In this star-spangled month of July, the question that comes to mind is “What are the defining characteristics of an American Opera?” Should it be opera on identifiable American themes? Operas merely set in one of the fifty states? Or exhibiting a particularly American musical idiom? Operas composed by men and women who claimed the Americas as their “home” – either North or South?
For simplicity’s sake, I opted for the last definition when I contacted some of my favorite critics and opera writers, asking them to weigh-in on the three greatest “American” operas. The critics were allowed to rank them—one, two and three—or present them as a trio of equals, and their choices were assigned a numerical value based upon those decisions. Some critics asked to keep their participation or comments unattributed, others did not.
Although close to the same numbers of votes were actually cast for the first and second place picks, due to the arbitrary weighting system I established, the winner by a country mile was George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Gershwin’s 1935 masterpiece garnered more first place rankings than any other opera in our informal poll, prompting D Magazine’s Wayne Lee Gay to write, “It’s the great American story—the departure from our old, simple communities to the world of commerce and urbanization—with all the good and bad of our national character, set to a score any composer should envy and emulate. Gershwin’s limitless musical imagination and boundless inventiveness, as well as his ability to absorb influences and make them his own, is always astounding. On top of that, every moment is just plain beautiful and engaging.”
Scott Cantrell, Classical Music Critic for The Dallas Morning News essentially agreed: “The attempt at black dialect may make us a bit uncomfortable, but it remains a powerful story—and an all-too-persistent one of an underclass victimized by substance abuse. And nobody ever composed greater tunes. Even Gershwin’s sense of timing and proportion is first-rate—right up there with Puccini’s. If my hand were held to the fire, I’d say this is THE great American opera.”
David Shengold, who regularly covers opera for a variety of publications from Opernwelt to Opera News, created his own mathematical equation to express his admiration for the piece: “Mussorgsky + African-American jazz artistry + Jerome Kern = Gershwin’s genius opera, surely the most generative of great melodies of any American opera.”
Coming in at number two in our poll was Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah about which Katherine Baltrush, the managing editor of Opera America magazine wrote: “In this work, Floyd explores the struggle between religion and desire. When the Puritans began to colonize this part of the world, they often wrote of having found a Garden of Eden where Man might begin his relationship with God and himself anew. When we meet Susannah, her innocence and blissful ignorance allow her to occupy her own small paradise…this story of a community’s fear and subsequent warping of religion in Appalachia resonates strongly. Supported by Floyd’s lush scoring and lyrical vocal writing, the loss of yet another Eden becomes about individual struggles as well as those of a religion.”
Number three was Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. “It showed Europe that American composers could beat them at their own game,” wrote Gregory Sullivan Isaacs of Theater Jones, “and its Pulitzer Prize was well-deserved.” David Shengold admitted there’s “nothing ‘American’ about its subject matter, but it’s wonderfully orchestrated and scored for the voice (and) creates characters who live on in your mind.”
The poll respondents voted Douglas Moore’s 1956 opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, into fourth place. One critic wrote: “Ballad of Baby Doe, Susannah and A View from the Bridge—Each has a quintessential Americanness, which is to say that the ‘operatic’ qualities of these works are relatively low-key. And I think that’s a hallmark of American opera.”
Coming in at number five was the work that had its 2010 world premiere right here in Dallas: Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick which, wrote William H. Burnett of Opera Warhorses, “points the way to the future of opera: 1) an infusion of melody, so beautifully constructed that it might be themes from the great franchise movie scores, and 2) an intelligent, focused libretto….Jake Heggie may be the one who writes the great American operas (and the first additions to the core operatic repertory in over 85 years).”
After that, it’s a free-for-all, with critical votes cast for Adams’ Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic; Virgil Thomson’s suffragette opera, The Mother of Us All; John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles; Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass; William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge with a libretto by the late, great Arthur Miller; Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree which struck a chord with critic Maria Nockin for “an aria that speaks to me directly. It has to do with an unmarried female renting rooms and what the landlord thinks is his to trifle with,” Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land.
A bit further off the beaten path were selections that included Daniel Catan’s Florencia en al Amazonas (“It blew me away when Houston did it,” wrote Scott Cantrell, “another powerful story, with bits of fantasy, bathed in gorgeous music. I keep hoping either Dallas or FW Opera will revive it!”); the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night by Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell (“I was completely transfixed at its world premiere,” wrote New York-based critic Olivia Giovetti [Gramophone, Classical Singer]. “It’s big, bold, comprised of four languages and manifold musical styles, and in that way epitomizes the melting pot of American music,” adding, “its viewpoints on war, I find, come from a distinctly American perspective…and the music is just a wonder.”); and Jule Styne’s Gypsy: A Musical Fable about stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Critic Wayne Lee Gay found himself “falling more deeply in love with the story and music….It’s not Puccini, but Rose’s final aria exploits traditional harmony and the capabilities and potential of the human voice to express an emotional state right up there with the best of ‘em.”
Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs—like several of his peers—agonized over his final choice: “I am in a quandary. I would like to pick something on an American theme, such as Copland’s Tender Land or Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe or an opera that requires a big Strauss-sized production like Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles. However, I have long been a champion of (Lee) Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke (I recommend it to every opera company director I meet) and must go with that opera again this time. Besides,” Isaacs adds, “it tosses in two of America’s greatest writers, with a play by Tennessee Williams and a libretto by Lanford Wilson.”
So, how would you go about defining “American opera”? And if we ran them up a flagpole—which three would you salute?
UPDATE: You can declare and defend your personal favorites online at theaterjones.com, as well.
-Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR