a chamber opera in two acts
Music and Libretto by Janet Peachey
Wheel Ordeal is a two-act comic opera about buying a car. A manager and salesman at a car dealership plan to make huge profits by using all the gimmicks they can dream up to con their customers. However, the first victims, a husband and wife, turn out to be quite a challenge for the prowess of this sales team. A reluctant secretary aids the manager and salesman in their endeavors.
The two acts are separated by an instrumental interlude; within each act the material is divided into sections. The “sung dialog” portions are in a style ranging from accompanied recitative to arioso; the arias, duet, quartet, and quintet have a more formal structure.
Click here to listen to some excerpts from Wheel Ordeal.
Wheel Ordeal is a spoof on the consumerism and materialism that are so prevalent in contemporary American society. The subject of buying a car, a grueling and emotionally wrenching experience for many of us, provides a backdrop for exploring these themes that is humorous through its exaggerated melodrama. The characters are based on real people but are treated almost as caricatures, each epitomizing a particular trait: Gouge’s callousness; Buck’s greed; Louise’s indecisiveness; Andy’s submissiveness; Stacy’s shallowness. Through the ordeal of the car-buying process, three of the characters grow and change: Louise discovers that she can make decisions; Andy learns to assert himself; Stacy shows compassion and ingenuity. Only Gouge and Buck, the characters we all love to hate, remain as self-serving and corrupt as ever. But their aspirations are thwarted in the end as their profit margin from this aggravating and time-consuming sale dwindles to nothing.
This was a fun plot to set to music. I thoroughly enjoyed profiling the characters and depicting the comic moments, both musically and through the libretto. It was most challenging and exhilarating to compose the ensembles at the end of each act, where strands of plot converge and characters simultaneously express their opposing points of view and conflicting agenda.
The office and showroom of Deale’s Autoland, an automobile dealership; present day.
Mr. Gouge, manager of Deale’s Autoland, bass
Buck, a car salesman, tenor
Louise, a customer, soprano
Andy, Louise’s husband, baritone.
Stacy, secretary at the dealership, coloratura soprano
flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano, strings
about 96 minutes
Mr. Gouge, manager of Deale’s Autoland, is under pressure from Mr. Deale, the owner of the dealership, to pull out of a slump and sell more cars. Gouge, in turn, puts pressure on Buck, a salesman. Gouge and Buck delight in describing all the ways they can squeeze money from their customers.
Louise and Andy, a wife and husband, arrive. They urgently need to buy a car and have been shopping for some time. However, Louise cannot make up her mind and won’t be satisfied until she finds just the right car, at the right price. Andy doesn’t care which one they buy and just wants to get it over with, but he humors his domineering wife.
Gouge and Buck size up the couple and their car, a potential trade-in. Buck does a sales routine to get the couple interested in a test-drive. When it turns out that they are not trading in their car, Gouge tells Buck to request a cash deposit so that they will still have leverage over the couple. Andy is compliant but Louise refuses to pay and walks out, dragging Andy with her. Gouge screams at Buck, who then runs after the couple and waives the deposit.
Louise thinks she and Andy are being given special treatment and will get a really good deal on a car. Andy just hopes they can get it over with quickly. Gouge threatens to fire Buck if he lets the customers walk out again. Buck assures Gouge that he has the couple right where he wants them.
Buck takes the couple out on a lengthy test drive; there is a musical interlude reminiscent of car sounds.
Stacy, secretary at the dealership, talks to her friend on the phone about how she hates her job and only puts up with it to support her shopping habit. She makes plans to meet her friend at the mall after work.
Buck finally returns with the couple. They have driven many cars, and Louise has found something wrong with every single one. Buck is finally able to talk her into buying a silver-gray Citrona. Buck reports to Gouge that the couple are buying “the worst lemon on the lot” at a highly inflated price. But when Louise balks at following through on the sale, he drops the price substantially.
Louise deplores her life-long indecisiveness. She regrets her choice and finally decides that she wants to buy a different car, a red Fatale.
Buck agrees to switch cars, but quietly tells Andy that the new car will be more expensive than the first one. It is time for Stacy to leave work but Gouge tells her she must stay to retype the contract.
Andy hopes that the contract will be typed quickly, before Louise changes her mind again. He resolves to stand up to his wife and make decisions for her when she vacillates.
Louise finds out that the Fatale will cost more than the Citrona and doesn’t want to buy it, after all. Andy’s new resolve evaporates and he is powerless to influence his wife. Buck has already dropped the price so low that he has no more room for negotiating. He loses his temper and threatens Louise. Louise gets upset and insists that Andy take her home. Buck promises to ask Gouge one more time to lower the price and Louise reluctantly agrees to stay.
Gouge berates Buck for his inability to sell the couple a car. Stacy is desperate to get off work but Gouge won’t allow her to leave before the sale is consummated. Buck suggests that if she’s in such a hurry to leave she should be the one to persuade the couple to buy the car. Stacy protests, but Gouge loves the idea and threatens to fire her if she refuses.
Because of her expertise on shopping, Stacy is able to convince Louise that it is worth paying more to get a car she really likes. Meanwhile, Buck persuades Andy that he should put his foot down and force his wife to make a decision. Louise and Andy simultaneously (but independently) decide to buy the red Fatale, at the higher price. As Stacy is typing the final contract, the phone rings and Gouge answers it. It is Mr. Deale, wanting to know how sales are going. Under pressure to sell at least one car, Gouge rushes in and offers the couple the Fatale at the lower price. Buck is unable to stop him in time, so the sale is made with no profit. Louise and Andy walk out with the keys to their new car. Buck, Gouge, and Stacy rejoice that these difficult customers have finally left. A crash is heard offstage; Louise and Andy return. To the consternation of Buck, Gouge, and Stacy, they announce that they have totaled their new car and want to start the car-buying process all over again.