• John Harbison
  • The Great Gatsby (1999)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)

Commissioned by Metropolitan Opera

  • 3(pic).2+ca.2(Ebcl)+bcl.ssx.2+cbn/ plus stage band (from the orchestra) solo violin; cl(ssx), tpt, tbn, tba, perc(trap set), pf, bjo
  • 2(pic).2(ca).2(Ebcl,ssx)+bcl.2(cbn)/2.1(Bb).1.1/3perc(timp)/pf/bjo/str (65432 preferred) - reduction by Jacques Desjardins
  • SATB chorus
  • Soprano, 2 Tenors, 2 Mezzo sopranos, Baritone, Bass
  • 2 hr 20 min
  • the composer, after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. with additional song lyrics by Murray Horwitz

Programme Note

First performance
December 20, 1999
Metropolitan Opera
Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Jerry Hadley, tenor; Mark Baker, tenor; Dwayne Croft, baritone; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
James Levine, conductor
New York, NY

Composer note
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.

The Great Gatsby is a generously proportioned opera based on a very compact novel. Certain dramatic elements in the story are more confrontational when staged. "Where did you find all those car crashes, gangsters, people behaving so unpleasantly," asked some who remembered from the novel mainly its fragrant atmosphere. "The room at the Plaza couldn't have been that small," said others, startled to see and hear what may have been so differently imagined.

I take it as a sign of interest, of curiosity to witness it again that the question I've been asked most often is: "What did you cut?"

I believe my pieces have a lymphatic system, nerves, veins. Surgery presents dangers to the body's integrity so I tried to make my cuts instinctively and integrally. They correspond to the places that concerned me the first time I heard the piece through, at the dress rehearsal. Act One: a "symphonic" part of the Overture, some of the choral prelude to scene 3, a sizable reflective passage in scene 4. Act Two: intricate incisions and concisions in scenes 2, 4 and 6. As reluctantly as I parted with these minutes, the process was ultimately an affirmation of my conviction about The Great Gatsby.

First-time audience members will profit from knowing that the opera differs from the novel in many ways. Opera as a medium mythologizes and in many ways exaggerates. Myrtle, and her surrounding world, are expanded, to ground the theme of longing in real sensuality (suggesting that the real mate for Gatsby, one he would never seek, is the woman eventually killed by his car). The meeting between Daisy and Gatsby, after five years, takes place before our eyes and ears. The theme of the Midwesterner as outsider, Nick's crucial question, dominates the beginning and the end of the piece. Gatsby is not shadowy and mysterious, he must be heard; he even regales his rival with a mostly phony account of his early life.

The characters expand with the space the music creates for them. The Great Gatsby begins with a substantial overture which presents some of the central musical and dramatic themes. Ambient music — radio and party singers and bands — has a dominant role. Near the end of the opera something very unusual happens: The rule is — when the hero dies close the curtain as soon as possible. But this piece is not strictly about the hero, it is also about our remarkable country, its mystery and possibility, seen through the screen of Gatsby's own mystery, his own sense of possibility. Thus, an epilogue in which some threads are briefly tied, new meanings opened up.

Those whose ears are enlisted to that point, experience indicates, will remain engaged until the green light fades.

— John Harbison

Fitzgerald's magnificent portrait of the Jazz Age — in all its idealism, hopes, excesses, nostalgia, and decadence — remains one of the most widely read American novels. It tells of the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan, married to brutish Tom. Daisy's cousin Nick Carraway shares with Gatsby proximity and background — veterans of the Great War arrived from the Midwest to seek their fortunes. Gatsby's lavish parties contrast with the intimate, intricate web of the protagonists' relationships; their reckless actions turn an American dream into something more akin to a Greek tragedy.

Cast List
   DAISY BUCHANAN, a rich young socialite: Soprano
   JAY GATSBY, a wealthy young man of mysterious background: Tenor
   TOM BUCHANAN, Daisy's husband, a former athlete: Tenor
   NICK CARRAWAY, her cousin, a young stockbroker: Baritone
   JORDAN BAKER, her friend, a golfer: Mezzo-Soprano
   GEORGE WILSON, a garage mechanic: Bass
   MYRTLE WILSON, his wife: Mezzo-Soprano
   TANGO SINGER: Mezzo-Soprano
   MEYER WOLFSHIEM, a shady businessman: Bass-Baritone
   HENRY GATZ, Gatsby's father: Baritone
   MINISTER: Bass-Baritone
   Chorus of party-goers

Act I, Scene 1
Nick visits Daisy and Tom and meets her friend Jordan. Daisy tells Nick she misses the "old warm world" from her youth.

Act I, Scene 2
Tom drags Nick to Wilson's garage to "meet his girl," Myrtle. When she talks about Daisy, Tom hits her.

Act I, Scene 3
Amidst the revelry of Gatsby's party, he asks Nick to arrange a meeting with Daisy. Afterwards, Gatsby recalls their former love, and vows to win her back.

Act I, Scene 4
Nick and Jordan flirt as they arrange tea. When Daisy and Gatsby meet, their initial awkwardness quickly dissipates.

Act II, Scene 1
Another party, where rumors about Gatsby circulate. Alone with Daisy, he tries to convince her that they can be reunited. Tom finds them and invites Gatsby to his house.

Act II, Scene 2
Bored and hot, the protagonists decide to go to the Plaza Hotel. After Daisy and Gatsby leave together, Tom vents his annoyance.

Act II, Scene 3
Tom forces Daisy to make a choice. Tortured, she decides to stay with Tom, who, exultant, contemptuously suggests Daisy and Gatsby return together to Long Island.

Act II, Scene 4
Myrtle, thinking she sees Tom, rushes outside. A crash is heard. Tom, Nick, and Jordan enter, revealing that Myrtle has been killed. When Tom identifies the death car as Gatsby's, Wilson is determined to take revenge.

Act II, Scene 5
Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy was the driver. As he waits for word from Daisy, Wilson enters and shoots him.

Act II, Scene 6
None of Gatsby's former friends or guests attend funeral, save Nick and his father, who reflect.



Act I: Overture, Scenes 1 and 2 (original orchestration)
Act I: Scenes 3 and 4 (original orchestration)
Act II: Scenes 1, 2, and 3 (original orchestration)
Act II: Scenes 4, 5, and 6 (original orchestration)
Act I: Overture, Scenes 1 and 2 (reduced orchestration)
Act I: Scenes 3 and 4 (reduced orchestration)
Act II: Scenes 1, 2, and 3 (reduced orchestration)
Act II: Scenes 4, 5, and 6 (reduced orchestration)
Vocal Score


  • Celebrating The Great Gatsby
    • Celebrating The Great Gatsby
    • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel The Great Gatsby will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its publication in 2025. The opera of the same name by John Harbison, itself an American masterpiece, is uniquely suited to meet this historical moment.


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