Three 20-minute works by new opera composers and librettists
will premiere November 13, 2013
New hour-long opera An American Soldier
by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang
to receive world premiere June 13-14, 2014
Returning program mentors include composer Jake Heggie,
librettist Mark Campbell, and conductor Anne Manson
(WASHINGTON, D.C.)—Washington National Opera (WNO) today announced details for the second season of the American Opera Initiative, its comprehensive new commissioning program to stimulate, enrich, and ensure the future of contemporary American opera. Three teams of new opera composers and librettists—Michael Gilbertson and Caroline McGraw, Jennifer Bellor and Elizabeth Reeves, and Joshua Bornfield and Caitlin Vincent—will premiere new 20-minute operas, each based on a contemporary American story, in a concert performance on November 13, 2013 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. On June 13 and 14, 2014, a new hour-long opera by composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang—An American Solider, based on the true story of Pvt. Danny Chen, a Chinese-American soldier who died in Afghanistan—will have its world premiere in the Terrace Theater.
“The mission of the American Opera Initiative is as important as the mission of WNO itself—to tell powerful and personal stories through all kinds of music,” said WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. “I’m proud that we are recognizing emerging American artists on the ascent of their careers and giving them the forum to create their stories and music.”
The composer/librettist teams will collaborate on their works with distinguished mentors who have each enjoyed professional success with new American operas: composer Jake Heggie (WNO’s forthcoming Moby-Dick), librettist Mark Campbell (Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music), and conductor Anne Manson (Manitoba Chamber Orchestra). The composers and librettists have been working with these mentors and advisors throughout the creative process. The next round of workshops will be held later this month at the Kennedy Center.
“The second season of the American Opera Initiative includes evocative new works that will both entertain and challenge our audiences,” said Michael Heaston, program director of the American Opera Initiative and WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. “Plus, our Young Artists will have the extraordinary opportunity to work with living composers and librettists and our incredible team of mentors on the creation of new works.”
New 20-minute operas will explore the diversity of the American experience
The three original 20-minute operas presented in concert on November 13 will each highlight a very different aspect of American life and culture. These new works will be presented with accompaniment by a chamber orchestra and will be performed in English. Following the performance, there will be a Q&A session with the artists and creative team.
Composed by Michael Gilbertson
Libretto by Caroline McGraw
Breaking follows an eager young television reporter who is confined to the purgatory of human interest pieces but who desperately wants to stand out in the 24-hour news cycle. When tragedy strikes and she is the first on the scene, she couldn’t be happier—until she collides with a grieving young woman and is forced to confront the human suffering behind the headlines.
Composed by Jennifer Bellor
Libretto by Elizabeth Reeves
The ghosts of three immigrant Irish railroad workers—killed in a violent clash with local farmers as they fled a cholera outbreak at Duffy’s Cut, their Pennsylvania work camp—return to haunt Malachi Harris, the camp blacksmith charged with making sure that no trace of what happened at the site remains. Troubled by his conscience, Malachi must decide whether to carry out his orders or preserve some evidence of the incident.
Composed by Joshua Bornfield
Libretto by Caitlin Vincent
More than 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, with more than one million processed in 1907 alone. Set against the backdrop of this peak year, Uncle Alex tells the story of new arrivals Anna and Jacob Eingold as they navigate their final interview with an Ellis Island inspector. When their hopes are derailed by a technicality, fellow immigrant Alex Margolis calls his own future into question with an unexpected act of heroism. Uncle Alex provides a glimpse into an experience that has shaped the core of this country.
Full casting, featuring members of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and creative teams will be announced soon. Tickets for the November 13 presentation are on sale now
New hour-long opera recounts the life and death of a Chinese-American soldier in Afghanistan
The new hour-long opera presented on June 13 and 14, 2014 is written by a more experienced composer/librettist team. This work, to be performed in English, will receive a complete staging by director David Paul and a chamber orchestra will be conducted by Steven Jarvi. Both are alumni of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
An American Soldier
Composed by Huang Ruo
Libretto by David Henry Hwang
On October 3, 2011, Chinese-American Army Pvt. Danny Chen was found dead in a guard tower at his base in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. The real circumstances behind his death, though, illustrate a culture of racism in the military. Based on a true story, and drawing from the ensuing courts-martial of Chen’s fellow soldiers, An American Soldier explores what happens when the very people who are supposed to protect you in a combat zone become your enemy.
Huang Ruo is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Julliard School. Following the world premiere of An American Soldier, the Santa Fe Opera will present the North American premiere of Ruo’s Chinese-language opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a collaboration with librettist Candace Mui-ngam Chong that had its world premiere in Hong Kong in 2011.
Librettist David Henry Hwang is a Tony Award®-winning playwright (M. Butterfly, 1988) and has written opera librettos for works by Philip Glass, Bright Sheng, Osvaldo Golijov, Unsuk Chin, and Howard Shore.
Complete casting for the June 2014 performances will be announced at a later date. Tickets are on sale now.
By Thomas May
Wagner’s mastery of orchestration clearly owed a great deal to his years of practical experience as a conductor, but he also had a capacity for imaging sound colors unavailable from conventional instruments. The Ring in particular calls for an extension of the usual options. To enhance its mythic sound world, Wagner amplified his already wide-ranging brass palette with a horn-tuba hybrid (the “Wagner tuba”) and even a Stierhorn, or medieval bugle.
In part because he originally envisioned Tristan and Isolde as a more “user-friendly” project—an opera to be easily staged in any of the conventional houses—Wagner reduced his overall orchestral ensemble from the mammoth scale required by the Ring. For all of the intensity of passion this music conveys, Wagner exercises remarkable restraint in other ways as well: only once in the score, for example, does the dynamic level rise to a triple forte (when the lovers first meet and embrace in the second act). His extraordinary ear allows Wagner to achieve an enormous variety of coloristic blends even without the added resources of the Ring orchestra.
But there is one crucial moment in the third act where Wagner suggests an alternative to conventional instruments: this is toward the end of the first scene, when Tristan has been hallucinating about the ship carrying Isolde to him. Suddenly the shepherd watching the sea interrupts with a wildly joyful melody to confirm his sighting of the ship. Wagner scores this passage for English horn (to be reinforced by oboes and clarinets if necessary), but in a footnote he recommends his preference for a simple wooden instrument without keys or valves, modeled on the Swiss alphorn. A Viennese instrument maker was able to supply exactly that for the 1865 premiere of the opera.
But it’s rare to encounter this Holztrompete or wooden trumpet in modern performances. Aaron Doty, Artistic Operations and Orchestra Manager of Washington National Opera, points out that a special feature of WNO’s production is the company’s first-ever use of the Tristan trumpet. This has been made possible thanks to a loan from the Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Brass Instrument Collection of the National Music Museum, University of South Dakota, Vermillion. The NMM’s collection holds an original Tristan trumpet built for Prague’s National Opera around 1925 and acquired by Utley as well as the replica trumpet we hear in this performance. The replica, of a Tristan trumpet crafted in Munich c. 1913 (currently in the Dresden Opera’s possession), was made in 2001 by Andreas Schoni and Rainer Egger of Bern and Basel, Switzerland. Resembling a long pipe that terminates in a pear-shaped bell and with a single valve, the trumpet is built of granadilla and black-stained maple.
—Thomas May, the author of Decoding Wagner, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
By Thomas May
Even setting a myth of the beginning and end of the cosmos to music (aka the Ring) wasn’t enough for Richard Wagner. The legend of Tristan and Isolde began to crowd Wagner’s creative imagination thanks to a potent combination of factors in his private and artistic life.
After deconstructing the conventions of the commercially popular musical styles that reigned in opera houses of the time, Wagner had built a Valhalla-like fortress of theory to work out the ideas he was struggling to replace these conventions with, and these he began to apply in practice by composing the Ring. Yet Wagner’s subsequent discovery of the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) profoundly altered his attitude toward the purpose of art itself.
The Ring and its musical world originally sprang forth from a basically optimistic world view that placed its faith in the possibility of revolutionary utopia. Viewing the world through the lens of Schopenhauer caused Wagner to regard this as a naïve illusion. On one level, Tristan and Isolde turns the archetypal scenario of the love triangle into a symbol for the unquenchable force of desire in all its forms, which is the root of suffering for Schopenhauer. Apart from Wagner’s fascination with the philosopher’s metaphysical ideas, however, he was naturally attracted to the position of supreme value Schopenhauer reserved for music. It was Schopenhauer’s conviction that music alone can give us immediate access to this stark truth underlying the deceptive “real world” of appearances.
In the Ring (up to this point), music had more or less been ascribed a role subordinate to the unified amalgam of score, script, myth, and staging. But Wagner found a matchless vehicle with which to explore his changed perspective in Tristan’s story of extreme desire and its frustration—the love potion is merely another symbol for the release of what’s inherent in Tristan’s and Isolde’s natures. Setting it to music provided Wagner with the opportunity to create an unprecedented sound world evoking the human condition of restless desire, the mirage of blissful satisfaction, and, ultimately, a kind of transcendent awareness. The music isn’t there merely to “accompany” the moods of the drama: it provides the very foundation for what we see happening onstage. As Wagner later put it, the actual drama is “a visible image of the music”—a “deed of music made visible.”
Wagner had made one enormous leap in his musical language when, after a silence of about five years, he figured out how to set the Ring in motion with the remarkable Prelude to Das Rheingold, where the music swims about for minutes in the same key: Minimalism more than a century ahead of its time. But if the Ring proclaimed revolution, the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde seemed like all-out anarchy, immersing listeners into a disorienting soundscape where the familiar compass points no longer had any bearing.
Ironically, still another reason Wagner had determined to delay the Ring and write Tristan was purely practical: he hoped to make money with what he believed would be an easy-to-produce opera (compared, at least, to the Ring). But the originality and complexity of Tristan’s score, and the cruel demands on its two lead singers, doomed attempts to get it performed for several years, until the composer’s powerful new patron King Ludwig entered the scene and provided the financial backing for adequate rehearsals.
Even professional musicians of the era found themselves perplexed by the daring harmonic language Wagner develops here. Its essential character is crystallized in the very first bars of the Prelude: the cellos pose a series of “questions,” their line of descending half-steps “answered” by enigmatic harmony and a similarly ascending phrase in the woodwinds. Yet even these responses are left unresolved—and are in turn followed by tense silences. The music coils forward, full of vibrant, insatiable yearning, but even the climax it reaches seems frustrated—and, to cite the composer’s own description, “the heart sinks back unconscious, back into languishing desire…”
The paradigm of Western tonal music familiar in Wagner’s era (and in pop music today) relied on reassuringly recognizable patterns of tension and release, with a beginning, middle, and end. These patterns play out both in the short term (a phrase of music) and in larger structures (a movement). Tristan’s music supplants this with states of tension that generate more tension. The whole process suggests a condition of tormented, unappeasable longing, with the horizon maddeningly just out of reach.
Instead of a collection of tunes we can look forward to once the curtain rises, the Prelude embodies a microcosm of Tristan’s musical vocabulary and grammar. Its opening gestures proliferate in countless ways across the span of the opera—until that initially ambiguous “response” is finally allowed to fully resolve on what Richard Strauss once described as “the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the whole history of music.”
The score of Tristan adapts the advanced musical principles Wagner had been honing in the Ring to its new context. Rather than independent, self-enclosed musical units (arias, quartets, choruses, and the like), each act unfolds as one continuous progression of musical thought. In general, conventional opera relied on tried-and-true forms and familiar, one-size-fits-all harmonic progressions which could apply to any of a number of interchangeable dramatic situations. In Tristan and Isolde Wagner spins out an organic form corresponding uniquely to the particular set-up, crisis, and resolution that make up the dramatic content of each act. Even more, that dramatic content is radically simplified and internalized (in contrast to the epic Ring). This opens up a space for Wagner’s music to trace the states of desire, suffering, and, ultimately, compassion which both Isolde and Tristan experience.
The opera’s large-scale musical and dramatic structure demonstrates a beautifully symmetrical balance, despite the impression of unleashed, formless “dissonance” (in the sense of unresolved musical tension) that the Prelude can still make even on experienced contemporary ears. The first act centers around a portrayal of Isolde in her anger and confusion: she draws Tristan into her fateful sphere before they cross an unexpected threshold together by drinking the love potion. The second act prepares for and leads away from an enormously extended love duet, with its proto-Impressionist, exquisite blends of orchestral color, in which the lovers merge their identities and yield to the intoxication of desire (notice the erotic frenzy conveyed by Wagner’s overlapping vocal parts). With the third act, Wagner shifts the focus to Tristan and his pain. After he dies—to the same strain he sang when overtaken by the potion in act one—Isolde completes the journey Tristan had undertaken in solitude.
But Isolde complements her lover’s desolate vision of the emptiness of desire with a rapturous embrace of oblivion in the scene which concludes the opera (widely known as her Liebestod, or “Love-Death,” though Wagner used that term for the Prelude and referred to this scene as “Isolde’s Transfiguration”). This seals the opera with what musicologist Susan McClary calls “a feminine ending.” McClary quotes a personal exchange with the composer Virgil Thomson where the latter described the Liebestod as Isolde “hang[ing] around to demand one last orgasm of her own.”
Radical harmonic innovation is the most-celebrated dimension of Tristan and Isolde’s score, but Wagner employs all his resources to evoke the extreme states his characters undergo. In the third act, for example, Tristan’s delirious visions are underscored by changes in meter and powerfully syncopated rhythms. Another important device that recurs in some form in each act is the intrusion of the everyday world—for the lovers, the “false world” of day and illusion. From the strains of the sailor’s song opening the first act, Wagner abruptly shifts to Isolde’s point of view. The act late ends with the jubilant sounds of brass and chorus in solid C major to signal the ship’s arrival at its destination, ironically juxtaposed against the music of dangerous ecstasy for the lovers. In the second act Wagner vividly paints the external world of King Marke’s hunting party dissolving—the overlapping horns replaced by burbling clarinets—as Isolde becomes lost in her impatient vigil. And the shepherd’s merry piping in act three acquires a surreal quality as the backdrop for Tristan’s fevered hallucinations.
Tristan and Isolde, the early-20th-century music critic Paul Bekker went so far as to declare, is an opera on whose stage “walk sounds, not people.” Part of Wagner’s genius in this epochal work was to dissolve the boundaries between music and drama, orchestra and singers, tones and words, to an extent even he couldn’t have imagined when starting on the Ring—or when he first mentioned the idea he had for a new opera based on the legendary lovers: “the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
Roster increases to 10 singers and 2 pianist/coaches
Program includes mentorship by new Artist in Residence Deborah Voigt, voice teachers Diana Soviero and William Stone, and guest master teachers Carol Vaness and Peter Kazaras
Performance highlights include:
Several world premieres throughout the season
A showcase on February 27, 2014
A special performance of The Magic Flute on May 16, 2014
Free concerts at the Kennedy Center
Washington National Opera has just announced the roster of emerging artists and renowned vocal coaches engaged for the 12th season of its Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Under the leadership of new program director Michael Heaston, the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program will grow from 10 artists to 12, increase its number of performances throughout the season, and expand its training regimen to include mentorship by its new Artist in Residence, the acclaimed American soprano Deborah Voigt, as well as voice teachers Diana Soviero and William Stone, guest master teachers Carol Vaness and Peter Kazaras, and visiting vocal coach Kathleen Kelly. The new class of young artists will participate in several world premiere productions during the 2013-2014 season, including new commissions from WNO’s American Opera Initiative and Jeanine Tesori’s new family opera The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me. The program will also continue its exchange with the Bolshoi Young Artists Opera Program and will send several artists to Moscow for a two-week period in 2014.
The 2013-2014 Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists are:
Christian Bowers, United States (baritone, first year)
Jacqueline Echols, United Sates (soprano, first year)
Norman Garrett, United States (baritone, second year)
Yuri Gorodetski, Belarus (tenor, second year)
Soloman Howard, United States (bass, third year)
Yi Li, China (tenor, first year)
Kevin Miller, United States (pianist/coach, second year)
Tomoko Nakayama, Japan (pianist/coach, first year)
Deborah Nansteel, United States (mezzo-soprano, first year)
Patrick O’Halloran, United States (tenor, first year)
Shantelle Przybylo, Canada (soprano, second year)
Wei Wu, China (bass, first year)
Both Mr. Gorodetski and Mr. Li will represent their home countries in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition later this summer.
“The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is a vital part of Washington National Opera’s mission, and I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken to revitalize and grow the number of participants as well as increase their involvement in our programming,” said WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. “Michael Heaston has selected an excellent group of singers and pianists for next season, and I look forward to introducing our new WNO ‘home team’ to audiences in Washington.”
A world-class coaching roster
Joining the coaching roster for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program’s 2013-2014 season is Deborah Voigt, the acclaimed American soprano best known for her dramatic interpretations of the leading roles in operas by Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini. Ms. Voigt also stars as Isolde in WNO’s season-opening production of Tristan and Isolde in September 2013. In the newly created role of Artist in Residence, Ms. Voigt will work with the young artists throughout the season, conducting individual coaching sessions, presenting group classes on a variety of repertoire, and leading career roundtable discussions. In the summer of 2011, Ms. Voigt served as the first Artist in Residence at the inaugural season of the new Glimmerglass Festival and worked with the young artists there; the new WNO position will be her first long-term mentoring role with a young artist program.
“I look forward to working with these talented young artists and sharing the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career with the next generation,” said Ms. Voigt. “Francesca Zambello and Michael Heaston have exciting plans for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and as the Program’s first Artist in Residence, I’m proud and eager to be a part of this effort.”
The young artists will continue to work with voice teachers Diana Soviero, one of the foremost interpreters of the verismo repertoire and now one of the most in-demand voice teachers in New York, and William Stone, esteemed baritone and member of the voice faculty at the renowned Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. Lyric soprano Carol Vaness will have a weeklong residency in January 2014 as a guest master teacher focusing on interpretations of Mozart. The young artists will welcome guest vocal coach Kathleen Kelly, who has led the music staffs of the Vienna State Opera and Houston Grand Opera, for a series of residencies throughout the season, and will continue their work with resident vocal coach Louis Salemno. The coaching faculty, led by principal coach Ken Weiss, also includes Michael Baitzer, Anthony Manoli, and Yelena Kurdina, among others. WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin will also work with the young artists during the season.
Stage director Peter Kazaras, the artistic director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program and the director of Opera UCLA, will do intense dramatic work with the young artists as a guest master teacher. Nick Olcott, interim director of the Opera Studio at the University of Maryland at College Park, will continue as the program’s drama coach.
By Thomas May
Even before its official Broadway opening, Show Boat was already being hailed as “a milestone in musical comedy production,” as a critic wrote during the Pittsburgh leg of the multi-city preview tour. The very first public performance had taken place on November 15, 1927 at the National Theatre (just two miles from the site of the future Kennedy Center).
That original version of the show ran between four and four-and-a-half hours. By the time Show Boat sailed into Manhattan, it had been subjected to considerable trimming, subbing in of new numbers, and additional tailoring. These kinds of tweaking are normal during the creation of any musical (and of many operas to boot), but Show Boat’s legacy includes an unusual amount of revisionism—to the point that, as critic Frank Rich remarks, “the show has never really had a fixed text.” Considerable reshuffling of individual songs and particular scenes occurred throughout later revivals supervised by the show’s creators as well as posthumously.
