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What makes an "American" opera? Washington National Opera believe they know...


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Author Topic: What makes an "American" opera? Washington National Opera believe they know...  (Read 319 times)
Neil McGowan
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« on: January 12, 2012, 05:30:45 pm »

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the hallmarks of American opera are theatricality, accessibility, directness -- all things that set it apart from European contemporary fare.

 Huh

Well-known Europhobe Anne "Mental" Midgette takes up the story...
(Washington Post)

It seems to me a pity that all Midgette can think of by way of defining "American" opera is a series of sideswipes at what she (wrongly) believes goes on in European opera theatres.  But perhaps there is nothing else to say for "American" operas?  Midgette seems to claim "Showboat" is an "American opera".

Menotti and Barber must be turning in their graves - and it's enough to send Ned Rorem and Robert Ward to theirs Sad
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ahinton
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« Reply #1 on: January 12, 2012, 05:52:21 pm »

Quote
the hallmarks of American opera are theatricality, accessibility, directness -- all things that set it apart from European contemporary fare.

 Huh

Well-known Europhobe Anne "Mental" Midgette takes up the story...
(Washington Post)

It seems to me a pity that all Midgette can think of by way of defining "American" opera is a series of sideswipes at what she (wrongly) believes goes on in European opera theatres.  But perhaps there is nothing else to say for "American" operas?  Midgette seems to claim "Showboat" is an "American opera".

Menotti and Barber must be turning in their graves - and it's enough to send Ned Rorem and Robert Ward to theirs Sad
Indeed. That said, however, there might, I submit, be some argument for suggesting that what makes an American opera an American opera is a stage work that happens to be written by and American citizen, rather as Elliott Carter (and, I seem to recall, also Virgil Thomson independently of him) said that to write a piece of American music you simply have to be an American citizen and then just write what you want to write. That said, the notion that there might even be such a thing as Americanocentric opera might arguably invite the accusation that at least some proportion of such work might of necessity risk being rather too inward-lookingly "American"-oriented to be capable of travelling successfully to opera houses elsewhere in the world - not a problem of which one could sensibly accuse Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss or even Britten. There is indeed some perception that "American opera" has somehow acquired some indelible synonymity with the world of Broadway - and even that this is not necessarily a problem insofar as it may be so (though I cannot imagine how anyone who's encountered Sessions's Montezuma or even Carter's What Next? would think along such lines); however, since as far as I am aware there's no such parallel between, say, post-WWII British operas and the world of the West End musical, I cannot help but wonder why this is so (or at least why it is thought to be so) - or rather why what supposedly holds good on one side of the water holds little or no "water" in Britain. OK, I can accept that certain of Sondheim's work might be thought of as blurring the lines between the Broadway musical and the world of opera, but the extent to which it can seriously be considered to do this nevertheless remains vainshingly small, I think - and, in any case, I am far from convinced that Sondheim was actually seeking consciously to do any such thing, really.
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #2 on: January 12, 2012, 09:40:33 pm »

I can accept that certain of Sondheim's work might be thought of as blurring the lines between the Broadway musical and the world of opera, but the extent to which it can seriously be considered to do this nevertheless remains vainshingly small, I think - and, in anyh case, I am far from convinced that Sondheim was actually seeking consciously to do any such thing, really.

Yes, I can entirely sympathise with your view there Smiley

What's remained unsaid in Midgette's piece here is something rather more uncomfortable...  namely what will an American public actually get off their butts and go to?   It's a question that returns us to the topic that cropped up last week - does the composer write "for the audience", or what he/she believes "should" be written?  Midgette sidesteps the issue of whether the American public needs something a bit... well, let's grasp the nettle, something a bit simpler?  I'm utterly unconvinced by the idea of moving the goalposts to make "Showboat" an "opera" simply because the USA is a bit short of them?

