Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Celebrating American Opera Composers on July 4th (Independence Day in the U.S.)

Matthew Worth in Virginia Opera's Orphee by Philip Glass
American opera didn't happen until more than 140 years after the first opera, Jacobo Peri's Daphne. William Henry Fry is considered the first American opera composer. He wrote the unperformed Aurelia the Vestal in 1841 followed by Leonora in 1845. Most early American composers are forgotten today. Perhaps the first who are remembered today are Walter Damrosch, Scott Joplin, Louis Gruenberg, Roger Sessions and Victor Herbert.

One composer who is largely forgotten today is Harry Lawrence Freeman, an early African-American composer who supported himself and his own opera company during his lifetime and performed to largely black audiences. In 1893, his opera Epthelia was the first opera performed in the U.S., which was written by an African-American composer.

Louis Gruenberg's "The Emperor Jones" with Nmon Ford:

Before the advent of World War II, a number of prominent American composers emerged whose music endures today, including Marc Blitzstein, Virgil Thomson, George Gershwin, Douglas Moore, Aaron Copland and Gian Carlo Menotti. Perhaps the most enduring works from this period are Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and Gershwin's Porgy & Bess.

Robert Sims sings "I got plenty o nuttin'" from Gershwin's "Porgy & Bess":

The second half of the 20th Century saw the emergence of some of America's greatest composers ever, including Hugo Weisgall, Dominick Argento, Carlisle Floyd, Samuel Barber, Thomas Pasatieri, Philip Glass, John Adams and Stewart Wallace. In 1955, Carlisle Floyd wrote what many consider America's greatest opera, Susannah, which remains in the standard repertory today.

Samuel Ramey sings "Hear Me, O Lord, I beseech Thee" from Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah":

Long before the composing couple of Mark Adamo and John Corigliano emerged, America was blessed with lifelong companions Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote some of the greatest operatic works in history. Barber penned Antony & Cleopatra and Vanessa, the latter with a libretto by Menotti. Antony and Cleopatra was commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 with Leontyne Price and Justino Diaz.

Catherine Malfitano & Richard Cowan sing "Oh take those lips away" from 
Barber's "Antony & Cleopatra":

Gian Carlo Menotti wrote the most performed American opera ever written, Amahl and the Night Visitors. His impressive list of operas include The Consul, The Saint of Bleeker StreetAmelia Goes to the Ball, The Old Maid and the Thief, The Telephone and The Last Savage. In 1958, Menotti founded the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy and then founded its companion festival in Charleston, South Carolina in 1977.

Bryan Elsesser sings "When the air sings of summer" from "The Old Maid and the Thief" 
by Gian Carlo Menotti

The 21st century has seen an explosion of interest in living American composers, including Tobias Picker, John Adams, Philip Glass, Jake Heggie, Mark Adamo, Ricky Ian Gordon, Anthony Davis, Steve Mackey, John Corligliano, Daron Hagen and John Harbison. Philip Glass has been successfully writing operas for 35 years, with such major successes as Hydrogen Jukebox, Einstein on the Beach, Kepler, Satyagraha and Appomattox. He has composed over twenty operas.

Father Death Blues from Hydrogen Jukebox:

Although he is far less prolific than Glass, many people consider John Adams an equal to Glass as the greatest living American composer. His masterpiece is considered Nixon in China, which is currently being performed in theaters around the world.  His other somewhat less successful opera is The Death of Klinghoffer

Michael Mayes in Tulsa Opera's "Dead Man Walking"
Perhaps the modern day wunderkind of American opera is Jake Heggie, who has strung together a remarkable number of operas which are entering the standard repertory. His 2000 opera Dead Man Walking is becoming an audience favorite far beyond the U.S. shores. Of course, we love it, because it has become a major vehicles for barihunks who are portraying the convicted killer Joseph De Rocher . His other successes include The End of the Affair, Three Decembers and the recent hit Moby-Dick

Norman Treigle sings "America the Beautiful" and "The Star Spangled Banner":

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  1. Happy Indipendence day to all my friends from USA!




  2. Great post. Some of this info was new to me. Keep the pix of Michael Mayes and Matthew Worth coming. That made my firecracker go off. LOL.