That process has continued up to the present day. For the most-admired of the Show Boats on film, for example— released in 1936—Kern and Hammerstein added three new songs. The very last song Kern was working on before his sudden death in 1945 was intended for a fresh revival of the show (“Nobody Else But Me”). The three-CD studio cast recording from 1988 on EMI includes all of the material written and later cut from Show Boat and presents the authentic original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett.
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
On the night of December 27, 1927, the house was packed for the opening of Show Boat at the legendary Ziegfeld Theatre north of Times Square, an impressive art deco playhouse which itself had only recently opened (and which, sadly, was demolished in 1966). The stage, too, must have seemed to flood over during the ensembles: the chorus alone totaled 96 singers. Advance ticket sales had broken records as word circulated that this show would offer something remarkably different from the usual song and dance spectacles.
But as the curtain descended, “a silent shock gripped the audience,” writes Oscar Andrew Hammerstein (grandson of the man responsible for Show Boat’s book and lyrics) in a recent biography of one of the most illustrious families in American theater history. A momentary panic seized the show’s creators until, after a nerve-wracking pause, “the audience found its voice and a sustained ovation beat against the curtain.”
Composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) shared an ambitious vision for what they wanted to accomplish in Show Boat. Hammerstein later recalled that when Kern first turned him on to the idea of adapting the far-ranging novel of the same name recently published by Edna Ferber (1885-1968), each set about drafting an independent scenario: the treatments both came up with proved to be astonishingly similar.
The story’s framework, spanning four decades, clearly offered enticing possibilities to create an authentically American stage epic. And the phenomenon of the floating theaters known as show boats—already a fading tradition by the 1920s—provided an irresistible metaphorical vehicle. Entertainment itself could be used to reflect on our fluid, ever-changing cultural landscape. Meanwhile, the multiple story lines involving five different couples suggested something beyond the melodramatic contrivances of the actual subplots: through these Kern and Hammerstein could trace not just the optimism but the reality of the American dream—including its disappointments.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1925 for So Big, the Michigan-born Ferber was both a critical success at the time and a bestseller. A good indication of what the Broadway musical pre-Show Boat entailed can be seen in her immediate refusal to grant rights when the idea of adapting her novel was initially proposed. Ferber had every reason to fear that her story would be trivialized into a peppy, feel-good string of tunes and dance numbers featuring over-the-top costumes and pretty chorines—at least based on the prevailing Broadway model.
A wide gulf separated the escapist fun of the typical musical comedy from the thought-provoking spoken drama being pioneered by a new generation of playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill. Plays like O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and The Great God Brown had paved the way for a serious homegrown American theater movement in recent seasons. The lyric stage, though, was still dominated either by fantasies riffing on the Cinderella archetype (e.g., the operetta The Wildflower, an earlier Hammerstein collaboration) or by revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, which dressed up the vaudeville tradition with spectacular visuals.
Kern and Hammerstein honed their craft working on variants of these musical fashions before their own first collaboration in 1925 with the circus-themed Sunny. And in the process they had already been experimenting with ways to integrate songs into a show in a more organic way. Kern, who was Hammerstein’s senior by a decade, in particular had learned much from a string of scores he wrote in the late teens for the 299-seat Princess Theatre near the old Metropolitan Opera on 39th Street.
The intimacy of the Princess stage precluded big extravaganzas, encouraging experiments with a more sophisticated integration of song and plot instead. Julie’s song “Bill” in the second act of Show Boat in fact originates from this period, when Kern collaborated with P.G. Wodehouse, author of “Bill”’s lyrics. Its tragic tone was deemed unsuitable for an earlier musical, but in its new context (and as adapted by Hammerstein) “Bill” movingly portrays the emotional pain Julie has endured since the breakup of her marriage.
So it’s not surprising that Kern was able to talk Ferber out of her initial refusal to grant rights. Her novel, ironically, hasn’t stood the test of time—much of it feels awkwardly dated, to put it mildly—while Show Boat the musical is more than an enduring classic in its own right but a game-changer: it revealed an entirely new perspective on what the American musical could encompass. Even more, aspects of Show Boat’s influence can be felt in another epic effort of the American musical stage, George Gershwin’s one-of-a-kind “folk opera” Porgy and Bess (which premiered in 1935, though Gershwin initially hit on the idea as early as 1926).
In part because the Great Depression arrived so soon after it was first introduced, a delay intervened before Show Boat could exert its full effect. Escapism again became the desired antidote in the 1930s, with radio taking the place of unaffordable theater tickets. The new potential unveiled by Show Boat went largely untapped until Hammerstein began collaborating with Richard Rodgers in Oklahoma! (1943) and, even further, until West Side Story (1957) presented an unflinchingly tragic musical of social conflict. Frank Rich even sees Show Boat as a harbinger of “the modern Broadway ‘concept’ musical” with its double-edged metaphor of the Mississippi River as time itself, “which both opens and heals the characters’ wounds.” (Another Ferber novel provided the grist for the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical Saratoga in 1959, which, despite a Tony for costume design, has ended up becoming little more than a footnote.)
