SILVER: The Thief of Love

If the audience for new American art music seems small and is (supposedly) shrinking, then the
audience for new American operas is even more exclusive. All too often, freshly composed
operas, if they are performed at all, are promptly shelved—even when they are received with
much praise from opera enthusiasts. Opera production is simply too expensive and labor
intensive for unproven works to receive many performances; and without the exposure afforded
by a long run, there is little chance for an opera to enter the repertory. Filmmaker John Feldman
has attempted to break this oft commented-upon cycle with his film production of The Thief of
, an opera by his wife, Sheila Silver.

Composed between 1981 and 1986 and revised in 2000, The Thief of Love received its premiere
in March 2001 by the Stony Brook Opera and Orchestra conducted by David Lawton. In the days
leading up to the performance, Silver and Lawton were so impressed with the students’ work, as
well as with the lighting, set design, costumes, and makeup, that they readily agreed when
Feldman offered to digitally record the performances. Feldman used several cameras to record
both the Friday evening and Sunday afternoon performances, rather than stationing a single
camera in the back of the auditorium, a practice that many small opera companies use to create
an archival tape of their performances.

Over the next three years Feldman edited the footage on his own time and between projects to
produce a film version of The Thief of Love complete with subtitles special effects, and
thoughtful use of the various camera angles. In a panel discussion following the DVD’s premiere
screening on December 4, 2006 at the 92nd Street Y’s Steinhardt Building, Feldman pointed out
that the film production was more or less a gift to his wife. The cost of his time, had she been
required to pay him is far beyond the budget of most university opera companies. This
production of The Thief of Love is a rare opportunity for viewers to experience a production that
otherwise would be available only to the members of the audience present on March 9 and 11,

For The Thief of Love, Silver wrote her own libretto based on an 18th-century Bengali court tale
as translated in 1963 by Edward C. Dimock. Vidya (Gwendolynn Hillman) is an independent
and learned princess who has vowed to marry the man who can beat her in debate. Over the
course of the opera, she is seduced by a clever prince (James Brown)–the title character–who
has challenged her to a debate. The prince sneaks into Vidya’s bedroom with the help of his
former nursemaid and wins her heart with his good looks, clever poetry, and persistence in
wooing her. Through arguing with him, Vidya learns the “true meaning” of love, and sets aside
her previously insatiable appetite for knowledge. In the public debate the next day the
prince—now disguised again as an ascetic—uses Vidya’s own words against her to run the debate
to his favor. Vidya, realizing it is the handsome man from the night before cedes the debate
immediately. It is surprising to say the least, to encounter a work created in the United States in
the late twentieth century that does not at all consider the gender politics of the story told.
Vidya’s story, while not the most egregiously patriarchal tale ever told, could certainly have been
treated with some irony. One character who comes close to redeeming the plot with her playful
treatment of and reaction to gender stereotypes is Hira, played by Manami Hattori. The
redemptive quality of Hira’s character is due in part to the excellent execution of the role by
Hattori. A lesser actress would not have achieved such subtle facial expressions or dead-on

Overall, the student cast performed admirably, though at times they were over-powered by the
orchestra. The imbalance may have been more the fault of the recording equipment than lack of
ability to project; Act I was affected by irritating background noises—some from the audience,
some from the fountain on stage, and others that were unidentifiable on first hearing. In Acts II
and III, these noises receded considerably.

Another somewhat troubling element of the film production was the prominence of “sub” titles,
which actually appear all over the screen, not just below the action. Feldman explained that for
him, once the decision was made to include titles, they became a part of the performance, not just
something that one pretends not to look at. While I found the title obtrusive at times, I commend
his use of color-coded text for the different characters’ utterances, and also for the careful timing
of the appearance of the texts. I admit, I am a little old-fashioned and I prefer my subtitles tiny
and always in the same place on the screen.

The Thief of Love DVD accomplished what its creators set out to do: it makes accessible an
entertaining work that would otherwise be unavailable. The Thief of Love is available for
purchase through the filmmaker’s site and you can also find it through

Megan Jenkins

image_description=The Thief of Love
product_title=Sheila Silver: The Thief of Love
product_by=Gwendolyn Hillman, James Brown, Manami Hattori, Michael Douglas Jones, Myeongsook Park, Stony Brook Opera, David Lawton (cond.)
product_id=Hummingbird Films