Thursday, February 02, 2012

Opera in America

Rise Stevens singing an aria from Natoma

I have a copy of the 1924 edition of the Victrola Book of the Opera. From my American Operas list we see Natoma, first produced at the Metropolitan opera in 1911, and Madeleine, first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1914, both by Victor Herbert, who wasn't born in America. These are as close as we get to American opera in that era. One owns such a book for the photographs of famous singers, such as Caruso and Geraldine Farrar who had her own private dressing room at the Met. There was a policy begun in 1900 to produce an American Opera every year at the Met, but none of them held the stage even briefly except these two. Horatio Parker's Mona, 1911, was also part of the Met's effort to produce American opera.

Carmen Balthrop in Treemonisha

Another place to research opera in America is in the book Opera in America by John Dizikes. This work focuses on the cultural life of opera rather than the compositions. The first opera to rate a chapter name is Scott Joplin's Treemonisha (1910). Dizikes' text is about African-American singers and musicians rather than the opera. Treemonisha is occasionally revived, and is definitely something to look in to.

Excerpts from the current Broadway production of Porgy and Bess.  Don't you miss those opera voices.

The next operas to make it into chapter headings are Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) by Virgil Thompson and Porgy and Bess (1935), by George Gershwin. Porgy and Bess is the earliest opera by an American composer to stay in the repertoire. I think the political controversy that surrounds this opera actually enhances its power. In the past I have had my doubts, but the recent production at the San Francisco Opera has completely won me over.

Then comes the period of Gian Carlo Menotti, operas from 1938 to 1963, a native Italian whose works in English never quite lose their Italian quality. Carlisle Floyd's Susannah and Samuel Barber's Vanessa are practically all we see to interrupt Menotti's dominance. My viewing of Kiri Te Kanawa singing Vanessa left me with the feeling that this was an outstanding work that should be revived more often.

Lucy Schaufer singing "Must the winter come so soon" from Vanessa, audio only

The conclusion I have reached is that we are now living in the era of American opera. The German Hans Werner Henze, operas from 1948 to the present, provides the only competing center of opera composition in the post Einstein on the Beach, 1976, era.  Today we have John Adams, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, Jake Heggie, Stewart Wallace and several others to compose operas for us. 

Bits from The Ghosts of Versailles, a work we could see more of

In the next year and a half people in the San Francisco Bay Area will be treated to John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach, Nolan Gasser's The Secret Garden and Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  Our cup runneth over.

Heggie's Moby-Dick


Paul said...

Don't forget Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe," which has two terrific soprano arias and several excellent ensemble pieces.

Dr.B said...

This is the Colorado connection. Thanks for reminding me.