Gordon Getty’s fourth opera, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, based on the best-selling 1934 novella by James Hilton as well as two other Chips short stories by Hilton, was supposed to open as a fully-staged, live performance in San Francisco last year. However, due to the pandemic the onstage production was canceled. Since then it has been reconceived by the original stage director Brian Staufenbiel as a film instead, making use of many elements of the previously planned stage production.
Getty’s own libretto straitjackets his opera by using a narrator, Dr. Merrivale, and then having the main character, teacher and later headmaster Mr. Chips, recollecting his memories. As a result, the opera is basically a flashback within a series of flashbacks which deprives it of drama. Faithful to the Hilton originals, it recounts the life of Arthur Chipping, a Latin and Greek master at Brookfield, the fictional all-boys boarding school, in the east of England, who gains the nickname of “Chips” which sticks for his entire 63 year career. A confirmed bachelor of traditional but idealistic and moral views, he falls in love with a vivacious young lady, Kathie Bridges, whom he meets on a walking trip of the Lake District when he is 46, and promptly falls in love with and marries her soon after.
Their happiness is short-lived when she dies in childbirth. Teaching the way he always has, but more flexible and understanding of people than before due to the influence of his late wife, he comes into conflict with a younger and more modern headmaster, but weathers the storm and ends up acting headmaster himself during W.W. I when the men of military age are away at war. Starting in the year of his death in 1933, Dr. Merrivale, the school physician, narrates his story from 1896 on, as well as interacts with him as friend and medical adviser.
The new opera is a mixed bag. The lush, lovely music is old-fashioned enough that it could have been written pre-1940 but does not suggest British music of its time period. Beautifully conducted by Nicole Paiement, the score has no dramatic or theatrical high points and sounds more like chamber music than an opera score. The libretto is almost entirely in prose, most likely taken from Hilton, so that most of the singing is recitative.
The production is a combination of film and theater techniques which keep reminding us that we are watching a dramatization: realistic sets (designed by Jacquelyn Scott) give way to scenes in which we are on a stage. Sets also revolve for no specific reason except possibly to show the passage of time. As seen up-close on camera, they all look too clean and tidy which suggest theater sets. The 20 members of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, augmented by an additional 20 voices (all conducted by Francisco J. Núñez), are only seen in video that appears on Chips’ blackboard or behind the windows of various rooms. We never get a sense of Chips’ running a class or his interaction with a roomful of boys.
Baritone Lester Lynch as Dr Merrivale has the best music and makes the most of his chances. The music for Mr. Chips all sounds the same as his text is made up of one sentence statements. His only powerful and poignant aria comes early in the second act when, during 1917, Chips must announce the deaths of Brookfield students that he had taught. As Mr. Chips, tenor Nathan Granner begins at age 83 and must also play him at various earlier stages. He is much more convincing as a younger man than as the aged retiree. As we never actually see him teach a class we have to take it on faith that he is an inspiring educator and mentor.
Soprano Marnie Beckenridge is a lovely presence as Kathie who becomes Mrs. Chips but as the character has a small role in the storyline she is not given much to do. She does, however, appear in a few flashbacks and as the voice of the youngest student Linford in the penultimate scene. Bass-baritone Kevin Short who will be familiar to Metropolitan Opera audiences plays the unusual double role of Sir John Rivers, chairman of the board of Brookfield, as well as Ralston, the progressive modern but disliked headmaster just before the Great War. Using different voices for each, he is most successful as Rivers, his wig (designed by Jenny-King Turko) as Ralston doesn’t really flatter him as a British headmaster.
Callie Floor is responsible for the spot-on costumes for the early 20th century time period while Philip Perkins is credited with the excellent music supervision and sound designer, an heroic job as it was recorded under difficult circumstances during the pandemic. The viewer would never guess that most of the sound (both singers and musicians) was recorded in different places over time to avoid exposure to Covid. Steven Condiotti was director of crisp photography, while Alexander V. Nichols and Ahren Buhmann were responsible for the projection design which often gives scenes a dreamlike or other-worldly feeling as Chips reminisces about his past life. Tim Fender’s editing includes repeats of several scenes which only slows down the story.
While Gordon Getty’s opera of Goodbye, Mr. Chips is very accessible for modern opera, it has a very passive main character. As a result, it is not very theatrical or dramatic. We never really get a picture of school life as we never see the students interact although occasionally we see Chips with one of his students in conference after class. It might be much more believable if Chips were to be played by two different singers, one the aged, revered Chips, and one the young man starting out. The film of the opera will not obliterate memories of the movie versions which are now legendary but does stand on its own. However, stagedversions may take a totally different production angle in the months and years to come.
Goodbye Mr. Chips (March 2, 2022)
New York City Opera and Napa Valley Festival
Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.newyorkcityopera.yapsody.com
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes