Wednesday, August 4, 1999

Even more "Tales of the City"

Armistead Maupin and the San Francisco Opera's Jake Heggie imagine toking transsexual Anna Madrigal as a mezzo-soprano.

By Stacey Kors
August 4, 1999

"Has there ever been a chamber piece written for a transsexual character?" wonders Armistead Maupin. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the gay author and activist boldly broached previously "taboo" subject matter in his beloved, bestselling "Tales of the City" series, a touching and humorous homage to San Francisco in its hedonistic heyday. Now Maupin braves new territory again with "Anna Madrigal Remembers," a classical composition based on "Tales" and featuring new text by Maupin and music by San Francisco Opera's composer-in-residence Jake Heggie. The work, which was written for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and the male a cappella choral ensemble Chanticleer, receives its world premiere in San Francisco on Aug. 6 and 7, with additional performances and a recording scheduled for later this year.

Maupin, who describes himself as being a "classical neophyte" with a "music hall sensibility," admits to having felt a bit of trepidation about writing text for a classical composition. "But Jake's music is extremely lyrical, and there's a great deal of heart in what he writes," he tells Salon Arts & Entertainment from his home in San Francisco. "So I thought we might be compatible. Some modern classical music is so atonal that I run screaming from the room; but Jake is not afraid of a tune."

After toying with a number of ideas, Maupin hit on the notion of revisiting Anna Madrigal, the toking transsexual landlady who presides over Babylon-by-the-Bay's most famous fictional address. "I thought I should let people know that Anna is still around and still at 28 Barbary Lane."

When von Stade was approached to sing this unusual role, she was a bit surprised. "I did wonder why, of all people, they thought of me," she says with a laugh. But the renowned mezzo also says that she genuinely enjoys the challenge of portraying Anna onstage. "What's fascinating about this character," says von Stade, speaking from Philadelphia, "is that she spent 25 years as a man and then became a woman, so she has these two different perspectives."

Heggie found Madrigal's transsexuality an interesting challenge as well. "Since she is both a man and a woman, I have the whole chorus of men as sort of her inner life, and Anna herself, in Flicka [von Stade's nickname], as the end result. I sort of played with that in the whole piece, so that sometimes she's having a conversation with herself, and sometimes it's a unified voice."

Maupin's own experiences since first creating Anna Madrigal have had a profound effect on his latest incarnations of her. "She's 80 this year. She was 56 when I was writing 'Tales,' which seems impossibly young now since it's just a year older than I am. It's fascinating. When I was working with Olympia Dukakis on the 'More Tales of the City' miniseries, I found myself madly rewriting scenes because I felt I understood that character for the very first time. I knew what it felt like to be middle-aged and to have lived a life with a lot of ups and downs. So I loved delving into that character now because I'm able to bring a lot of myself to the table."

Nonetheless, Maupin says that he has no plans to write another book for the "Tales" series. "I don't know where I'd start. They'd all be 50 years old and scattered to the four corners of the Earth. I'd have to invent a new cast of characters, and what point would there be in that? It's not inconceivable that one of these days when I'm starving to death I'll write 'Christmas at Barbary Lane,'" he quips, "and they'll all reunite for a small, piquant book."

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