- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by John Eaton
F. Scott Fitzgerald was fascinated with the idea of being born old and getting younger over time. The plot “haunted” him for two years before he wrote the short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in January 1922. The story is said to have been inspired by a Mark Twain remark that “it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end”; coincidentally, Fitzgerald said that several weeks after completing it, he found a nearly identical plot in “Note-books” by Samuel Butler (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Before Gatsby: The First Twenty-six Stories [Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001], 501).
Whether the idea was original to Fitzgerald or not, one must give him credit for fleshing out the bare bones of the idea in his short story. Note that Fitzgerald did not write a novel; he kept the plot concise for his chosen genre. Fortunately, this means that others can create imaginative, adaptive works that may remain true to Fitzgerald’s plot, as in the opera being reviewed herein, or flesh out the details in entirely different ways, as in the Brad Pitt movie version. (The movie starts with the same basic idea but the plot differs in almost every detail.) Before viewing this opera, read the ironic, humorous story by Fitzgerald. It will help the viewer to follow the plot in this hour and a half performance.
The opera by John Eaton, with a libretto written by his daughter, Estela, was presented as the opening event of the American Composers Alliance’s Festival of American Music in 2010. As one might expect from a staged work, it strives to present the humorous moments of a serious story in order to entertain the audience. None-theless, the dissonance of the music makes it clear that the tale of Benjamin Button is not a happy, lighthearted one; Eaton uses his usual microtonal musical vocabulary to convey that mood. Interestingly, he says in the wonderfully detailed program notes that accompany this video that “the micro-tones are there to create not more dissonance, but more consonance.” I thought the music and lyrics were not well in sync because the accented notes tend to fall on unimportant words.
The work is in the English language and the singers are clearly understood. The stage production included the lyrics scrolling in the proscenium arch and they appear as subtitles in the video, wherein the proscenium arch is usually not filmed. A typically Eaton feature, present in this work, is the participation of the instrumentalists in the drama. The singers’ performances range from adequate for the musicians filling in on stage to strong for the leading roles. The costuming was a weak aspect of this production. The players assume multiple roles, and for quick changes, the costumes just suggest their current roles by wearing flimsy frontal costumes, which flap around somewhat. The sound was well done, except for Benjamin’s son, who’s microphone was inadequate.
As well as the curious tale itself, the opera is noteworthy for its reflection on 20th century institutions such as hospitals, schools and universities, and the military, and Fitzgerald’s canny grasp of the psychological underpinnings of family relations. These are themes that resonate today, despite changing tastes and fashion; we can relate to the common human condition. The irony, we come to find, as the librettist wrote in the program notes, is that “age is more of an occupation than a state of mind.” [End Page 165]