New angels help opera evolve
By David Patrick Stearns
From Philly.com (Philadelphia Inquirer) - Wed, Aug. 23, 2006
Typically, when a great American play is turned into a potentially great American opera, the news is trumpeted from the skies, or at least from one of the big-city opera houses. Not with Our Town - Ned Rorem's opera version of the classic Thornton Wilder play - whose quieter, more gradual birth is taking place on a circuit of theaters that may bring it to a university near you.
The official world premiere was in February at Indiana University. Had you vacationed in the right place, you also might have happened onto the piece at the Lake George (N.Y.) Opera this summer. Or at the Aspen Music Festival, whose production was conducted by the eminent David Zinman, but sung by students rather than stars. This, for something the 83-year-old composer was born to write?
Says Rorem, whose hindsight usually ranges from pessimism to hopelessness, "it was a marvelous idea."
New operas are usually commissioned by one or two companies, often on different continents, and are more or less shot out of a cannon - with an opening production assembled without the benefit of a workshop or tryout. There are successes, but even among those, some parts are good, others not.
Unlike them, Our Town had what every new opera needs - a workshop, at Indiana last year and promised productions beyond the premiere, thanks to a commissioning consortium that was headed by Indiana University but also included Aspen, Lake George, Opera Boston, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, Calif.
So far in the series of performances, the piece has been recast from two acts to three; more changes are likely. Critics have been alternately beguiled, charmed and left cold. But with different viewpoints arriving in each new production, the industry knows the jury is still out. In other words, the piece "is protected" from failure, says Aspen stage director Edward Berkeley.
It's possible that Our Town couldn't have happened any other way. Both the Wilder estate and librettist J.D. McClatchy wanted Rorem: He lived amid the milieu that spawned the 1937 Our Town, and he was a contemporary of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, who pioneered the Americana school of composition ideal for an operatic adaptation of the piece. However, Rorem wanted a fee that would allow him to live for the three years that any major opera is likely to require.
Bigger opera companies might balk at committing to an over-80 composer with only a few operas to his credit. But the consortium assembled $250,000, which is comparable to big-opera-house commissions; half came from Indiana University, and the rest was spread among the others.
Budgetary risks were further minimized by the values that come with higher learning. Aspen counts on only 12 percent of its budget from the box office; conventional opera companies shoot for three times that. The piece's value to students participating in its creation may be priceless. In a festival that's as much about teaching as performing, Our Town "embodies everything we care about," said president Alan Fletcher.
It's a viable model, said Helane Anderson, promotion manager of Boosey & Hawkes, the opera's publishers: "Rather than the companies' saying ' we have budget issues so we can't participate,' the consortium has them pay less to... be a part of something that's major."
And not just opera. Indiana University, again, just premiered the new choral work Sun Dogs, by the sought-after British composer James MacMillan. Aspen is planning to commission dance pieces. The Juilliard School of Music recently celebrated its 100th anniversary with 47 commissions, including a cello sonata by 90-year-old Milton Babbitt, and struck gold with the Lowell Liebermann opera Miss Lonelyhearts, in a production shared with the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.
With a history of nurturing about 80 works into being, Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa is now part of Music Accord, which, for only $7,500 a year from each of its 10 members, has delivered three new chamber-music works over the last decade by major composers such as David Del Tredici and William Bolcom.
Most appetizing, says Hancher's artistic director, Judith Hurtig, are projects to which the university makes a unique contribution: The Terry Riley/Kronos Quartet piece Sun Rings incorporated recordings of outer-space noise culled from years of research done in Iowa.
However protected in some ways, these working conditions hardly exist in a utopian bubble. The final scene of Bill T. Jones' 1990 dance-theater work Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land featured local Iowa actors fully and frontally nude. Audition ads alone set off a raging controversy.
"It was pretty ugly," Hurtig recalled. "The university's legal office was very much aware with what was going on, and they were OK with it... . We had plainclothes policemen all around the audience."
It sold out, by the way.
When playwright Craig Lucas was commissioned by Juilliard to write what became The Listener (which premiered in January), he wrote a sprawling story about the drug-and-sex-steeped youth culture of 21st-century Seattle. (Says one twentysomething to another, "I love your search engine!") The intention wasn't salacious, but to prepare the actors for what they would encounter after graduation - multiple roles in the same play, plus extensive nude scenes.
Both that and Liebermann's Miss Lonelyhearts, based on the Nathanael West novel about an alcoholic advice columnist who develops a Christ complex, are works whose daring defies conventional commerciality. Nobody can say whether the protected circumstances prompted less-compromising work, since academia at its most liberal is still a microcosm of what's outside of it. But when asked for an upbeat, celebratory work, the reputedly lightweight Liebermann delivered an opera that's so hard-hitting that some student cast members defected.
"We handled it as in the real world," said Juilliard president Joseph Polisi. "We talked to them as professionals. We told them that what you do onstage doesn't have to be your opinion. A few preferred not to be part of it. We respected that."
As important as this world is becoming to upper-echelon composers - and negotiations are under way at various institutions for major new works by Wynton Marsalis and Peter Maxwell Davies - it's only one possible route, as opposed to being the panacea. Though Aspen has the outward markings of an operatic greenhouse - plenty of rehearsal, plus fresh-voiced singers close to the age of their characters - the Our Town opening was derailed by an orchestra that became inexplicably spooked ("It was as if a black cat crossed the stage," said one person involved with preparations) and performed as if sight-reading.
Key roles in this story of life, death and the afterlife were understood only superficially by the student cast. Rorem's score, for all its exquisite, distilled moments, still hadn't settled into its new, three-act form.
Yet the piece exists - representing a creative coda in Rorem's life. Also, its intimate story has the best chances for an optimum impression at venues like Aspen's cozy Wheeler Opera House. Conditions may not always be that way once the opera graduates from its consortium.
From there, all bets are off. Rorem isn't about to eschew the less-suitable but real-life gargantuan glamour of the 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera, were he given a chance. "[Playwright] Edward Albee won't let certain plays be done in certain places," Rorem says, "but why not just take the money and run?"