Scandal in Opera? Powder Her Face

Margaret Whigman Sweeney Campbell, duchess of Argyll aka "The dirty Duchess"(Photo: Wikipedia)
Margaret Whigman Sweeney Campbell, duchess of Argyll aka "The dirty Duchess"(Photo: Wikipedia)

The New York City Opera, a home for this writer for many years, has been transformed from a first-class opera company at New York’s Lincoln Center to a nomadic group of estimable musicians performing throughout New York City.

Presently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the short-seasoned City Opera is presenting Thomas Ades’s Powder Her Face. Ades is a terrific young British composer.

His take on Shakespeare, The Tempest was a big hit in New York last year, and was seen internationally via the Met’s HD series. Ades has been called everything: bad boy, wunderkind, the new Benjamin Britten and a charlatan. I’m a fan.

Both The Tempest and Powder Her Face have been performed all over the world. Thomas Ades is no hit shot wonder. The New York City Opera was always a home for such cutting edge, controversial opera and with Powder Her Face, the company at last respects it’s own history.

Margaret Campbell (1912-1993), born Ethel Margaret Whigman was a red haired beauty.  She caught the eye of the Duke of Argyll and married him in 1951.  Our Margaret had previously been Mrs. Charles Sweeny, and Cole Poter paid tribute to her in ‘You’re the Top.’ The lyric goes You’re Mrs. Sweeney, You’re Mussolini, You’re Mickey Mouse!”

Becoming Her Grace The Duchess of Argyll wasn’t enough to tame red-haired Margaret. She loved ‘em and left ‘em. Bell boys, cab drivers, Lords of parliament, they lady was thought to be insatiable. A stash of very naughty Polaroids led to a divorce action filed by the Duke of Argyll in 1965. The photos left nothing, absolutely nothing to the imagination.

The judge lectured Margaret for her obscene notoriety for four hours. The duke, no shrinking violet himself, was granted his divorce nisi and Margaret, all of Margaret and many parts of many others were all over the front pages.

Powder Her Face makes an opera out of Margaret’s hungry life and her downfall. We meet her broke, living in shabby splendor at a posh hotel where’s she’s facing eviction. The New York City Opera has a lovely singer called Alison Cook as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.  She’s surrounded by 24 naked men, The New York Times counted,  a screechy coloratura maid and a baritone playing more than one lover, plus the irate hotel manager.

Margaret’s leading aria has become infamous. She needs to sing demanding music while otherwise engaged in an activity that would seem to preclude singing. But that’s opera for you.