The Great American Opera


Choosing the single, genuine Great American Opera seems even more of a quandary than choosing the Great American Novel (Moby Dick? Sister Carrie? The Sun Also Rises?) or the Great American Play (Long Day’s Journey Into Night? A Streetcar Named Desire?). Of the three dozen or so serious candidates by American composers— dating from 1934’s Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson to a Gertrude Stein libretto— not one work has established itself as supreme the way Boris Godunov represents Russia or The Bartered Bride stands for Czechoslovakia. The United States, by the way, isn’t alone in this problem. Does England build altars to Purcell, Handel (its greatest immigrant in any field), Britten, Tippett, Sullivan, or all of the above? Does France carry the banner of Rameau, Bizet, Berlioz, Massenet (God forbid), or Debussy?

In the United States, trying to single out the champ is particularly futile. Why? It’s the recent and current proliferation of activity by composers who, in former decades, were discouraged by minimal prospects of performance. What composer who needs to feed and shelter himself or herself and family would spend two years writing an expensive-to-
produce opera and trying to peddle it to a theater chained to the bottom line? A fiscally sensible alternative is to funnel inspiration into a symphony or string quartet between bouts of teaching and pursuing grants.

True, earlier decades of this exhausted century had their operatic fits and starts. Only a year after Four Saints came Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which, far from incidentally, is many people’s candidate for the Great American Opera, what with its vigor of action and characterization and its harvest of irresistible melody. True, its sex-drugs-and-violence story is told unsubtly and condescendingly in the extreme, but the opera’s power in any adequate performance overcomes the usual objections. The Met proved that in the 1980s, and New York City Opera aims to confirm it next year.

So much for the 1930s. Apart from the Thomson-Stein Mother of Us All (one of the finest American operas for several reasons) and Roger Sessions’s vivid one-act The Trial of Lucullus (from Brecht), it wasn’t until the middle and late ’50s that operatic output surged. At the latter time, some major talents, probably encouraged by foundation generosity and opera managers’ occasional twinges of progressive conscience, got their work onstage. The same City Opera that indulged Robert Ward for his The Crucible made important room for Hugo Weisgall’s stunning Six Characters in Search of an Author and Robert Kurka’s hilariously scathing The Good Soldier Schweik. In the middle ground was Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, soapy but tuneful opera that almost gives sentimentality a good name. As for the musically “hard stuff” in that decade and the next, it was an embarrassment that Sessions had to take his operatic masterpiece, the atonally complex and politically provocative Montezuma to Berlin in 1964 for a world premiere.

The arrival of these pieces and dozens of lesser specimens evidently gave budding composers, as well as non-operatic veterans, the impetus to try their own hand at this game. An even more flavorful carrot has been the well-documented but still amazing growth in the number of American opera companies, many of them willing to risk box-office profits for the prestige of premiering important composers.

The Met, that once and perhaps future bastion of bread and butter, does go wild from time to time. Keeping the discussion to American operas, it had wild success with John Corigliano’s neoromantically phantasmagoric The Ghosts of Versailles and mild success with Philip Glass’s elegantly minimalist-plus-
impressionistic Voyage. City Opera hit the jackpot a few years ago with Weisgall’s Esther (a musicodramatic armored tank) and last year with an import from the restlessly enterprising Santa Fe Opera, Tobiss Picker’s scorching Emmeline. And this City Opera spring season boasts the stark, riveting second production (by way of Glimmerglass in Cooperstown) of Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden (1965).

I would call no one an idiot for electing any of these last three as best American opera,
although my ballot says Montezuma. Other runners-up— because of their iconically American subjects as well as their considerable musical strength— would include Leon Kirchner’s Lily, an in-your-face treatment of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, William Bolcom’s McTeague, and Anthony Davis’s X and Tania (about the Patty Hearst kidnapping). Important American operas on non-American subjects and literary sources must include Libby Larson’s Mrs. Dalloway (sentiment, not sentimentality), Shulamit Ran’s Between Two Worlds, S. Ansky’s Dybbuk (supercharged), and John Harbison’s A Full Moon in March.

The vast increase in American venues accounts not only for these and other audience-worthy operas, and surely for what’s coming down the highway. This month, Houston Grand Opera unveils Tod Machover’s Resurrection, based on Tolstoy. Machover, whose adventures in computer music have cut a worldwide swath of both acclaim and resentment, here scores (unusually for him) for unamplified voices and instruments, but he doesn’t exclude electronic sound coloring. In June, Opera Theater of St. Louis gives the first performances of The Merchant and the Pauper by Paul Schoenfield, who has fired up some excitement with other pieces. Then in July, Glimmerglass Opera premieres a triple bill umbrella-
titled Central Park, whose operas by Deborah Drattell, Robert Beaser, and Michael Torke take place in that joggers’ and criminals’ paradise. The libretto’s are by Wendy Wasserstein, Terrence McNally, and A.R. Gurney. Central Park goes to City Opera next November and will be televised by PBS.

Next December, Harbison’s The Great Gatsby springs up at the Met. In October, Bolcom returns to Lyric Opera of Chicago, scene of his McTeague premiere, with his new View From the Bridge, libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Arthur Miller. (The work will come to the Met a few years later.) And in September, Daniel Barenboim’s Unter der Linden company in Berlin gives the world premiere of Elliott Carter’s first opera, a one-act comedy called What Next? Barenboim will bring it to Chicago the following spring in a concert performance with his Chicago Symphony. Carter says his inspiration came from Jacques Tati’s movie Traffic. With a libretto by Paul Griffiths, the piece involves six characters in search of what I presume to be normal life after a car crash. The search is hampered by non-communication, but enlivened— if a recent look at some of the score is an indication— by a superimposition of long-held vocal phrases that resemble skywriting.

The jury probably will be out forever on what the Great American Opera is, but Carter’s new piece is surely part of what’s next.