By today, of course, Show Boat’s innovations are all too easy to take for granted—all the more so since so many of its songs have in the meantime become detached from the show as independent standards with “afterlives” of their own. But the opportunity to experience a full-scale production that recognizes the theatrical and musical abundance of its creators’ vision brings home the magnificent cumulative effect of each number. These songs serve on one level as vivid character portraits that form an evocative counterpoint with each other: “Make Believe,” for example, plays Ravenal’s seductive but unreliable charm off the stoic realism Joe expresses in “Ol’ Man River.”
On another level, the score shrewdly conveys the story’s panoramic passage of time—and the larger perspective of American identity—by presenting a kind of montage of changing styles. Nostalgic Stephen Foster parlor songs, ballyhoos, passionate operetta, melodrama, burlesque, torch song, blues, ragtime, spirituals—all these and more are heard but also shaped by Kern’s overriding artistry in a way that transcends mere eclecticism. The New York Times obituary of the composer in 1945 noted that Kern modestly referred to himself as a “musical clothier” who wrote music “to both the situations and the lyrics in plays” rather than to score a hit.
Along with its organic integration of song, story, and character, Show Boat was innovative for its content, confronting the very real problems of American racism and the failure of romantic illusions. The impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, the hugely successful architect of the light-hearted entertainment (including his Ziegfeld Follies) that Show Boat would challenge, himself recognized the significance of this material and eagerly stepped in to provide the needed backing as producer: “This is the best musical comedy I have been fortunate enough to get a hold of…the opportunity of my life,” he wrote Kern. At the same time, Ziegfeld insisted on compromises, such as removing Queenie’s “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” as too gloomy, even though it figured prominently in Kern’s original score.
From an entirely different perspective, some modern-day critics have vehemently objected to Show Boat as exploitative, a work that even preserves and codifies racist attitudes. Yet a closer look at what actually happens—and the music which expresses it—shows the creators’ compassion for the injustice suffered by African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction Deep South: a compassion as genuine as that for Magnolia enduring the alienation of modern city life. Theater critic John Lahr notes that “the black experience, in both its triumph and its tragedy, is at the heart of the show’s perception of America.”
In this company debut production of Show Boat, Washington National Opera pays tribute to a masterpiece that called generic distinctions into question and forever redefined the scope of musical theater—and that remains deeply relevant and involving on its own terms. As Lahr aptly writes, Show Boat, “like all democratic experiments,” has been “constantly revising itself.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Kelley Rourke
Show Boat, Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, spans four decades of American life and features a sprawling cast of characters. In addition to the diverse group of performers and workers aboard Captain Andy Hawks’ floating theater, there is, wrote Ferber, “such an audience as could be got together in no other kind of theater in the world. Farmers, laborers, Negroes; housewives, children, yokels, lovers; roustabouts, dock wallopers, backwoodsmen, rivermen, gamblers.”
Perhaps the novel’s most pervasive presence—after Magnolia Hawks, the young girl who grows up on the Cotton Blossom—is the river itself, which is whipped into a terrific, unexpected storm as the story opens. The mighty Mississippi also runs through the musical version of the story, created in 1927 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. At key moments, the action pauses for a majestic reflection on “Ol’ man river,” who “jes’ keep rollin’ along.”
In the decades during which the impassive river carries the Cotton Blossom, he rolls through an America of growth—and growing pains. The country witnesses the openings of the old Metropolitan Opera House and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show; the first “talkies”; “Jim Crow” laws; the introduction of the Model T Ford; the Ziegfeld Follies; the Parliament of the World’s Religions; the founding of the NAACP; the sinking of the Titanic; the completion of New York’s Grand Central Terminal and D.C.’s Union Station; Prohibition; Marian Anderson’s debut with the New York Philharmonic; the passage of women’s suffrage; the first trans-Atlantic flight; and the introduction of Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, and Juicy Fruit gum.
The rapidly changing American landscape is more than just backdrop for Show Boat. Prominent in the plot’s rich tapestry are timeless yarns of romance and ambition, but Ferber—and later, Kern and Hammerstein—did not hesitate to weave in more controversial threads, such as racism and addiction. At Show Boat’s 1927 premiere, audience members may have felt a mixture of pride, dismay, and hope as the story sailed through three decades of recent history before finally docking at the present day.
Nearly a century later, we bring a slightly different set of sensibilities into the theater. Show Boat’s integrated cast no longer strikes us as daring, nor does Kern’s inclusion of songs modeled after traditional African-American music. (When Ferber wrote her novel, she was inspired by the very recent introduction of spirituals to the concert stage by artists including Roland Hayes, Jules Bledsoe, and Paul Robeson.) However, we can appreciate, as early audiences could not, how Show Boat represents a first step in the creation of a new American art form. In a period otherwise dominated by vaudevillian revues, Kern and Hammerstein crafted a serious drama whose magnificent score was an essential part of its storytelling. As Washington National Opera prepares to celebrate American composers in the coming seasons, it is only appropriate that we begin at the beginning, with this marvelous work that Francesca Zambello has called “our first American opera.”
