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‘Tonya and Nancy,’ a soap opera minus soap

Figure skating's most infamous incident, now set to music
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Tufts music student Abigail Al-Doory sought inspiration for her opera, she looked not to Wagner’s “Ring” cycle but to the Olympic rings, where themes like power, envy and greed are plentiful.

In “Tonya and Nancy: The Opera,” Al-Doory provides 18 movements on the scandal that turned the once-dainty sport of figure skating into a soap opera of whacking, wailing and time spent in jail.

Scheduled for two Tuesday night performances, the production portrays the skaters not as rivals but as a pair, singing for the audience’s sympathy as the tawdry affair unfolds.

“I think they had a lot in common, which is what we wanted to draw out in the opera,” said Al-Doory, who composed the music to complete her masters degree. “They both figured out they had to reclaim their identities. It’s a note of hope.”

More Peggy Fleming than Renee Fleming, “Tonya and Nancy” follows the lines of “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” a London hit based on the equally lowbrow world of daytime talk TV. Al-Doory takes the well-known rivalry between the skaters and recasts it as one in which they both struggle to overcome personal troubles and public perception.

“We, as a society, allowed this to happen to two young girls. They’re building up their entire lives for this moment. And who are they after that?” Al-Doory said. “It can’t help being absurd and funny because of the situation. But it’s serious.

“I really believe in the story. We’re not just making fun of people. This isn’t a parody.”

Even so, she’ll have a hard time selling a ticket to Kerrigan, who said Monday she’d been aware of the production but wasn’t planning to attend.

“I lived it,” the skater said. “What do I need to watch it for?”

She’ll miss Margaret Hunter (Nancy) and Kristen Sergeant (Tonya) open with dueling news conferences before the action flashes back to the knee-whacking and follows them through the Olympic skateoff to their futures.

Nancy becomes a wife and mother; Harding, banned from skating, joins the Faustian freak show that is women’s boxing.

“The difference is,” Harding sings, “you don’t get in trouble for hitting her.”

Tonya in the leadThat this is “Tonya and Nancy,” and not the other way around, is no accident. Only in opera — or its schlockier, soapier offspring — would a convicted Olympic also-ran get top billing over a squeaky-clean silver medalist.

“She is the more fascinating character. And, also, it sounds better to me,” librettist Elizabeth Searle said at rehearsal last weekend. “I don’t think there’s any way to look at Tonya’s history and not feel some degree of sympathy.”

Harding never leaves the stage during the 40-minute production, which will be performed near Harvard Square. Breaking from the made-for-TV mold, though, she is not put on display for mockery or scorn.

Kristen Sergeant, as Tonya Harding, left, and Margaret Hunter, as Nancy Kerrigan, right, practice their fight choreography with Director Meron Langsner before a dress rehearsal of \"Tonya and Nancy: The Opera,\" in Cambridge, Mass., Monday, May 1, 2006. The opera about the Olympic figure skating rivals, which will be performed for the first time at the Zero Arrow Theater in Cambridge, Tuesday, May 2, is the work of Tufts music graduate student Abicail Al-Doory.Josh Reynolds / AP

The opera is a brutal expose on Harding’s home life, showing her as a victim of maternal and spousal abuse. You see her breakdown, perhaps contrived, as she warbles, “The lace is broke!” But you also see her face contort into real fear when her duet with husband Jeff Gillooly twists into a wife-beating tango.

Kerrigan also comes away tarnished. But every “Why me?” has an answer of “Why her?”

Nancy sings, “My mom is legally blind.” Tonya: “My mom is legally nuts.”

The casting makes the point, too: Jennifer Hazel plays both skaters’ mothers, taking the same cartoonish hairbrush she used to stroke Nancy’s brunette locks and using it to beat Harding for missing the medal stand at the Olympics.

But Nancy is no more satisfied.

“Silver?” she repeats joylessly after finishing second.

“It’s a pretty bald look at both of them based on headlines and stuff they said in real life,” Al-Doory said.

The costumes, the choreography, the scripted outcomes — what’s the big difference, anyway, between opera and figure skating?

Verdi had his elephants; Al-Doory has Stant, the bodybuilder and Navy Seal reject hired to knee-club Kerrigan at the 1994 Olympic trials and clear Harding’s path to Lillehammer. Gillooly planned the attack to incapacitate his wife’s top rival, but it turned her into a pariah and made Kerrigan even more of an American sweetheart.

Armen Nercessian (Stant) played the knee-whacking as vaudevillian comedy, dancing a soft-shoe with the collapsible baton in the place of a white-tipped cane that Fred Astaire might have used. Then, to shock the scene back into tragedy, he slams it into the stage.

Once the audience sees the club is for real, Stant surreptitiously swaps it with a foam one that will allow him to whack Kerrigan without holding back. Hunter, like Kerrigan before her, was surprised at how much it hurt.

“We didn’t play the knee attack for laughs,” Searle said.

Banging pianos to represent the clattering typewriters of the newspapermen who flit from Tony and Nancy (and only briefly to Oksana Baiul, who actually won the gold medal in Lillehammer). The chorus stands in for the skating judges, who make Kerrigan’s 5.9’s and Harding’s 5.5’s into a Gregorian chant.

The story is “dark and gloomy and absurd, but at the same time I was kind of moved by it,” Searle said.

Skating around literal truthSearle, who is Al-Doory’s aunt and already the author of one well-received novella about the skating scandal, was the Nancy and Tonya junkie back in ’94. She collected newspaper clips and took notes in the months before the Lillehammer Games.

About 80 percent of the libretto, or script, was taken from actual dialogue or newspaper headlines or the actual scores the skaters received in Lillehammer. Searle said she made the other 20 percent up to hold the plot together.

In the most obvious example, Kerrigan shrieks the apocryphal “Why me?” instead of her actual, “Why? Why?”

“It’s not entirely documentary truth,” director Meron Langsner. “I wouldn’t think that’s interesting.”

Al-Doory’s goal is to make the viewers rethink their impression of Harding and Kerrigan, maybe send them away with a tune in their heads.

If she fails, Nancy won’t be the only one wondering, “Why me?”

“Our adviser encouraged us to do a string quartet. I wanted to do something with voice and a story,” Al-Doory said, 72 hours before the performance. “I really should have done a string quartet.”