Adapting 'The Great Gatsby': Film or Opera?

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The return of "The Great Gatsby" to cinemas comes just as composer John Harbison's opera adaptation from a decade ago is getting some fresh attention in concert halls. Coincidence? It's hard to say if the film begot the opera revivals, but here's a cheat sheet on what to listen for in each version.

Baz Lurhmann’s 'The Great Gatsby'

There’s little jazz in Baz Lurhmann’s unabashedly glitzy take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz-age novel, which opens in US theaters on Friday. Instead, the director couches the lavish lifestyle of Jay Gatsby in a mélange of contemporary rap, rock and torch songs. Produced by Jay-Z, the soundtrack includes contributions from Beyoncé & OutKast's Andre 3000, Emeli Sande, Jack White and Lana Del Rey.

The Concept:

Luhrmann’s idea is that jazz in Fitzgerald’s day was the hot new sound but, if heard today, it would sound dusty to modern ears. He wanted to create the same sense of surprise that readers felt in the 1920s. Thus enters hip hop. "If Fitzgerald coined the phrase 'The Jazz Age,' then I think we're living in 'The Hip Hop Age,'" Luhrmann told MTV News.

Jazz-Age Sounds:

Modern and vintage sounds mix it up with contemporary pop artists. There’s an old timey banjo in Bryan Ferry’s “Love is the Drug.” Ragtime piano flourishes accentuate "Where the Wind Blows" by the singer Coco O. Jay-Z’s own "100$ Bill" segues to a jazz version of the song by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra. Songs by Fergie and also feature flourishes of swing and jazz, appropriate to party scenes.

Critical reception:

The Christian Science Monitor slammed the filmmakers for pandering to a younger demographic and straining to seem relevant with the hip-hop-oriented soundtrack. The Village Voice bluntly called it a failure, contending that it was hurt by Jay-Z’s too-corporate approach. But Philadelphia Inquirer pop critic Dan Deluca was decidedly more convinced, writing that Jay-Z’s involvement “makes sense on thematic and artistic grounds” and that several of the songs were highly effective.


John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby

The Metropolitan Opera premiered John Harbison's operatic adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 1999 to somewhat mixed reviews. But the work has been enjoying a rebirth of its own, with a 2012 performance at San Francisco Opera and a Boston concert performance by Emmanuel Music slated for May 12. On Tuesday, the Albany Symphony gave the local premiere of a 25-minute Great Gatsby Suite as part of the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall (broadcast live on WQXR).

The Concept:

Harbison has said he began working on The Great Gatsby in 1985, when he composed his own libretto after reading the novel and realizing that it had operatic potential. The finished piece, which included lyrics by Murray Hopwitz, includes a dozen jazz age-style songs.

Jazz-Age Sounds:

Harbison, has a background in jazz, introduced 1920's-style songs such as faux foxtrots and swing numbers. Many of these appear as source music – that is, one hears the music coming from a radio on-stage, or from a band at a party (many audience members mistook these for authentic tunes of the era). The songs are couched in a lush, neo-Romantic score.

Critical Reception:

In its 1999 review, New York Times critic Bernard Holland wrote that the opera “may be too respectful of Fitzgerald for its own good.” Saving his praise for a couple of party scenes, Holland added: “Mr. Harbison is beholden to perhaps too many elements of this enterprise, but every so often his musical imagination rises, hearteningly, in revolt.” The San Francisco Chronicle recently complained of the opera's “stilted dramaturgy" in the 2012 revival. But the Times’s Anthony Tommasini expressed his admiration for the opera, if less so for the suite.

Listen to the Albany Symphony's performance of the Great Gatsby Suite (about 14:00 in):

Photo: Dawn Upshaw as Daisy Buchanan, Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby and Mark Baker as Tom Buchanon in 'The Great Gatsby' (Winnie Klotz/Metropolitan Opera)