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
“Casta diva” is the most famous scene in all of Bellini—and a paradigm of his subtle, sustained, dramatically enthralling way with bel canto. No matter how ravishingly beautiful this music sounds in isolation it acquires an incalculable richness when heard as it was intended, within the context of the long expository sequence for which Norma’s entrance provides the climax. Bellini and Romani masterfully build up expectations for this entrance scene and cavatina, which in turn unfolds in several parts. (An instrumental equivalent this strategy always makes me think of is the long-delayed arrival of the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.)
The opera’s backdrop of dramatic oppositions takes shape here as the priestess ecstatically invokes the “chaste,” peaceful moon goddess in contrast to the vengeful Irminsul, god of war. For her prayer Bellini gives the soprano long, seemingly endless garlands of mesmerizing melody which in turn weave in and out of the Druids’ choral chanting. At the same time, this is hardly pretty “note spinning” for its own sake. Bellini is showing us Norma’s power and authority as the figure who engenders collective religious ecstasy—even as he foregrounds the priestess in her commanding individuality, her difference: the very dilemma at the heart of the drama.
Musicologist David Kimbell aptly calls her cantabile a “liturgical aria” notable for its formality. Norma leads her people in the solemn mistletoe ceremony and then consults with the Gauls, whose music gives unity to the scene as a whole and reinforces the social framework. But after this Norma gives vent to her private feelings for Pollione in the exuberant, faster-paced cabaletta that concludes the scene. Here the flowery vocal lines almost seem to hint at a defiant denial, while, as Kimbell puts it, “a kind of emotional friction is set up between the solo voice in the foreground and the broader musical background against which it is set.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
Since this year Verdi and Wagner share a major anniversary—the Italian master was born just four and a half months after little Richard—we’re bound to see fresh assessments of how each of them crossed an operatic Rubicon, transforming the medium forever. It took several decades for Wagner’s “music of the future” to grip the collective imagination, but by the time Verdi began producing his mature masterpieces in the 1850’s, Rossini had long since retired from an immensely lucrative career and both Donizetti and Bellini were dead.
Among the lasting spells both Verdi and Wagner cast on later composers through their innovations was the urge to reconfigure the balance between music and theater, beauty of sound and dramatic truth. But this also caused the stock of a preceding golden age to crash. A wealth of remarkable operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti fell into oblivion, along with the impressive spectacles of French grand opera developed by Giacomo Meyerbeer and his peers.
It took the genius and charisma of performers like Maria Callas to spark a renaissance of interest in the second half of the last century in the Italian tradition inherited and superseded by Verdi: the tradition of bel canto, a blend of vocal style, melody, and the phrasing ideally suited to it that remains inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation. Each composer put a personal stamp on it: the bel canto of Rossini is poles apart from that cultivated by Bellini. Ultimately the bel canto ideal cannot be described but must be experienced in its full dramatic context.
Thanks to the revivals of operas such as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena—which was presented last fall as Washington National Opera’s season opener—several works that were once jumbled together as examples of a supposedly one-size-fits-all bel canto tradition have been reclaimed from operatic limbo. In fact, it turns out that much of the intervening bias against bel canto as a whole had been based on questionable premises: especially the assumption that the style always required musical values to overshadow dramatic ones.
Yet one work that had remained securely in the repertory since its premiere held the key to what was being missed all this time. Norma’s triumphant premiere at La Scala, on the day after Christmas in 1831, marked more than the historical high point of a style that would soon be eclipsed. (Bellini himself was fated to die less than four years later at the age of 33.) Its inspired balance of musical characterization, atmosphere, poetry, and mythic resonance revealed the full potential of the bel canto aesthetic. The reason Norma survived the decline of this style’s fortunes is that it so clearly defies the clichés of superficiality and “canary-fancying” that became associated with bel canto.
Bellini anticipates Puccini (and Verdi, for that matter) in his obsession with breathing life into his characters not just in a general sense but by focusing on details and nuances of their words. His partnership with the poet and classical scholar Felice Romani ranks among the most impressive composer-librettist teams in all opera, though the collaboration itself was often strained. Romani, by consensus the preeminent librettist of his generation, furnished texts for seven of Bellini’s ten operas (and for Rossini and Donizetti as well, including Anna Bolena); he himself was a perfectionist not content with merely setting a dramatic conflict in motion.
In the case of Norma, both Romani and Bellini shared a fascination with the novelty of the setting, which pits a familiar Mediterranean world of masculine power (represented by Pollione and the Romans) against a mysterious one that values nature and the feminine spirit. Around these two poles, the relationships of the protagonists underscore a larger clash of cultures and values: between South and North, empire and occupied outpost in Gaul, civilization and “barbarians”—but the opera’s perspective directs our sympathies toward the Other on the frontier of the familiar. The drama meanwhile turns on well-worn conflicts between desire and duty, between private and social identities. But instead of spinning this into a predictable cautionary tale, Bellini uses these conflicts to probe fundamental contradictions in the human psyche.
