Opera: American Tales
6th May 2015
Paying tribute to the Opera America National Conference taking place in the US capitol this week, we'd like to draw your attention to operas which tell the tales of dramatic episodes in America's historical, political, and social evolution.
Margaret Garner (2005)"More than anything else, Margaret Garner is an opera that reminds us that we all belong to the same human family, and it demonstrates what can happen when we forget this fundamental truth. While slavery has been outlawed in the United States since 1865, its lingering effects have proven over the years that the issues in our country concerning race, class, and the true meaning of freedom are in no way resolved."
— Richard Danielpour
Amistad (1997)"Amistad is an opera that was ten years in the making. I encountered this neglected episode in American history first in a poem by Robert Hayden entitled Middle Passage. The poem detailed numerous voyages of slave ships to these shores through captains' logs and sailors' tales. This narrative culminates with the Amistad rebellion and the story of the trial."
— Anthony Davis
X — The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986)X — The Life and Times of Malcolm X sketches in a series of fast-moving vignettes the galvanic life and career of the controversial African-American activist Malcolm X (1925-1965). X features a dark, non-tonal palette, complex, shifting rhythmic patterns, and poignant lyricism; it is influenced by classical, popular, and non-Western sources.
Appomattox (2007)The brutal American Civil War is drawing to a close. Three scenes unfold simultaneously as Julia (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant), Mary Custis (Mrs. Robert E. Lee) with her daughter Agnes, and Mary Todd Lincoln with her seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave, separately express their anxieties, then jointly voice their foreboding about the suffering that is imminent.
Hydrogen Jukebox (1990)Drawing upon Ginsberg's poetry, this music/theatre piece is a portrait of America that covers the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's, seen by the collaborators Glass, Ginsberg and Sirlin. Its content ranges form highly personal poems of Ginsberg to his reflection on social issues: the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, eastern philosophy, environmental awareness. The six vocal parts represent six archetypal American characters — a waitress, a policeman, a businessman, a cheerleader, a priest, a mechanic.
the difficulty of crossing a field (1999)A slave owner in the pre-civil war American South walks across his field and disappears, in plain view of his family, his neighbors and his slaves, forever altering the relationships among them. Everyone around him has his or her own sharp view of what that disappearance means, of why it had to happen, and of what will happen now that there is a "hole" where a man used to be.
John Brown (2007)The opera details the events leading up to and surrounding the abortive attempt by John Brown, a charismatic abolitionist, to destroy American slavery by force of arms. However harsh and single-minded his struggle for black freedom, Brown’s story concerns issues key to the historical development of America and perhaps still central to its fate. Following an unsuccessful attack in 1859 on the US arsenal in Virginia, Brown, who had confided to Frederick Douglas that he, like Moses, was chosen by God to lead the slaves to freedom, is sentenced to execution by hanging.
The Mother of Us All (1947)A pageant centering around the life and political ideals of Susan B. Anthony, with real and imagined characters.
Other operas which help us tell our tales — historical and fictional:
Little Women (1998)"More than a century after its publication, Louisa May Alcott's chronicle of growing up female in civil-war era New England remains a main dish in the smorgasbord of American popular fiction. Readers have devoured the adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in more than one hundred languages."
— Mark Adamo
The Great Gatsby (1999)"The Great Gatsby is a music-driven opera in which the composer bullied the librettist as they worked together. Every choice was in favor of musical opportunities; Fitzgerald's novel was 'respected' only insofar as it furthered the musical design. This might be expected from a composer who found opera with his ears, at an early age, on the Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts."
— John Harbison
Gian Carlo Menotti
The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954)Annina, the Saint of Bleecker Street, wants to take the veil before she dies, but her non-believing brother Michele tries to prevent her from taking part in religious rites. When Michele refuses to acknowledge his girlfriend Desideria, she accuses him of having an unnatural love for his sister. Michele stabs Desideria to death. Annina goes through with the religious ceremony before her brother can stop her, then dies.
The Face on the Barroom Floor (1978)In the present day, Isabel, a member of the Central City opera chorus, and her friend Larry visit the Teller House bar. Larry asks about the face painted on the floor. Tom, the bartender, tells the story, which is enacted as he becomes a 19th -century bartender named John, who welcomes the bargirl Madeline (played by Isabel) as they toast to the future. A disheveled traveler, Matt (played by Larry), enters and orders drinks for all while Madeline is asked to sing. Unable to pay for the drinks, Matt offers instead to paint a portrait on the barroom floor of the only woman he ever loved. John discovers the portrait is of Madeline. The two men fight until Madeline throws herself between them, with tragic consequences. Larry, now back in the 20th century, laughs drunkenly at the old legend and forces Isabel to dance with him. Tom now reveals his past romantic relationship with Isabel, and challenges Larry. Events in the past repeat themselves in the present, continuing the legend of the face on the barroom floor.
Robert Xavier Rodríguez
The Old Majestic (1988)A poignant backstage comedy set in 1930. The stock market has just crashed and the vaudeville performers at the great and ornate Majestic Theatre see that the new talking movies signal the end of an era. To provide a period flavour, the composer has included bits of popular old songs and the libretto includes fragments of actual vaudeville routines and reminiscences of celebrated vaudevillians, particularly the colorful Eddie Cantor.