Of course the USA has been the producing domestically-composed opera since the latter decades of the C18th - albeit by transplanted Englishmen. The Americas were the setting for operas even before that - Purcell's THE INDIAN QUEEN is set in the Americas, although the plot is so absurdly labyrinthine that it hasn't encouraged modern productions. Purcell also wrote incidental music to Aphra Behn's ORINOOCO - one of the earliest anti-racist works for the English stage, with an extremely negative portrayal of the slave industry in the American plantations.  A century later there are Samuel Arnold's INKLE & YARICO (a proto-Madam Butterfly story of the feckless Inkle, who plans to sell his American lover Yarico to slavers, to finance a marriage to an English girl instead... although a somewhat artificial "happy end" is engineered) - but the music is drearily four-square and makes nothing at all of the exotic locations.  Stephen Storace's THE CHEROKEE probably wins the award for "first operatic western"... the "March Of The Indian Braves" is disappointingly dull, but the "War Whoop Of The Cherokees" finally finds the right approach and is appropriately non-European in sound.  Even Russians were writing operas set in the Americas - Yevstigey Fomin produced АМЕРИКАНЦЫ ("The Americans") in 1800 (actually it's all set in Mexico).

We ought not to forget that the man now known For Something Completely Different - John Philip Sousa - made his fortune writing American operettas in the C19th - and very good they are too, in a quasi-Sullivan style.  I'm surprised that the tub-thumping Ms Midgette didn't mention this.  But then - I doubt she knew.  Or that even many Americans know either.

But the C20th was American opera's finest hour - from PORGY & BESS onwards. Along the way we have Barber's lush VANESSA. Douglas Moore's BALLAD OF BABY DOE, Robert Ward's astonishing THE CRUCIBLE, Menotti's THE MEDIUM (the last verismo opera of all, with its hard-boiled plot and smoking-gun final curtain).  And they're all set in America, too.












But how on earth has Midgette managed to ignore this?


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ahinton
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« Reply #3 on: January 12, 2012, 09:54:16 pm »

I won't take up space quoting, but all interesting stuff and good to read, Neil. Again, though, I'm not sure that the 20th century operas that you mention were really geared to be hopefully regarded by later genertions as specifically "Amercian" (in the "Americanocentric" sense) operas - no, not even Porgy & Bess - but as operas in their own right that could well make successful journeys elsewhere (as at least some of them already have - not, of course, that you were suggesting otherwise!)...
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #4 on: January 12, 2012, 10:24:24 pm »

I'm not sure that the 20th century operas that you mention were really geared to be hopefully regarded by later genertions as specifically "Amercian" (in the "Americanocentric" sense) operas - no, not even Porgy & Bess -

No, I'm sure they were not geared that way Smiley  Although there was indeed a spur to write "the Great American Opera", in the same way that there was to write The Great American Novel.  Prior to WW2 at least, America did feel a need to Show Those Europeans A Thing Or Two Smiley  Kurt Weill (who, bless him, believed himself to be a fine American, no matter how posterity might portray him) certainly felt this need...  one can see why, with his emotional need to blot-out his former European past.  (He is said to have never spoken German again - not even to Lotte Lenya).

Unfortunately THE ETERNAL ROAD's moments of inspiration are lost in its unremitting cloying sentimentality. Weill's most operatic moments were on Broadway, rather than the opera stage.  Once he gets going - as in THIS IS THE LIFE from LOVE LIFE - he can write superb theatrical music.
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #5 on: January 24, 2012, 09:02:24 am »

"Skylight Opera" have dropped the term "opera" from what they do...
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ahinton
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« Reply #6 on: January 24, 2012, 10:18:03 am »

Clearly, this company seems to regard the art of perpetuating its identity crisis as fundamental to its image. Equally clearly, they seem blissfully unaware of the rather more familiar (in Europe, at least) connotation of the term "Music Theatre". Somehow, I don't expect it to mount productions of Die Soldaten - or even the home-grown Montezuma or What Next? any time soon. On this basis, "what makes an American opera?" is presumably any stage work composed by an American citizen that people who think as this company does would rather decribe as anything at all other than an "opera" - cuz op'ra's Úlitist, innit?...
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #7 on: February 20, 2012, 10:55:34 am »

and more stuff about what makes an American opera...
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #8 on: February 21, 2012, 01:21:48 pm »

The curse of Captain Ahab appears to have hit Ben Heppner....
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #9 on: March 20, 2013, 08:16:03 pm »

Sarasota Opera are abandoning their series of American Operas (mentioned above).

Apparently they believe American audiences aren't interested in them  Huh
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