As we watch the screw tighten dramatically, it’s easy to imagine how exciting Bellini must have found this opportunity to explore his heroine’s tremendous emotional range in musical terms. The role of Norma proved an ideal vehicle to exploit the gifts of his favorite singer, Giuditta Pasta (who also happened to create the role of Anna Bolena). Contemporary descriptions of Pasta’s unusual voice and passionate stage presence uncannily foreshadow the virtues for which Maria Callas would be praised more than a century later. Stendhal wrote at length of Pasta, remarking that she “resorts to [extensive ornamentations] only when they have a direct contribution to make to the dramatic expressiveness of the music.”
In fact it wasn’t so much for vocal beauty that Bellini admired Pasta as for what he called her “encyclopedic character”—her ability to encompass a psychological gamut in her vocal acting. And this is exactly how he conceived the role of Norma, with her changing aspects as a mystical priestess, loyal confidante, betrayed lover, warrior, Medea-like avenger, and redemptress. She must adopt each of these personae with equal credibility. The conception of Norma’s character by Bellini and Romani is as formidable as the vocal demands for any singer who undertakes this landmark role.
The opera also takes care to represent the “aura” Norma projects, representing the effect she wields over other characters. Bellini’s musical portrayal of Pollione as he recounts his dream, for example, anticipates the turn from love to the desire for revenge and retribution that actually gets played out (though he fails to foresee Norma’s final act of forgiveness). Indeed, from the Roman proconsul’s point of view, much of the opera could be perceived as the unfolding of his dream. Adalgisa suggests a younger, more innocent phase of Norma herself, as vulnerable to the Roman as the conquered Druids have been to the occupying legions. The duets with Norma and Adalgisa attain the rapture of love music. Yet the love between Norma and Pollione—the catalyst of the drama—is only a memory within the framework of the opera, generating both melancholy and rage. Only for Pollione is this love reactivated, too late, in the tour de force Bellini and Romani created for the final scene.
Bellini’s score, with its passages of processional, ritualistic music and militaristic strains, meanwhile creates a vivid sense of the larger social forces behind the principal characters. At the opera’s climax, when Norma faces and then retreats from her darkest impulses, she turns back to her public role and summons the community, only to renounce her role as spiritual leader. Her final choice offers a cathartic resolution just as the opera’s dramatic tensions have reached the bursting point. And the image of the heroine calmly accepting her death on a sacrificial pyre would be revived in the grandest of all operatic finales when Wagner reached the end of his Ring.
Bellini’s gift for representing Norma’s full range of character in melody and mood lies at the heart of his unique vision of bel canto. “Here, where even the poetry raises itself to the tragic heights of the ancient Greeks, this feeling for form, which Bellini most decidedly ennobles, serves only to heighten the solemn and grandiose character of the whole. All the passions, transfigured in so singular a fashion by his song, derive from it a majestic firmness and strong foundation.” So wrote Wagner himself, who learned some of the secrets of his trade from his apprenticeship as an opera conductor. During his first season leading a company in Riga in the 1830s, Wagner conducted Norma a total of eight times, and his enchantment with its fusion of music and drama never wavered. It’s a judgment opera lovers in general have tended to agree with, from Bellini’s time to our own.
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.
By Thomas May
Before Mimì, Tosca, Butterfly, Minnie, and Turandot, Puccini created his first indelible heroine in the figure of the pleasure-loving and passionate Manon. She is the character around whom all the other principals revolve, setting them in motion (not unlike what we find with Don Giovanni). But she is also the most variable and contradictory. Manon might even be viewed as a series of almost distinct characters: the innocent ingénue we first meet, ready to be swept away by true love; the bored, pleasure-addled courtesan; and the social outcast, who ends, too late, as a repentant Magdalene (in the old-fashioned sense, that is, before the discovery of the powerful Mary Magdalene who appears in the Gnostic Gospels).
And through his Wagner-influenced technique, Puccini has Manon infiltrate the fabric of the score. The most pervasive of his recurring musical ideas is the descending pattern we hear when she first tells Des Grieux her name (“Manon Lescaut mi chiamo”). Puccini threads variants of the Manon theme throughout the score to reflect her changing situation. One especially affecting example is the terrifying sweep of chords that spell the theme at the beginning of the final act, when she reaches her most extreme moment of suffering. (Louisiana was, of course, at the time of Prévost’s novel a French possession.)
By establishing Manon in such memorable musical terms, Puccini compensates for the dramatic stasis of the opera’s final act with an emotionally compelling reminiscence of what the lovers have experienced together. Michele Girardi remarks that in his portrayal of Manon’s tragic end, the composer “achieved the first example of ‘reminiscence music,’ as he would in equally unforgettable ways for the deaths of Mimì, Butterfly, and Angelica.” And it is here with Manon Lescaut that Puccini sets in motion a whole career of writing operas that explore what happens to love at the breaking point.
– Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera