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Getting started with American opera

American opera spans every genre of opera and more than 150 years. If you're not sure where to begin, or if you want to explore a particular topic, here are a few recommendations on operas and composers to get you started.

usopera.com recommends:

Souvenirs from American Opera
A collection of sometimes hard-to-find early recordings of American opera music. Low fidelity but full of historical and musical interest.

Essential American operas | Lesser-known works | One-act masterpieces | Unperformed operas | The African-American opera tradition | Early American operas | Christmas and holiday operas | Operas by American women | Operas with famous librettists | American opera at the Met

Essential American operas

Through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American operas had trouble gaining a foothold in the opera house. Today, that is slowly changing, although new productions of American works are still rarer than they should be. However, a few works have managed to stay in the repertory, and others have had cultural impacts despite having only a few performances.

Three such operas are Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, and Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul. Floyd and Moore combine traditional European operatic models with American folk influences to tell a distinctly American story: in the case of Baby Doe, the real-life rags-to-riches story of Horace "Silver Dollar" Tabor and in the case of Susannah, a Biblical tragedy reset in the American Bible Belt. The Italian-born Menotti creates a chilling picture of European totalitarianism and, by implication, American complicity.

A pair of very different works are undoubtedly the most performed American operas. Every year, dozens if not hundreds of schools, churches, and other amateur groups perform Gian Carlo Menotti's beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors. (And see the list of other Christmas operas below). Meanwhile, George Gershwin's jazz-influenced Porgy and Bess, and especially the song "Summertime," has entered deeply into the American musical consciousness, having been performed by artists of every description, including Maria Callas, Billie Holiday, Barry Manilow, Janis Joplin, Snoop Dogg, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. How many operatic arias can say that?

Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All have had fewer performances but, through their premiere productions and their recordings, had a significant impact on American opera and are still required listening for serious students of American music.

Lesser-known works

While a few works have grabbed the spotlight, many American operas have come and gone almost unnoticed, and among these are more than a few excellent works that well deserve a revival.

Often, even where one work has entered the repertory, a composer's other works will still not get a proper hearing. Until very recently, this was the case with Carlisle Floyd. His Susannah was one of the best-known American operas, but his other works, including the excellent Of Mice and Men, have rarely been heard.

In other cases, a composer has disappeared entirely from public view. One of the strangest cases is that of Harry Lawrence Freeman, an early African-American composer who supported himself and his own opera company during his lifetime, playing to predominantly black audiences, but whose music barely survives today in any form.

One-act masterpieces

Because an evening-length opera requires an enormous commitment of time and money to create and perform, many composers have tried their hand at shorter pieces. While too rarely performed by major companies, one-acts and other short pieces are extremely useful for small opera companies and student productions, as well as effective theater pieces in their own right.

Douglas Moore's Gallantry stands out as a great unknown piece; a one-act "soap opera," complete with commercials; the humor of the libretto is complemented perfectly by some of Moore's best music. Other notable one-act operas are Samuel Barber's ten-minute-long A Hand of Bridge, Amy Beach's Cabildo, Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, Frederick Shepard Converse's The Pipe of Desire, Carlisle Floyd's Markheim, Louis Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones, Gian Carlo Menotti's The Telephone, and Hugo Weisgall's The Tenor and The Stronger.

Dominick Argento has taken this "small is better" even farther, with two once-act monodramas, each a full dramatic opera performed by a single singer alone:Miss Havisham's Wedding Night for soprano and A Water Bird Talk for baritone.

Unperformed operas

Many American works, even those by major composers, remain unperformed to this day. This provides a unique opportunity for opera companies, which can have both the prestige of a world premiere and the certainty of being able to play through the piece before programming it. This approach was used to great effect by the Houston Grand Opera in 1975, when they mounted the premiere of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. A smaller company in Boston put on the first performance of George Whitefield Chadwick's The Padrone in 1995. The work had been composed for the Met in 1912 but rejected due to its depiction of life among the American poor.

Otto Luening is now a well-respected figure in American music, but his opera, Evangeline, has never been performed ro recorded in its entirety. The music of Edward Joseph Collins has been undergoing a revival, but so far Collins' only opera, A Daughter of the South, remains unperformed. John Knowles Paine's Azora (c. 1907), and several operas by Silas G. Pratt, whom Richard Wagner called "the Richard Wagner of the United States," are similarly unperformed. (Pratt responded, of course, by dubbing Wagner the "Silas Pratt of Germany.")

Frederick Shepard Converse's The Immigrants, prepared for the Boston Opera Company, remained unperformed after that company's demise in 1914; Converse also left an unperformed light opera, Beauty and the Beast. And the difficulties faced by African-American and woman composers like Harry Lawrence Freeman, Mary Carr Moore, and William Grant Still left many of their works unperformed.

Even William Henry Fry, composer of the first American grand opera, Leonora (1845), wrote a second, even earlier opera, that remains unperformed. A production of Aurelia the Vestal (composed c. 1841) could perhaps be billed as the world premiere of the earliest known American opera.

The African-American opera tradition

Musicologists are finally starting to discover the rich traditon of African-American concert music, for too long cut off from mainstream performance or recording. African-Americans have been writing opera as long as any other kind of American, and their work deserves a serious reappraisal.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) has finally been recognized by the mainstream musical community, for his piano and chamber music and for great orchestral works such as his Afro-American Symphoney and In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died For Democracy. But few remember the operas that made up a major part of Still's musical legacy. Even Troubled Island, which premiered at the New York City Opera in 1949 with a libretto by Langston Hughes, is not available as a commercial recording. Scott Joplin's single surviving opera, Treemonisha, did not receive its professional premiere until 1975, despite the enduring popularity of his piano music.

Other African-American opera composers have yet to be rediscovered. Harry Lawrence Freeman composed more than a dozen opreas, many of which were performed by his own company, the Negro Grand Opera Opera Company, which toured African-American communities across the country. Ulysses Kay, a student of William Grant Still and respected African-American composer, also wrote several operas, now rarely performed.

Meanwhile, new African-Americans have been making names for themselves in opera. One of the most prominent is Anthony Davis, whose operas, including X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad, combine traditional European musical models with elements of African-American genres like jazz and hip-hop.

Early American opera

Since this site launched in 1996, a resurgence in interest in contemporary opera has benefited many modern American composers. But many older American composers have yet to be rediscovered.

The earliest conventional grand opera written by an American is generally considered to be William Henry Fry's Leonora, which premiered in Philadelphia in 1845. Fry's operas, in the bel canto style, are skilfully done. Most of the composers of Fry's generation hewed closely to either German or Italian models, including Silas Gamliel Pratt, whom Richard Wagner famously called the "Richard Wagner of the United States." Pratt rejoined by labeling Wagner the "Silas Pratt of Germany." Other composers of this generation include George Frederick Bristow, the German-born Julius Eichberg, and the organist and composer Dudley Buck.

The turn of the century found a new growth of native classical music, with composers of the Second New England School, such as Amy Beach and George Whitefield Chadwick. Other composers continued to work in contemporary European, and especially German, idioms; these Germanic composers included Frederick S. Converse and Howard Hanson. Meanwhile, the Indianist school, led by Charles Wakefield Cadman, turned to the music of the American Indian for inspiration in an attempt to create a uniquely American sound.

Other notable composers of this period include Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964), a creative Lithuanian-born composer who premiered the popular opera The Emperor Jones at the Met, while also premiering innovative works like Green Mansions, composed for radio and featuring a prominent solo role for musical saw; and Reginald De Koven, a composer of popular operettas who crossed over to write skilful comic operas for the Met.

Christmas and holiday operas

Amahl and the Night Visitors is undoubtedly the most-performed American opera of all time, with church and community groups mounting productions every Christmas season. It is effective and popular, but for groups interested in branching out, there are alternatives to Amahl.

Like Amahl, Douglas Moore's The Greenfield Christmas Tree is a one-act piece that can be performed with mostly young singers and a children's chorus. It tells the story of the first Christmas tree in Massachusetts, complete with carols, Scandinavian dancing and talking animals.

David Conte has written a one-act opera based on O. Henry's classic Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi, which has been performed on a double bill with Amahl. Amateur companies should also give strong consideration to Randall Thompson's The Nativity According to St. Luke, written for amateur performance by one of America's foremost choral composers.

For an evening-length piece, John Adams' opera-cantata El Nino has challenging music for a professional company and soloists, and some of the only loosely connected numbers could be exerpted for concert performance.

Operas by American women

Women have long been underrepresented in certain musical professions, and especially in the ranks of composers. American women composers often had difficulty having their works performed, making the composition of operas especially impractical. However, despite these odds, there are some notable women in the ranks of America's opera composers.

One of the most prominent American woman composers of any type is Amy Beach. While famous for her songs, Beach wrote only one opera, the one-act Cabildo. It is not often performed today, but a recording is available.

The lack of performances did not deter early American woman composer Mary Carr Moore. While none of her ten completed operas received professional performances in her lifetime, her David Rizzio did have a gala amateur production at the Hollywood Bowl courtesy of some of the leading lights of the Los Angeles musical community when a planned European professional premiere fell through.

More recently, composers such as Brooklyn-born Deborah Drattell have had more access to the opera houses where their work belongs; Drattell's operas have been performed at the New York City Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, Glimmerglass, and other major companies.

Operas with famous librettists

Along with its best composers, some of America's best-known poets and playwrights have contributed to the American opera tradition.

Poets have always been drawn to opera. Gertrude Stein's librettos for Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All contributed greatly both to the works' power and to its formidable reputation as a modernist masterpiece. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote Deems Taylor's The King's Henchman. More recently, J.D. McClatchy wrote Lowell Liebermann's Miss Lonelyhearts and Tobias Picker's Emmeline, and William Schuman's A Question of Taste; Alice Goodman wrote extremely effective librettos for John Adams' first two operas, Nixon in Chine and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Playwrights have also contributed, with Arthur Miller helping to adapt his own play for William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge and DuBose Heyward doing the same for Gershwin's Porgy and Bess; Langston Hughes adapted his play, The Drums of Haiti, for William Grant Still's Troubled Island. Wendy Wassterstein has written original librettos for composer Deborah Drattell, and David Henry Hwang has written librettos for Philip Glass,Osvaldo Golijov, and Howard Shore.

John Updike wrote the libretto for Gunther Schuller's The Fisherman and his Wife. Novelist Doris Lessing has adapted two of her own works for operas by Philip Glass.

A few other prominent citizens have lent their words to others' music. Famous Broadway wordsmith Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) crossed over to the opera stage to do the librettos to two of Jack Beeson's operas, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines and Doctor Heidegger's Fountain of Youth. Film director Robert Altman worked on the libretto for William Bolcom's McTeague.

Many American composers were also their own librettists; but very few had the advantage Paul Bowles had of also being a renowned novelist; Bowles' best-known work is not one of his compositions but his novel, The Sheltering Sky. And composer Gian Carlo Menotti was the librettist for two of his partner Samuel Barber's three operas, Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge as well as for Lukas Foss' Introductions and Good-Byes.

American opera at the Met

The Metropolitan Opera in New York plays a unique role in American musical life; its enormous repertory and its broadcast initiatives make it the visible face of opera in the United States. But its relationship with American opera composers has sometimes been rocky.

The first American composition performed by the Met was Frederick Sheperd Converse's The Pipe of Desire, a one-act in the German style that had premiered in Boston in 1906. The Met gave it three performances in the 1910 season, on double bills with either Cavalleria Rusticana or Pagliacci.

For the next few decades, the Met embarked on an ambitious series of American premieres, beginning with Horatio Parker's Mona in 1912, winner of a contest set by the Met. These included Walter Damrosch's Cyrano (1913), Victor Herbert's Madeleine (1914), Reginald DeKoven's The Canterbury Pilgrims (1917), Charles Wakefield Cadman's Shanewis (1918), J. C. Breil's The Legend (1919), and Henry Hadley's Cleopatra's Night (1920). Many of these works failed to see a second production elsewhere or even a second season at the Met. During this period the Met also commissioned but rejected George Whitfield Chadwick's The Padrone, intended for the 1912 season; the subject matter of the work, crime and gang life among the urban American poor, was considered too "verismo" for the house; instead, mythological and heroic subjects ruled the day. The Padrone went unperformed until 1995.

Possibly the most successful of these Met premieres was Deems Taylor's The King's Henchman (1927), a grand opera with a libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Taylor's next opera, the less well-received Peter Ibbetson (1931), also premiered at the Met. In the thirties, the Met also performed two successful but now rarely-performed operas, Louis Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones (1933), with Lawrence Tibbett in the leading role, and Howard Hanson's grand romantic opera, Merry Mount (1934).

A few less distinguished works, John Lawrence Seymour's In the Pasha's Garden (1935) and Walter Damrosch's The Man Without a Country (1937), followed, before the Met discovered a new American talent. This was Gian Carlo Menotti. In 1938, the Met produced his first opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball, which had already been played in Philadelphia, the first American opera other than a world premiere to be produced at the Met since The Pipe of Desire in 1910. The Met also premiered Menotti's The Island God in 1942. In between, there was another contest like the one that had produced Mona; this time, the winner was Bernard Rogers, whose one-act opera, The Warrior, received two performance in 1947.

In the following years, the pace of American productions at the Met slowed. Other than two revivals of earlier Menotti works (The Last Savage in 1964 and The Telephone in 1965) the only American works that would be performed at the Met in the next twenty-five years were two operas by Samuel Barber.

Barber's Vanessa was a huge success when it premiered in 1958, with Nicolai Gedda, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnick and Eleanor Steber in the title role, originally intended for Maria Callas, who refused it. As a result, the Met commissioned Barber to write the first piece to be performed in the new opera house at Lincoln Center. The result, Antony and Cleopatra (1966), was a critical and popular disaster, and the Met's next try at an American piece, Martin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Elektra (starring Sherrill Milne), was not much better received, although it has recently been revived to good reviews at New York City Opera.

The Met had better luck with its next premiere, Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts (1973) an unusually avant-garde work for the usually conservative company. Perhaps as a result, the Met's only attempts at American works for the next twenty years were three safe, established works: their first productions of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

The next new work to premiere at the Met was John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), which kicked off a new round of world premieres. These included Philip Glass' The Voyage (1992), John Harbison's The Great Gatsby (1999), William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge (2002), Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy (2005), Tan Dun's The First Emperor (2006), and Osvaldo Gojilov's Daedelus (scheduled for the 2011-12 season). During this time, the Met also began reviving deserving American works that had not yet been performed there, including Carlisle Floyd's Susannah and John Adams' Doctor Atomic, with a revival of Adams' Nixon in China planned for the 2010-11 season. AS the Met continues to expand both its reach, through new broadcast and on-line programs, and the depth and variet of its repertory, hopefully they will continue to provide a platform for American composers and works that deserve a wider stage.