5 U.S. Opera Premieres Bringing American Subjects to the Stage

Monday, March 28, 2016 - 01:07 PM

WQXR
Will Liverman and Lawrence Brownlee as Dizzy Gillespie and Parker in Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD (Dominic M. Mercier)

From the pyramids of ancient Egypt in Aida, to the imperial Chinese court in Turandot, the operatic repertoire is known for setting dramatic plots in far-flung locales. But a new crop of commissions for U.S. opera houses are focusing on the home front, adapting works that are distinctly American in scope and are set in the country.

These new operas draw inspiration from sources including the novels The Scarlet Letter and The Shining, as well as history books, such as those about the Kennedy assassination, the life of jazz master Charlie Parker and the integration of Major League Baseball. Here are five to look for:

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Philadelphia Opera and the Apollo Theater
In April, Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater presents its first ever opera production with the New York premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, an opera about the eponymous jazz saxophonist and composer. Written by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder, the work opens on the last day of Parker’s life in 1955, as he remembers his triumphs at the Birdland jazz club. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee plays Parker. A co-production of Opera Philadelphia and the now-defunct Gotham Chamber Opera, Yardbird debuted in Philadelphia this past June with Brownlee in the title role. At that time, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini praised its “pulsing, jazz-infused score.” 

The Shining, Minnesota Opera
Stephen King’s harrowing novel of a writer’s descent into madness in a desolate hotel was famously adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick, and now Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec has transformed it for the opera stage. Moravec's version, which debuts in April, hews closer to the book than the film and omits the famous ax-wielding "Heeere's Johnny" scene. Following a preview featuring excerpts from the work, David Patrick Stearns wrote that the opera, "may well be American verismo — modern in manner but harkening back to the era of Italian opera from a century ago with everyday characters and, by the end, unusually high corpse counts." 

JFK, Fort Worth Opera
This April, composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek premiere JFK, the imagined scenario depicting the last night President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy spent together before his assassination in Dallas in 1963. Commissioned by Fort Worth with the intent to create a work with local significance, the opera presents an intimate look at the First Couple’s personal relationship, rather than focusing on the assassination itself and the conspiracy theories surrounding it. Little explained that President Kennedy fascinates him in part because, “we project our fears, our anxieties and our hopes onto his mythology.”

The Scarlet Letter, Opera Colorado
In May, Opera Colorado will present the premiere of The Scarlet Letter, composer Lori Laitman’s adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about the tortured relationship between Hester Prynne, the adulteress condemned to wear the scarlet A, and the father of her child, minister Arthur Dimmesdale. Laitman is a composer best known for her vocal writing, having composed three operas, over 250 songs and an oratorio. Colorado’s production marks the second adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel for the opera house. Conductor and composer Walter Damrosch also set the tale to music, with a Wagnerian score first performed in Boston in 1896.

The Summer King, at Pittsburgh Opera 
In April 2017, Pittsburgh Opera will present the first world premiere in its 78-year history when it stages composer Daniel Sonenberg’s The Summer King. The piece depicts the life of African-American baseball star Josh Gibson. Described by the National Baseball Hall of Fame as “the best power hitter of his era in the Negro baseball leagues and perhaps even the majors,” Gibson narrowly missed his chance to play in the major leagues when he died in January 1947 at the age of 35, just months before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.

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Comments [6]

Darlene from Charleston SC

Meant "drove from Charleston" & "operas not mentioned"

Apr. 03 2016 02:16 AM
Darlene from Charleston SC

Thank you for an interesting article! However I was surprised that "Cold Mountain" (Jennifer Higdon/Gene Scheer) was not included. The fact that it was written by a woman is in my opinion highly significant. I. Drove from Charles to Philly to enjoy an amazing production by Opera Philadelphia. Maybe another article to include the opera not mentioned?

Apr. 03 2016 02:13 AM
Bill Florescu

Another unfortunate omission is the Florentine Opera's world premiere of Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein's Sister Carrie, slated for an October premiere - a recording of the production will be released on the Naxos label. The Florentine's recording of their earlier collaboration, Elmer Gantry garnered two Grammy awards in 2012.

Mar. 30 2016 02:51 PM
Samuel Mungo from San Marcos Texas

Texas State University has commissioned "Lady Bird: First Lady of the Land" from Henry Mollicone and Broadway librettist Sheldon Harnick, premiering April 28-May 1. Information at txstatepresents.com.

This opera will focus on Lady Bird Johnson's iconic train trip through the Deep South in 1964 in support of the Civil Rights Bill, what Bill Moyers called, ""the bravest thing I ever saw".

Universities such as Texas State are often real hotbeds for new and innovative productions of commissioned work. Worth a look!

Mar. 30 2016 01:27 PM
Justin from Florida

Surprised Santa Fe Opera's new commission "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" didn't make the list.

Mar. 30 2016 12:17 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Another opera that might be included in this category is Jorge Martin's "Before Night Falls," based on Reinaldo Arenas's memoir. A great success during its first performances, it now is scheduled to be performed next season by the Florida Grand Opera.

Why might "Before Night Falls" be considered an opera with an American subject?

As Martin says: "My opera is about people who flee to the US -- escaping oppression in their home countries -- and then form communities here. The story begins and ends in Manhattan and traverses Miami. In addition, the AIDS crisis -- central to the drama -- is an important chapter in recent American history. For those, and other reasons, I decided to write "Before Night Falls" in English."

Mar. 28 2016 06:55 PM

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