TC Jewfolk Review: Doubt, An Opera About The Catholic Church

Growing up I never thought I would see an opera.
I’ve now seen two.
I don’t even particularly like operas; in fact, the cantorial-like singing voices remind me a little too much of all the times I had to sit through synagogue services as a kid. But I saw my first opera in October, Nabucco, at the invitation of TC Jewfolk chalutz Emily Cornell (you can read our review here), and I went back this past Thursday night for the final dress rehearsal and media night for the world premiere of Doubt (first a play, then a movie, now an opera).
I went to the Opera Thursday night, not because I love the Opera but because I loved the movie. I loved the movie. I walked out of that movie wanting to tell a story like that, wanting to write something like that, completely unaware of what that entailed. I had never written anything before outside of school assignments. I saw Doubt and wanted to be a writer.
I went to the Opera Thursday night because the reception beforehand promised a Meet And Greet with the writer of the play, writer/director of the movie, and librettist of the opera, John Patrick Shanley. Yes, it’s a little weird that he’s been riding the same story for almost eight years now, but if you’re going to ride one you could do worse than a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-winning, Academy Award-nominated story. I’m not usually one to get awestruck by celebrities, but I’ll admit, meeting him was pretty cool.
Doubt centers on a church school in 1964, in the Bronx. The story follows the relationship between the young and progressive parish priest, Father Flynn, and the stern and traditional school principal, Sister Aloysius. When one of the teachers, Sister James, informs Sister Aloysius of some strange behavior from one of her students, Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that Father Flynn has “corrupted” the boy.
As we’ve all come to expect with stories about a priest, this one centers on the question of pedophilia. But I’ve seen this show three times now—once as a movie, once as a play, and once as an opera—and each time I’ve left the theater with a different conclusion. Shanley’s ability to add so many layers to what’s essentially a black-and-white issue—did he or didn’t he—is astounding. The show is not meant to be a mystery; it ultimately doesn’t matter whether the priest did wrong by the boy or not. The full title of the play is Doubt: A Parable, because this story isn’t about what happened; it’s about doubt. It’s about, as the vocalists sing, “What do you do when you’re not sure?”
How long can you maintain your certainty when you have no proof? “Are we people? Or are we just convictions?”
The opera proved to be a cool medium for this story. This is a sparse show, with three principal actors and a lot of two-person scenes. The production team used some neat cinematic tricks to shrink the giant Ordway stage. The set itself had large ivory columns and a black and white floor that resembled the classic Baroque churches of Europe, giving a nod to the traditional grandiosity of Opera; but they often blocked out parts of the stage with large black screens, making a scene feel more intimate and “zoomed in”. The black-and-white color scheme of the set was also a clever touch for a show hell-bent on exploding your notions of black-and-white.
And the music added an emotional element to this story not capable with a film or play. It also provided my favorite quirk of the show: getting to hear what “Uh…” sounds like when sung by a professionally trained vocalist.
Overall the show was beautifully designed and cleverly staged. The music was good, if a bit cantorial. The libretto (the more you know…) was just as sharp and witty as the spoken version. It even included some bits of added humor when Sister Aloysius sang, more than once, “I don’t like music.”
The story also contains my favorite sermon, and one that (I believe) every rabbi learns in rabbinical school about lashon hara. It’s the feather story, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you need to go back to Religious School.
I’m still going to recommend the movie first, all things considered. But if you’re an opera lover, or even if you’re not, you should check this out!

PLUS! Buy tickets for the this Tuesday night’s show and use the coupon code: blog20 for $20 tickets (up to a $140 value)!

Here’s a video of the three main characters discussing the year’s Christmas pageant and why “Frosty The Snowman” is actually a disturbing song.


All performances are at the Ordway theater in downtown St. Paul. Doubt premiered last night and has four more performances:

Tuesday, 1/29 at 7:30pm
Thursday, 1/31 at 7:30pm
Saturday, 2/2 at 8:00pm
Sunday, 2/3 at 2:00pm

Approximate run time, including one intermission, is 2 hours 30 minutes. 

*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received a free ticket to Doubt in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the tickets for free doesn’t mean that we were obligated to give a positive review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…