Opera, which of course originated in Italy, caught on from country to country in its own time and in its own way. French, German, and Italian opera are all different in many ways and these differences reflect the national trends and tastes of their countries. American opera has struggled against its European roots to find a style of its own. Originally brought to America through tours presenting traditional European operas, to the vaudeville interpretation, and the simultaneous development of jazz, blues, and musical theater, opera in America has searched for its own identity.
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, here is a brief celebration of operas that make me proud to be an American.
Scott Joplin, the extremely popular African-American composer of ragtime, wrote an opera reflecting the experience of black America. The style of his composition reflects other genres developing in the United states such as syncopated dance, barbershop quarter, gospel hymns and, of course, ragtime. In a 1986 production by Houston Grand Opera, here's the opera's final scene.
This might spark debate because this piece walks the thin line between musical theater, operetta, and opera. There is no mistaking the overtly operatic nature of the vocal writing by Jerome Kern. Yes, it contains dialogue but musically speaking it is a great example of American musical trends. Look to the famous recording featuring Jerry Hadley and Frederica von Stade as an example. And what bass hasn't broken out "Ol' Man River" from time to time? Here's Paul Robeson performing this classic tune.
3. Porgy and Bess
Again, this particular work sparks controversy over how it should be classified but Gershwin really hit the mark with a brilliant combination of classical training, fused with jazz, blue, gospel, and a story that reflects life on Catfish Row. Again, there is spoken dialogue, but it is the author's belief that "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now" are two of the most beautiful and challenging arias in the soprano repertoire. Listen to the iconic Leontyne Price as she sings "Summertime."
4. The Tender Land
Aaron Copland and his contemporaries set out to find a truly unique style of American classical composition. While some of his other works such as his ballet Rodeo and instrumental suite Appalachian Spring are his greatest achievements, this sweet opera about rural America and the dreams of youth, simply sounds like a piece of the heartland. "Laurie's Song" is so simple yet speaks volumes about this composer's commitment to finding Americana through music. Although the photo in this video has nothing to do with the musical performance, here's a wonderful rendition of "Laurie's Song" by Dawn Upshaw.
5. The Ballad of Baby Doe
The story of life in a Colorado mining town reflects the best of the west and captures the intriguing story of a period in American history. Douglas Moore truly reflects life in the Colorado Rockies through is clever use of large ensembles and the stunning melodies created for his leading lady. Here's a perfect example: Beverly Sills singing "Dearest Mama."
Samuel Barber's tale, while set in "a northern country," possesses music of such great originality and beauty that it earns its spot on the list in spite of the origin of its story. In Barber you can hear such refinement of harmonic color, his music is almost cinematic in nature. He also blatantly uses jazz/blues influence to create his melodies. "Music the Winter Come So Soon?" has such a wonderfully bluesy quality to it. Ella could have sung it in a club. In a production by L'Opera de Monte Carlo, here's Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the opera's first act.
Carlisle Floyd's homage to life in Appalachia draws directly on the folk songs of the region giving us a distinct flavor of life along the Appalachian Trail. "The Trees on the Mountains," based on a folk song is clearly something Susannah's mother sang to her and she finds great comfort in it. The entire work is loaded with folksy elements giving it a quality unlike any other American piece. Have a listen as Cheryl Studer sings "The Trees on the Mountain."
8. Little Women
Mark Adamo's work finds itself at the forefront of a resurgence in interest in commissioning operas by American Composers. After a long period of very challenging compositions by American composers seeking to find new ways of organizing music, this piece represents a simplification of tonality to help tell the tale. Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera for the Opera Studio, this piece has established a firm place among American operas. Here's American mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Meg.
9. Mourning Becomes Electra
Martin David Levy's opera will open Florida Grand Opera's main stage season in 2013-14. This piece, which was first performed at the Met, has seen several adaptations. The composition is challenging both musically and dramatically and represents a true musical drama. It will be an extraordinary evening in the theater. Enjoy a taste as Sherill Milnes sings "To Weak to Kill the Man I Hate."
10. Moby Dick
In many ways, Jake Heggie's piece reflects where we currently are as an opera audience and our interest and tolerance for opera by American Composers. Jake Heggie's music always remains very accessible to us and seems to represent the new generations of composers who are no longer seeking to push tonality but rather embrace the need for aesthetic beauty and melody. See below as American tenor Stephen Costello, part of this opera's premiere cast, sings Greenhorn's aria.
Far from comprehensive, this list is offered in a non-specific order, reflecting the views, likes, and tastes of the author. What are some of your favorite American operas?
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