The Hours began as a novel by Michael Cunningham in 1998, then found a wider audience as a movie directed by Stephen Daldry in 2002. Now Kevin Puts and Greg Pierce have adapted it as an opera, which premiered at the Met in November to unusually high interest. Opera has been in the adaptation game from the beginning: composers like Monteverdi and Lully plundered classical mythology for plots, and their successors did the same with plays, novels, and most recently movies, as in Marnie (2017) by Nico Muhly and The Exterminating Angel (2016) by Thomas Adès. The Hours made a bigger splash than either of these, in part because it arrived laden with prestige: the book won the Pulitzer and the movie was nominated for nine Oscars. Most of the audience at the Met must have been familiar with the story before the curtain rose—though not everyone, to judge by the scattered gasps that greeted the two big plot twists near the end of the second act.
The production also benefited from its star power: it featured Joyce DiDonato, a leading mezzo-soprano, as Virginia Woolf; Renée Fleming, one of the Met’s reigning sopranos for a quarter-century, as Clarissa Vaughan; and Kelli O’Hara, a Tony-winning Broadway actress, as Laura Brown. It was the operatic equivalent of the movie’s all-star cast, led by Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. All this helped The Hours become a show business event on a scale few new operas can hope for. It wasn’t just reviewed but reported on and gossiped about, not just by The New York Times but by Variety and Good Morning America. And it was such a box office success that Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, is reportedly planning to bring The Hours back next season for an encore run with the same cast—one result of the Met’s recognition that since the pandemic contemporary works have attracted larger audiences than the standard repertory.
It makes sense that artists in different genres have wanted to adapt The Hours, since adaptation is in its DNA. Cunningham’s novel consists of three variations on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), weaving together the stories of Woolf, who we see writing the novel in a London suburb in 1923; Laura, who reads it in Los Angeles in 1949; and Clarissa, who shares a first name with Woolf’s title character and reenacts elements of her story in 1990s New York. In each timeline Cunningham uses the basic structure of Mrs. Dalloway, following a well-to-do, middle-aged woman through the events of a single day, which becomes a microcosm of her entire life and of the society in which she lives.
The result is a fictional experiment, as changing the starting conditions in various ways leads the story down different paths. Laura Brown shares Woolf’s suicidal inclinations, but unlike Woolf she is not a genius and she has a child to raise. Will she end up taking her life, as Woolf did? In Woolf’s novel, Clarissa Dalloway fell briefly in love with a woman named Sally when she was young but took it for granted that this feeling was irrelevant to her destiny of marrying a man, and in her fifties she looks back on it as a sweet memory. If she lived in New York in the 1990s, would she identify as a lesbian and spend her life with a woman, as Clarissa Vaughan does with her partner, also named Sally?
In these ways and more, The Hours asks how individuals adapt their personalities and desires to their times. Woolf was fascinated by the same question. In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” published the year before Mrs. Dalloway, she declared that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” As a novelist, Woolf looked for evidence of this change not in great public events but in behaviors and relationships—for instance, in the more democratic way a middle-class woman began to interact with her cook. In Mrs. Dalloway she took a snapshot of a changing world, taking note of the new—a skywriting airplane, a shell-shocked soldier—while lingering fondly on things that were on their way out, like Clarissa Dalloway and the social order that produced her.
Now the three historical periods in The Hours are matched by three versions of The Hours—book, movie, and opera—setting up a similar test of the influence of genre. What can opera elicit from this story that the page and the screen cannot? Puts and Pierce seem conscious of the question from the very first moments. As the curtain rises, the chorus pours onto the stage, repeating isolated words and phrases to a dark, unsettled orchestral accompaniment; it sounds less like call-and-response than trial and error. Soon it becomes clear that the words are struggling to form the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway, and that the chorus represents the writer’s unconscious. It swirls and seeps around the stage as Woolf, haggard and plainly dressed, sits writing at her desk and finally brings out the famous first sentence: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
The scene feels like an homage to the prelude of Das Rheingold, the first opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, which begins with the orchestra murmuring formlessly. The scattered notes start to coalesce into phrases, building in volume until they become the leitmotif Wagner uses for the Rhine River, the opera’s legendary setting. The prelude is a portrait of a river gathering force, but it also dramatizes Wagner’s understanding of artistic creation. Order, whether cosmic or artistic, doesn’t come from rational planning or a god’s imperious command. Rather, it is an emergent property that chaos mysteriously distills out of itself.
Woolf attended five complete Ring cycles during her lifetime, according to Emma Sutton’s study Virginia Woolf and Classical Music (2013), and she shared this modernist view of creativity. Mrs. Dalloway, one of the first and greatest examples of stream-of-consciousness narration in English fiction, is continually dramatizing the emergence of conscious thought out of feeling and memory. Yet the attempt to do the same thing in the first scene of the opera The Hours is a little absurd, for the same reason that biopics about writers generally are: it has to make us see and hear the completely internal process of literary creation, so it is bound to ring false. Writing a sentence doesn’t involve letting individual words bubble up and then putting them together, much less hearing them in one’s mind.
More important, the scene misrepresents Mrs. Dalloway, whose first sentence is not like a mythic river issuing from the bowels of time. It’s completely mundane, a note about an errand. This ordinariness makes it a suitable opening for a novel that says beauty and sublimity aren’t at war with the mundane, but flash out at us from its midst. Clarissa Dalloway believes that her ability to detect these flashes is her only talent, and a sufficient one:
She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed; and yet to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing;…what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab.
Cunningham’s prose can’t compete with Woolf’s as a medium of perception—whose can?—but his book is written in the same spirit. Clarissa Vaughan’s strolling and musing in SoHo parallels Clarissa Dalloway’s in London, and she reaches a similar epiphany: “Here is the ordinary world, a movie being shot, a Puerto Rican boy cranking open the awning of a restaurant with a silver pole. Here is the world, and you live in it, and are grateful. You try to be grateful.” The emphasis on gratitude is one of Cunningham’s distinctive departures from Woolf. Clarissa Dalloway is too sure of her place in the world, her right to the world, to worry about whether she is grateful enough. But it is central to The Hours, which asks in each of its three stories whether our obligation to be grateful for the world forbids us from choosing to leave it.
Pierce’s libretto uses these lines, which appear early in the novel, as the basis of the opera’s concluding trio, in which the three main characters come together in what the Met’s synopsis calls “a space that transcends time and place, where they can finally perceive one another.” A clear reference point here is the trio at the end of Der Rosenkavalier, in which three women sing about love and the sacrifices it demands. Puts’s music evokes the gorgeous bittersweetness of Richard Strauss, and DiDonato, Fleming, and O’Hara brought it off beautifully at the Met. But this version is far more somber, both musically and lyrically:
Here is the world and you live in it
And you are not alone
Here is the world and you live in it
And you are all alone
Here is the world and you live in it
And you try to be
And you try
The three singers repeat the words “and you try” over and over again, until they fall silent and the music ends. It takes a fresh memory of the novel to realize that Pierce has omitted the crucial last word in Cunningham’s sentence: “grateful.” With this absence in mind, the repetitions begin to sound as though the women are groping to remember the reason for living, the thing that is supposed to make the world tolerable, but without success. The effect is more Samuel Beckett than Virginia Woolf.
The final trio is a good example of how The Hours succeeds as an opera by foregrounding the element of despair. Cunningham’s novel is full of desperate people: it opens with a vignette of Woolf drowning herself; Laura Brown contemplates overdosing in a hotel room; and Clarissa Vaughan’s friend Richard, a celebrated poet, throws himself out his window rather than continuing to live with AIDS-related dementia. But the novel is also interested in many other things—the glamour of New York, the allure of fame, sexual desire, the evolution of gay identity and relationships. This absorption in the world allows Cunningham to end the book on a note of affirmation: “Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so.”
The opera minimizes or eliminates these other interests, and what’s left is a story about suicide—the temptation of it, and the challenge of caring for people who feel that temptation. It’s a good decision, since of all the arts music is probably the worst suited to capturing the “this, here, now” of life, being unable to point or describe. When The Hours does try to evoke life’s blooming fullness, it tends to be literal—as in a brief scene set in a flower shop, when the chorus crowds around Clarissa brandishing flowers to create a colorful tableau.
An opera production can’t hope to replicate the novel’s vital descriptions of New York’s street life. Instead, the set design by Tom Pye divides the stage into interior zones, each dominated by a single piece of furniture: the desk where Virginia Woolf tries to write, the hotel bed where Laura Brown finds a refuge from the responsibilities of parenthood. This interiority matches the opera’s strategy of narrowing, and so does Puts’s musical language. He is skilled at finding different shades within a sustained mood of sadness, and the score is by turns meditative, exquisite, and ominous. It’s a sign of the opera’s dramatic coherence that this mood is what remains in the memory, more than individual melodies.
