Talk Like An Opera Geek: Pioneering An American Sound

May 9, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 12:27 pm

Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.

Lately in this Opera Geek series, we've been following opera's path chronologically, citing a few significant milestones along the way — from the art form's earliest days through the Baroque, the age of Mozart, bel canto, big hitters like Verdi and Wagner, and trends in postwar Europe. Today, a brief look at opera here at home.

As the post-WWII economy flourished, opera in America blossomed. From composers and singers to audiences, philanthropy and new venues, everything operatic seemed to be on the rise. New opera houses sprouted up in the 1950s and '60s in Dallas, Houston, Santa Fe, Tulsa, Minneapolis, Seattle and Louisville. Opera also grew at the academic level, as opera workshops became more prominent in universities.

The People's Opera

Even before that opera boom, there was the New York City Opera, founded during the war years in 1943 and dubbed "the people's opera" by mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

During the next two decades, the NYCO staged more than 25 American works, and attracted support from large companies like the Ford Foundation, which helped fund exceptional seasons in the late 1950s. In April 1959 alone, the NYCO mounted operas by 12 Americans, including the world premiere of Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author, plus Mark Blitzstein's Regina, Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium and Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, starring the young Beverly Sills.

The rugged American spirit of Baby Doe, set in a 19th-century Colorado mining town, seemed to follow the trend of rural operas composed in the late 1950s and early '60s. Aaron Copland's folksy The Tender Land centers on a Midwestern farm, Carlisle Floyd's lyrical Susannah unfolds in a Tennessee valley, and Robert Ward's austere The Crucible tells the tale of the New England witch trials.

Steadily, America could be more proud of its operas, and according to Floyd, composers were producing "a type of lyric theater that could stand without apology, yet in graceful acknowledgement of its predecessors in Europe." After the NYCO premiere of The Crucible in 1961, critic Winthrop Sargeant wrote, "If a finer opera has been written since the days of Strauss and Puccini, I have not heard it." Even the more traditional Metropolitan Opera in New York was encouraged. General manager Rudolph Bing premiered Samuel Barber's Vanessa in 1958. The opera's libretto was by Gian Carlo Menotti, who had a string of hit operas — The Telephone, The Consul, Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Saint of Bleeker Street — in the 1940s and '50s.

Beginning in the 1960s, composers such as Weisgall (Six Characters), Robert Kurka (The Good Soldier Schweik), Ned Rorem (Miss Julie), Marvin David Levy (Mourning Becomes Elektra) and Jack Beeson (Lizzie Borden) introduced modern sounds into their scores, leaving behind the neo-romantic tone of Copland and Floyd. Yet at the same time, Dominic Argento (still an under-appreciated opera composer) continued to carry the melodic torch. In 1964, he founded the Minnesota Opera, which championed American works and served as a showcase for some of his dozen or so sweepingly romantic operas — Postcards from Morocco, The Dream of Valentino and The Aspern Papers (below).

Minimalist Reactions

Meanwhile, the young Philip Glass was looking beyond America for inspiration. In 1966, he traveled to India, where he soaked up the sounds that influenced his own brand of what would soon be called minimalism. Glass grew up in Baltimore, studied at Juilliard and then in Paris (where he met Ravi Shankar) with Nadia Boulanger, and returned in 1967 to form the Philip Glass Ensemble. Eschewing the term minimalism, Glass describes his music in terms of "repetitive structures." It was the seemingly monotonous repetition, in those early days, that some people found hard to stomach, as Glass recently told the BBC's David Sillito.

"We went out with a piece called Dance in 1979, which is now considered a masterpiece," Glass says, adding that back then, "people would throw things at us and scream at us."

By now, Glass has written more than 20 operas, but it was his first, Einstein on the Beach — a 1976 collaboration with stage director Robert Wilson — that turned the opera world on its head. At five hours, Einstein, which incorporates music, dance, spoken text and pantomime, has no plot.

"One of the problems with postmodern theater, or writing, or music, is what do we do about the narrative, because we are trying to get rid of it," Glass says. "The point is that this iconic figure leads us through a series of images and movements that are reflective of Einstein's world." Einstein was the first of a trilogy of operas celebrating heroic men of science, politics and religion. Glass followed in 1980 — in a more lyrical style — with Satyagraha, based on the early career of Gandhi (with a libretto in Sanskrit), and in 1984 with Akhnaten, inspired by the spiritual practices of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Mythologizing History

Following after Glass and his minimalist contemporaries Steve Reich and Terry Riley came John Adams, who borrowed some of their repetition and seamlessly blended it with more traditional structures, plus pop and jazz. Like Glass, the protagonists in Adams' operas are figures from current history, beginning with the 1987 Houston debut of Nixon in China, inspired by Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China. Adams has said that he wanted to find our own mythology in our own contemporary history.

Adams would follow in 1991 with The Death of Klinghoffer (based on the real-life hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro), and in 2005 with Dr. Atomic, inspired by the story of physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb.

Other contemporary figures lifted into the art of opera include Malcolm X (Anthony Davis), Harvey Milk (Stewart Wallace), Valentino (Dominic Argento) and Jackie Kennedy (Michael Daugherty).

Back To The Future

Since the groundbreaking works of Glass and Adams, opera in America has meandered in many directions. There are young, tonal-based composers with a touch of the old school, writing works of dramatic beauty, such as Tobias Picker's Emmeline (Santa Fe, 1996), Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (San Francisco, 2000), Daron Hagen's Amelia (Seattle, 2010), Christopher Theofanidis' Heart of a Soldier (San Francisco, 2011), and the latest Pulitzer winner, Kevin Puts' Silent Night (Minneapolis, 2011). There are the old-school avant-gardists: Morton Feldman's Neither (Rome, 1977) and Elliott Carter's What Next (Berlin 1999). And then there are the operatic futurists, like Tod Machover, the MIT professor and creator of hyperinstruments, whose opera Death and the Powers (Boston, 2011) features robots, a musical chandelier and a protagonist who uploads himself into a system in order to last forever.

Opera in America continues to adapt, borrow and embrace new ideas, from the visionary to the traditional. And, although the economy may not be booming the way it was after the war, operas are written and performed every day. Where do we go from here, operatically speaking? Perhaps only those composers putting pen to paper can tell us. I, for one, am more than willing to go along for the ride.

Have a favorite American opera? Let us know about it in the comments section.

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