947, W. H. Auden flew to Hollywood to create a new opera, A Rake's Progress, with Igor Stravinsky. The basic outline for the work came into being through one intense caffeine- and whiskey-fueled week. The eccentric Anglo-American poet didn't once touch the towels and soap that Stravinsky's maid had left for him, slept with his toes poking out of the covers, and secretly brought his partner, Chester Kallman, on as a co-librettist. The cantankerous Russian émigré composer, for his part, had been skeptical about literary partnerships. Many of his previous collaborations, such as that with André Gide on the 1933 opera Perséphone, tended to turn sour. Until his friend Aldous Huxley recommended Auden as a potential librettist, Stravinsky hadn't collaborated with an author since settling in the U.S. in 1939. Somehow, the two men achieved a rapport despite very different agendas. Together, they developed a scenario inspired by a series of satirical engravings by the 18th-century English artist William Hogarth known as A Rake's Progress, which Stravinsky had seen exhibited at Chicago's Art Institute. Telling the story of a libertine's demise at the hands of the Devil, this salacious moral fable about the dangers of forfeiting true love for idle pleasures mixes Stravinsky's pastiche on 18th-century classicism with Auden's dark vision of contemporary spiritual bankruptcy. The San Francisco Opera is currently reviving it in a production never before seen in the U.S., directed by the great Canadian theater auteur Robert Lepage (of Cirque du Soleil Kà fame).
Dec. 4-9, 8 p.m., 2007