The longing for death is an egoistic emotion that cuts the sufferer off from the world, making it a good subject for opera, since arias are essentially soliloquies—people singing to themselves about themselves. Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” is sung by a woman threatening to throw herself in a river; Purcell’s Dido mournfully imagines “when I am laid in earth.” Operatic characters who worry about someone else’s death-urge are much rarer, but The Hours includes three of them. Woolf is cared for by her husband Leonard, sung at the Met by the tenor Sean Panikkar—a considerably more imposing figure than the real Leonard Woolf, which makes his solicitude all the more touching. The panic that rises in his voice whenever Virginia is out of sight is based on a fully justified fear of what she might one day decide to do.
Clarissa Vaughan is equally concerned about preserving Richard’s life, though she refuses to admit to herself just how strongly her friend is drawn to the idea of suicide. The way Richard kills himself, by jumping out of a window, echoes the death of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, who is driven mad by his experiences in World War I, as Richard is by AIDS. Musically, the moment is not as climactic as it should be, despite the best efforts of Fleming and especially Kyle Ketelsen as Richard. If anything in the world has the right to be melodramatic, it’s an operatic death scene, but Puts’s score is better at conveying sustained inward reflection than dramatic action.
That may be why this version of The Hours feels more heavily weighted than the book or the movie to the story of Laura Brown, which is the least eventful of the three plots. Part of the credit also goes to Kelli O’Hara. Primarily a Broadway performer, she is vocally more than equal to the demands of opera—she has appeared at the Met before, most recently in Così fan tutte—but she is a more expressive and resourceful actress than opera singers generally are. One of her most powerful moments in The Hours is silent—a slow walk across the stage toward her young son, Richie, in which she manages to convey all the character’s ambivalence about being a parent.
Laura is the only one of the opera’s three potential suicides who successfully avoids that fate. When she leaves Richie with a neighbor to check into a hotel room alone, she brings her copy of Mrs. Dalloway and sings to it: “Why have I brought us here, Clarissa, to read? To wait? For what? For me to find myself or lose myself?” The suggestion that she might take this opportunity to end her life is stronger in the opera than in the book, where Cunningham makes clear that what Laura wants is a break from home. Only once she has checked into the hotel does it occur to her that it’s the kind of place where a person might commit suicide. Still, the operatic version of the scene isn’t nearly as blunt as the movie version, in which Julianne Moore pours out several bottles’ worth of pills—a typical example of how the film exaggerates and simplifies every element of the story.
In the opera’s last scenes, however, we see that Laura hasn’t escaped the curse of suicide. She has only handed it off to Richie, who grows up to become Richard, the doomed poet. His death is thus overdetermined: ostensibly he commits suicide to end his physical suffering, but the emotional logic of the story suggests that it is a response to his lifelong feeling of abandonment. For when the aged Laura visits Clarissa after Richard’s death—after an onstage transformation, in which chorus members give her a white wig—we learn that while she didn’t die, she did abandon her family, running away from a life she couldn’t stand.
In an unexpected way, the emotional power of Laura’s story and O’Hara’s performance ends up diminishing the importance of Clarissa Vaughan, who is nominally the opera’s main character. She has the most dramatic plot, probably the most stage time, and she is the only protagonist who lives more or less in the present. Perhaps most important, she is sung by Fleming, who reportedly suggested that Puts write an opera of The Hours as a vehicle for her to return to the Met after her 2017 “farewell.”
Clarissa is fully engaged with life; like her Woolfian namesake, she walks, observes, meets people, makes plans. We see contemporary New York through her eyes, in a way that we don’t see Woolf’s London or Laura’s Los Angeles. This makes her the natural focal point of the novel, but the opera of The Hours is more in sympathy with sufferers than doers, and Fleming’s material is less compelling than DiDonato’s or O’Hara’s. For all its strengths, the opera has little of the quickness and vitality that make Mrs. Dalloway such an energizing book, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the audience left the Met feeling like Woolf’s heroine: “What she liked was simply life. ‘That’s what I do it for,’ she said, speaking aloud, to life.”