Top 10 Recent American Novels that Would Make Amazing Operas

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Somewhere in the three-and-a-half hours that comprise Elevator Repair Service’s stunning The Select (The Sun Also Rises) at New York Theater Workshop—close to the start of it, in fact—I was struck by the musicality of Hemingway. It’s something you notice in his texts, to be sure, the sparse and earnest staccato of his descriptions and rhapsodic bagatelles of dialogue. However, a top-flight cast and some intricate sound design courtesy of Ben Williams and Matt Tierney (also cast members) helped to unfold the vast potential of Papa Hemingway’s canon.

American literature of the last century has seen its share of operatic adaptations: The Met has produced both The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy; an adaptation of Elmer Gantry was recently released on CD by Naxos records; and in San Francisco Thomas Hampson is currently singing the role of Rick Rescoria in Heart of a Soldier, a new opera based on James B. Stewart’s nonfiction bestseller of the same name.

It seems with American (or at least English-language) operas you can’t swing a copy of Sophie’s Choice without hitting a new work based on a comparatively recent novel, play or history. And yet, there are some others that are just begging for the same musical treatment. Here are my top 10 picks for some new, if not entirely novel, works.

10. The House of Yes (Wendy MacLeod)
Just say “yes” to Wendy MacLeod’s play—which was also made into a film starring Parker Posey—about a sister who believes she’s Jackie-O, her brother with whom she has a Siegmund-and-Sieglinde–style relationship and a fair amount of gunfire. It has the potential to be one dragged-out mad scene that compiles the awesomeness of every bel canto masterpiece with a special unhinge-iness along the lines of John Adams’s Madame Mao.

 9. An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (David Farley)
As a point of full disclosure, I know author David Farley in real life. However, you’re not going to find too many travelogue-cum-histories about the search for Jesus’s purloined foreskin, and the bizarreness of this true-story screams for a librettist like Royce Vavrek (Vinkensport, or the Finch Opera) and a composer who can weave a Parsifal–like score around this holy quest. The surrounding cast of eccentric Calcata, Italy locals is icing on the cannoli.

8. Glengarry Glen Ross (David Mamet)
How has David Mamet eluded opera for so long? As a confirmed Bach fan, his play showcasing the unquiet desperation of Chicago real estate agents would work especially well among Johann Sebastian’s fugue states, even if the supertitles would have to be heavily censored for the subsequent PBS broadcasts. And since Alec Baldwin, who starred in the film adaptation, is also an opera fan, perhaps we could even figure out a Pasha Selim-like role for him in this adaptation? 

7. Maus (Art Spiegelman)
Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen may have been the first opera based on a comic strip, but there’s certainly room to expand on this sub-genre. And there are plenty of ties to Vixen here, with the cast of this Pulitzer-winning work consisting entirely of animal characters representing human counterparts through some sharp symbolism. And it would make great use of Hans Neuenfels’s multitude of rat costumes created for his Bayreuth production of Lohengrin. Talk about symbolism.  

6. Freedom (Jonathan Franzen) 
Speaking of water, Franzen apparently walks on it thanks to this highly anticipated follow-up novel to his runaway hit, The Corrections. Regardless of how deserved the hype is, Franzen’s handle on family dynamics is potently charged and ready-made for an ensemble cast and a composer with a nostalgic touch. And Minnesota, the setting of this novel, has a commitment to new works in both its opera company and orchestra, so this work pretty much produces itself. 

5. The Secret History (Donna Tartt) and Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
I've grouped these two novels together for their prep-school-confidential themes, not to mention central murders in both. While they’re each sprawling and deserving of their own full-length adaptations, they could also thrive as two one-acts in a Cav-Pag pairing, offering central roles for both a male (The Secret History) and female (Physics) that undergo similar transformations and life changes in the hallowed halls of ivied academia.

4. Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer)
Foer’s first novel is a triptych of folktale written by a young American Jewish man in search of his Ukranian past, a memoir written in broken English by his Odessa-based tour guide and letters between the two. There’s an opportunity for an Ariadne auf Naxos-like twofer in narrative structure and characters, not to mention a perfect vehicle for two young tenors in the two main roles. (My fantasy, my fachs, okay?)

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz)
Here’s another Hemingway reference (the title is a not to the master’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”) but with a much wider reach in terms of America’s multiculti tapestry. Frankly, opera, especially American opera, could use a little move diversity among its characters and this one would fire on all cylinders with themes touching on the diaspora and all of its ensuing entanglements. And with sci-fi, comic books and the opportunity for a bilingual English and Spanish libretto, what’s not to love?

2. Black Water (Joyce Carol Oates)
Oates boasts a canon of works that have dramatic heft and lyrical tendencies, but Black Water has an edge over the competition with its utter American-ness, including a political scandal based on the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, a skewering of the American dream and a drunk ride gone sour. Oates’s repetition factors in as a nice Handelian touch, and if Dallas Opera can create visual magic for the boats in Moby Dick, staging a car crashing into a lake shouldn’t bee too hard.

1. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
If Prokofiev could make his way through War and Peace and siphon it down into a hearty yet digestible opera, someone should be able to take on David Foster Wallace’s brick of a tome—clocking in at over 1,000 pages—that teems with dystopia and footnotes. The latter would be especially mindblowing to experience in a musical adaptation. And each corporate-sponsored year could have its own intermezzo, from the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar to the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.

What books would you love to see turned into operas? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.