Friday, July 4, 2014

Celebrating Independence Day with American Opera

American composers Marc Blitzstein and Jake Heggie
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.

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.

William Sharp sings Marc Blitzstein's song "Monday Morning Blues":

Marc Blitzstein is best remembered for his opera Regina, his musical The Cradle Will Rock and his adaptations of Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht musicals, even though he was notoriously critical of Weill for trying to appeal to mass audiences.  Regina is an adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes. It was completed in 1948 and premiered the next year. The musical style has been described as new American verismo, abounding in the use of spirituals, Victorian parlour music, dance forms, ragtime, aria and large, symphonic score

William Warfield and Leontyne Price sing "

Porgy & Bess features a number of baritone and bass-baritone roles, including Porgy, Jake and Crown. Porgy gets to sing the classic "I got plenty o' nuttin'" and "Bess, o where's my Bess?, "as well as an amazing duet. Jake gets to sing A woman is a sometime thing, while Crown sings "A red-headed woman."

Virgil Thomson composed four operas and the two most popular were collaborations with author Gertrude Stein. He was influential in the creation of what is known as “American Sound” and was awarded Yale University’s Sanford Medal and the National Medal of Arts.

Douglas Moore is unusual,  in that he was most famous for his operas, not his popular music. Although he composed ten operas, his most well-known is The Ballad of Baby Doe. He was a significant figure in both the advancement of American music and music education.  Horace Tabor, who has the best music for a male character, was written for a baritone. His main pieces include "Warm as the autumn light" and "Turn tail and run then."

Michael Hewitt sings "Warm as the autumn night":

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.

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. 

Eric Halfarson sings the Death of Enobarbus from "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.

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.

Martin Achrainer in Philip Glass' "Kepler":

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 However, it has received worldwide press attention over the Met canceling the Live in HD broadcast of the opera over concerns from Jewish groups.

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 

Randal Turner sings Tom Joad's aria from The Grapes of Wrath:

But the busiest composer in 2014 has to be Ricky Ian Gordon with his singable melodies. His most recent opera "27" with a libretto by Royce Vavrek is about about the singular world of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It opened on June 14th at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Three months earlier, he opened A Coffin in Egypt at the Houston Grand Opera, which was written for superstar diva Federica von Stade. It's already had subsequent performances in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.  

Have a happy and safe 4th of July and celebrate some American music! 

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.