The unconventional French composer Achille-Claude Debussy was only 55 years old when he passed away from colon cancer in Paris, France, in 1918. Yet, during his life, despite his reputation as a womanizer, he made enough of an impression to join the pantheon of music greats and effectively become Hershey Felder’s eighth onstage incarnation in his “Great Composer Series,” following Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Bernstein, Liszt, Berlin, and Tchaikovsky. Now extended through June 16th at the Wallis, the Los Angeles Premiere of “Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story” captures the life story and indelibly maverick pieces of Debussy — such as “L’après-midi d’un faune” and the iconic “Clair de lune” — while also intertwining Felder’s own autobiographical link to Debussy, making this the one-man virtuoso’s most personal and poignant work after 6,000+ performances.
As performer, playwright, pianist, and composer, Felder is completely accountable to himself from the moment his performances begin. With nobody to lean on and nobody else who can cover for a single misstep, the pressure is on him to be consistently seamless in telling a historical narrative, acting out scenes, and playing exceedingly difficult songs with all eyes on him for the duration of 90 minutes. With combed-back hair and a goatee (Anastasia Pautova is hair and wig designer), and fitted with a silver suit (Stacey Nezda is costume designer), Felder entrancingly manipulates time and space for his audience members as he personalizes Debussy while interpolating his own experiences amid two gas lamp-lit bridges overlooking the Seine with his grand piano in the middle (Felder is also the scenic designer and coincidentally lives near this area in Paris). The evocatively French landscape and wispy projections by lighting and projection designer, Christopher Ash, who is inspired by James Whistler’s sketches (a favorite of Debussy’s), assists with the immersive and compelling association between Debussy and Felder.
As such, “A Paris Love Story” segues back and forth between Debussy’s accounts, as well as Felder’s own recollections during a trip to Paris at age 19, which takes us through to a visit of Debussy’s old flat, and all the famous monuments, the most important of which for Felder is the Point Zero spot at the hallowed Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, where he must stand on at midnight on March 25th, the date of Debussy’s death. There is a poetic singularity to this performance style not just because it is directed smoothly by Trevor Hay, who ensures that the transitions are impeccable, but because it makes perfect sense from Felder’s standpoint.
In fact, Felder’s mother is the intermediary between Debussy’s world and Felder’s own, as she loved Debussy’s music so much that the last thing she told her 13-year-old son before tragically dying of cancer at only 35 was “always remember the moonlight.” Felder’s mother took much solace in Debussy’s dreamlike music when she suffered from agonizing pain just as Debussy did in the latter years of his life (“Gardens in the Rain” here symbolizes the volatile effects of cancer on the human body), relying on his wife Emma Bardac and his daughter, nicknamed “Chouchou,” to keep him going, including dedicating a song to Chouchou and her doll, entitled “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” which Felder plays with great whimsy. Both Debussy and Felder’s mother died in late March and, as far as Felder was concerned, when he took a solo trip to the City of Romance six years later, he was in pursuit of not just Debussy but his fallen mother, which makes “A Paris Love Story” so remarkably heartfelt.
When “A Paris Love Story” unfolds, we learn that what Felder realized about Debussy all those years ago during his inaugural trip to Paris, and even up until now, is bittersweet. On one hand, because Debussy financially struggled as a composer, he looked for any means to boost his profile even if it meant leaving longstanding relationships for the allure of another woman who could offer more prestige and money. This happened on many an occasion, resulting in two of his rejected lovers, Gaby Dumont and Lilly Texier, attempting suicide, though luckily neither succeeded in doing much physical harm to themselves. The truth is, until he finally settled with Emma, Debussy was at best amoral and at worst cruel. On the other hand, as Felder might note in the Q&A portion after his performances, while these sins were virtually unforgivable, Debussy was a changed man before he died and, throughout his life, seemed to atone for his misjudgements by writing music that remained pure and uncorrupted.
More so than channelling his best qualities into his music, Debussy actually created a new musical vocabulary (i.e., jazz), which subsequent musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and even George Gershwin worked within. Felder particularly shines when, as Debussy, he explains this approach to a naturalistic style that is more subtle rather than over-the-top, like with Brahms and Wagner. Debussy listened to his surroundings by “not painting in sound what [he saw] in nature but painting in sound what [he felt] when [he] engaged with nature.” And so, he laid the groundwork for a type of music that was akin to descriptive imagery, as in the sound of walking (by using chromatic arpeggio), the splashing of water such as in “La mer” (by incorporating a 16th note with a dotted 8th), and, most of all, by using unexpected harmonies as well as the augmented 4th and the whole tone scale to evoke the echo of “a world of dreams.” Debussy didn’t mind breaking the rules of music theory to the extent that the key one was in when playing a piece was almost unknowable — a freeing and liberating notion. There was something ingenious about how Debussy explored endlessly as a master composer, to find innovative insights in the simplicity of even the Eastern pentatonic scale (only “five notes in various configurations”), en route to becoming the forerunner we now know him as today. Needless to say, the passion and awe with which Felder imparts this information is worth the price of admission alone.
Certainly, the connected, dual narrative in “A Paris Love Story” enables Felder to be much more than just a mere vessel in portraying Debussy, as it allows him to evince his own sense of identity as an elite musician and a man who identifies with Debussy on an otherworldly personal level. And in the Parisian voyage that the audience happily goes on to find Debussy, we also discover Felder whose love for his mother touchingly persists even 37 years later, expressed with a forthright honesty by an individual who courageously recalls his own story.
For more information about “Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, CA, please visit thewallis.org/debussy