In 1994, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Passion opened and was savaged by theatregoers who were repulsed by the characterization of Fosca, an invalid woman who suffers from convulsive fits, and her relentless pursuit of Giorgio, a handsome young Captain. Equally problematic for audiences was Giorgio giving up beautiful, seductive Clara for unattractive, obsessive Fosca. People would applaud whenever Fosca had a meltdown; during one performance, someone yelled “Die, Fosca! Die!” from the balcony.
Based on Ettore Scola’s film Passione d’Amore which in turn was based on a 19th-century novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti who was associated with the Scapigliatura movement. This anti-conformist movement rejected bourgeois values and presented provocative work (such as via disturbing ‘Other’ like Fosca) which violated ‘respectable behaviour’ and conventional art forms of the time. The artists of the movement attempted to erase any difference between art and life, foreshadowing librettist James Lapine on one of the major reasons of audience discomfort – “The show deals with a lot of things people don’t want to deal with, like being passionate about something.”
FOSCA FUGUE is a performance art piece that distils the songs sung by Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion into a concentrated exploration of obsession and the Other. In redirecting the words originally sung to Giorgio towards Art and the audience, it comments on and is counterposed to audiences’ bourgeois sentimentality and sensibilities. The representation of the Other in this context brackets the enduring bourgeois tiltillation with difference (be it denigration or celebration) and desire to rob them of their agency. The fugal form of the piece comes from the repeated musical motifs that weave through the different songs, as well as the structure and stretto of the accompanying actions.
The story struck some audiences as ridiculous. They refused to believe that anyone, much less the handsome Giorgio, could come to love someone so manipulative and relentless, not to mention physically repellent, as Fosca. As the perennial banality would have it, they couldn’t “identify’ with the main characters.
– Stephen Sondheim
PERFORMED & CONCEIVED BY : STEPHEN CHEN | Performance length: 30 mins | PREMIERED : 06/13