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The Great Dream: An American Opera

07/18/2014 12:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2014
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"If you live long enough you can write four operas," wrote composer and music commentator Virgil Thomson.

Philip Glass has penned at least 17; the fecund imagination of John Adams has so far brought forth two operas, a numbers musical, and an oratorio. Dominick Argento's 14 operas are a model of elegance and emotional integrity; William Bolcom's 10 are stylistically fearless and suave. In the near past, Gian Carlo Menotti created more than 25 "giovanni scuola" operas, two of which were awarded Pulitzer prizes.

Broadening the definition of lyric theater from opera (and operas which dip into "music theater" conventions -- another article about that sometime) to "shows" that dip periodically into operatic conventions, the living American champion has to be Stephen Sondheim, with his 16 shows (including his work as a lyricist), each one shot through with streaks, and sometimes great veins, of genius. John Kander, deeply sophisticated in his musical and cultural reference points, has created over 20 shows, each of which has a musical personality that springs directly from the characters in them and their musical era.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the wildly successful creative juggernaut, has written 20 shows. It intrigues me that the young theater composers I run into never cite him as an influence. When I worked as a copyist on Broadway we used to quip that somewhere in the world, at every moment of every day, Cats were singing.

George M. Cohan, "the man who owned Broadway," was an early pioneer in what became the "book musical," and was wildly prolific in every genre. Richard Rogers built on Cohan's legacy, and deepened it, with forty shows to his credit. Even my folks, when they attended a performance of the original production of "South Pacific" on Broadway during their Honeymoon, intuited that the through-composed (the ghost of Giuseppe Verdi's "parola scenica!") scene that blossoms into the seize the moment masterpiece, "Some Enchanted Evening" was a genre buster.

But it was, of course, George Gershwin, whose 18 shows all burst at the aesthetic seams, who fathered the Great Dream: the first truly American Opera. "Porgy and Bess" remains the benchmark, no matter how many European conventions one finds holding it together, no matter how much Ravel-esque noodling connects the set pieces, no matter how fraught our current culture's relationship may be with the libretto, it remains the home run with bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth.

No wonder Virgil hated "Porgy and Bess" so much. It caught lightning in a bottle, and he knew it.

The sketch above will doubtless insult the intelligence of aficionados of both genres of lyric theater who know that it's all much more complex and subtle than that. So many great composers left out. (Some of them friends -- sorry.) I've left out Mark Blitzstein, master of agitprop, painfully sophisticated, tilting at windmills, someone whose career during the Depression every ambitious young opera composer here in the States should examine closely for examples, both positive and negative.

I've left out the Disney mega-musicals that now dominate what was once the Great White Way and is now Main Street USA, crafted with the precision of spacecraft, ruthlessly manipulative, and sometimes ecstatically tuneful, of course. They're incredibly innovative, technically amazing, and, at their heart ... corporate.

Full disclosure: I've worked as a copyist, a proofreader, an editor, an orchestrator, an arranger, and as a ghostwriter, for Disney, Menotti, Bernstein, Webber's "Really Useful," and others. During the early '80s, before versions for small pit forces were commonly available, I did "pirate arrangements" for various productions of legitimate musicals, only to find, when I worked on Broadway during the '90s, that the producers themselves had begun paying for the same thing for their revivals of big orchestra shows. I conducted shows, and played piano in dozens of shows, and operas during the '70s-'90s.

I count myself among the group that includes Menotti and Adams. I have written (and seen through workshop, production, revision, and multiple revival) eight operas, a numbers musical, and am at work on my ninth and tenth.

I have followed inspiration where it (by way of the characters) demanded to go. This has resulted in a catalogue of operas that, listened to superficially, may seem wildly eclectic in musical style, in much the way that American operas in general seem to be all over the map. This misses the forest for the trees. The common ground between them all is a respect for the characters, and a fierce determination to enable them to sing the music that they demand to sing, not what might be determined to be "just pretty enough, and just ugly enough" to fill the time honorably, but not threateningly, between pre-theater drinks, and post theater supper.

My operatic rap sheet is pretty long. In "Vera of Las Vegas," set in the leisure-suited '70s, the characters required a cheek-by-jowl mash-up of '70s pop culture conventions and styles with 19th century operatic tropes. In "Amelia," they required music of greater poetic subtlety -- post-Barber, infused with late 20th century American regret.

For "Shining Brow," which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, I reached towards Barbershop Quartet, the blues, jaunty Protestant hymns, and the aching melodic leaps of Benjamin Britten. In "The Antient Concert," James Joyce and John McCormack faced off in a singing competition: naturally they used Irish folk songs as their beginning point. Jim's private music, however, was flinty, modernist, and clever, like the opera's librettist; John's music was warm, sentimental, and emotionally accessible.

In "Little Nemo in Slumberland," a "magic opera" sung by young people, introducing them to opera, I rang changes on the domestic, yet sophisticated theatrical language of Bernstein and Sondheim. "Bandanna" was set on the Texas-Mexican border, and featured illegal immigrants, Vietnam veterans, and a nearly pagan Catholicism who required a mélange of mariachi, agitprop, music theater, and Puccini-esque lyricism to come to life.

In "A Woman in Morocco," the characters commandeered the late Romantic melodramatic gestures of Korngold, and crossed them, unapologetically, with the over-ripe, unsettling sensuality of late Bessie Smith recordings.

What a journey these characters have taken me on, and how grateful I am to them all for giving me the opportunity to sing with their voices! As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, "I have learned by going where I have to go." For, it is their stories that inspire my music. I believe that it is the collision of opera producer's (in many cases) European attitude toward what constitutes the composer's voice and the quintessentially American (certainly more provocative) commitment of many American opera composers to let the melting pot of people that make up our culture sing the sort of music they need to sing that makes the current contemporary opera scene so exciting.

We're in an era of enormous "churn" right now, with funding and support flying into "second stage" initiatives, alternative venues, as well as main stage, non-commercial venues. For every Peter Gelb who sees the sea rushing out, there are dozens of innovative producers whose conception of what constitutes opera raises the tide. A lot of the new stuff is dross, of course; that's inevitable, and healthy. Many of the young composers handed the keys to the family car think that they've invented the wheels on which it rolls. No matter: it's all good.

"A Quiet Place," Leonard Bernstein's opera, in which he combined "Trouble in Tahiti" with newly-composed material, aptly reflected the vast changes that swept through the American cultural and musical landscape between the '50s and the '80s. Slaughtered by the critics the first couple of times out, it flowed smoothly and didn't seem particularly eclectic when the (sorely-missed) New York City Opera revived it during their final (2010) season. In a review of the opera that uses the word "sublime" at one point to describe Bernstein's score, Anthony Tommasini wrote of it in the Times: "The lingering criticism of "A Quiet Place" is that the piece is an awkward hybrid both musically and dramatically. This reflects the general criticism of Bernstein as a composer: that his head was so full of all kinds of music he could not find his own voice." Tony closes with the observation, "If only Bernstein could have been there to see the reaction to his opera."

I was there. The audience wept, and the ovation was a lengthy one. Bernstein never lived to see the Great Dream come true. But it's obvious now that Bernstein's voice did not elude him. Like Whitman, he understood that America is comprised of many voices. Like Whitman, he, during his brief time on the planet, tried to encompass them all in his creative, aesthetic embrace. The fact that composers like Bolcom, Adams, and others (I include myself) juxtapose styles and idioms with equal and due respect for each is now taken for granted.

We're in for a wild ride the next few years. Some really great operas are going to be produced. The Great Dream is coming true.