Lowell Liebermann on The Picture of Dorian Gray

I first read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray when I was about thirteen years old. The book made an impression on me as no other book had yet done—I was haunted by it, by the richness of its characters and story, the poetry of its language, the fragrance of decadence that clung to its pages, and by its vision of art and aestheticism as ends unto themselves. I had by that time decided upon a career as a composer and was determined to one day turn the novel into an opera. I remember once when I was attending school the teacher asked each student to name in turn the most influential book he or she had ever read and briefly to explain why. Most of the answers were predictable: The Bible, The Boyscout Handbook, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, etc. It came my turn and I named The Picture of Dorian Gray. The teacher sniffed, said “I certainly hope not!” and moved on with alacrity to the next student.

Condemned in its own day as “immoral,” it is the most moral of books, and one whose lesson in its mythic simplicity has lost none of its relevance with the passing of time. Unlike Dorian’s picture, this is a work of art which has not aged. Wilde’s achievement is extraordinary: he is one of a handful of modern writers who have created a story of such universality as to instantly become part of the collective unconscious of our culture. Indeed, it has a mythic resonance to equal the best of the Greek myths. The least literary man on the street knows what Dorian Gray’s picture represents, even if this popular conception of The Picture of Dorian Gray is of a horror story, a view no doubt engendered by the public’s familiarity with one of the several movie versions rather than with the original novel. Wilde’s story functions on many levels simultaneously. Horror story, yes, but also a tragic romance, a Victorian morality tale, an aesthetic treatise, and a philosophical examination of the amorality of art and the question of appearances versus reality, i.e., form versus content.

This mixture makes for great richness just as Wilde’s style does, an eclectic blend of Romanticism, Aestheticism and Classicism, where the oddest of bedfellows from the ancient Greeks to Huysmans have managed to create an offspring with a quite individual and unmistakable voice. And although Wilde’s own style is a hybrid, the concept of art is to him a very pure thing, a thing of great density and weight that, when divorced from a moral imperative, has the power to corrupt. It is a very sacred thing, but like all sacred things, must be approached with fear and trembling, with fear for one’s mortal soul. Basil tried to put all his life into his art and so paid dearly; Dorian tried to make his life his art, and paid even more dearly. Both were acts of blasphemy, and, in Wilde’s very moral vision, both were punished. In this, one senses the reason for Wilde’s own artistic detachment, the distancing he was always trying to achieve by way of his wit. Wilde loved art, and, since “each man kills the thing he loves,” Wilde kept his distance from his own art.

The character of Lord Henry is in a sense Wilde’s alter ego in the novel, even to the point of being described as looking like Wilde. He is the character who sets off all the events without actually getting his own hands dirty. He is always present, ready to summarize the proceedings in one clever remark or devastating aphorism. In a certain sense Henry’s aphorisms are a brilliant metaphor for the novel itself: If one examines the true meaning of these aphorisms, one finds them to be meaningless. Henry seduces Dorian by the clever way in which he says things, rather than by what he actually says. Again, it is the seduction of form over content, appearances versus reality.

Working with The Picture of Dorian Gray seemed like being handed a wonderful gift of a libretto. The novel is already very musically structured in its overall dramatic form, in the echoes and recapitulations of various themes and characters, in the poetry of its language. Very little new material was added, mostly in the love scene between Dorian and Sibyl, and in Sibyl’s final scene, where I transposed some lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Sibyl’s pet name for Dorian was changed from “Prince Charming” to “Romeo.”

Musically speaking, I have aimed for a simplicity of style, an almost classical restraint in keeping with Wilde’s own Apollonian ideals. My goal was to create a through-composed work whose two acts would each be a fully sung, unbroken symphonic span. The entire opera is based on a twelve-note row which is used in a tonal context. It is first heard at the beginning of the opera in pizzicato cellos and basses. It is harmonized as Dorian’s theme and then as the painting’s theme. As the painting disintegrates and becomes corrupted, so does its theme. The twelve consecutive scenes of the opera occur in the keys of the consecutive pitches of the note-row. In this manner the entire opera becomes one grand passacaglia, a variation of Dorian’s theme, a picture of the picture—the tonal structure generated by a non-tonal device—a further metaphor for the form/content divide that generates the novel’s dramatic structure.

It is seldom commented or noticed that at the end of the work, the only character who is left alive is Lord Henry. It seems only fitting that he, who is after all Wilde’s persona in the book, would be the only one left, perhaps to dismiss it all with one final world-weary and cynical aphorism.

January 1996, New York City

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