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Opera: An American Tradition

Josh Borths – February 22, 2017

1935—Broadway, New York City

Porgy and Bess was not supposed to premiere on Broadway. Originally, the work of George and Ira Gershwin was slated for performances at The Metropolitan Opera, but it quickly was withdrawn after management refused to perform the piece with an African American cast. Refusing to compromise on their vision, the Gershwin brothers instead took their epic tale of life, death and love on Catfish Row to the Great White Way. Clocking in over four hours—unorthodox even today—Porgy and Bess enjoyed a modest success in New York where it ran for 124 performances. However, despite its humble origins, the Gershwin’s genre-defying, passion project would soon resonate throughout the 20th century and be hailed as the first masterpiece of a new style of musical storytelling: American opera. 

The Gershwins were not the first to explore the operatic possibilities of American stories, but they were the first to get traction. Scott Joplin wrote a ragtime opera called Treemonisha in 1911, but the work remained on the shelf until its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in 1972. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the sprawling, epic Showboat, but Showboat was destined to become the first American musical – not the first American opera. 

In hindsight, George Gershwin was the perfect grandfather of American opera. Gershwin was a master musical manipulator, enticing mass audiences to fall in love with classical compositions. His concerto, Rhapsody in Blue, surreptitiously introducing jazz to American symphonies, was equally lauded by both Stravinsky and the founders of big band jazz. With Porgy and Bess, Gershwin unlocked the formula for American opera: combine socially-conscious stories with both classical and popular music to create bold, thrilling experiences for the audience.

1955—Tallahassee, Florida

While serving on the piano faculty at Florida State University, composer Carlisle Floyd itched to write something brash and new. As America spiraled into the darkest days of McCarthyism, Puccini’s French bohemians, Verdi’s ancient Egyptians, and Wagner’s Norse Gods seemed remote. Floyd took it upon himself to write an opera that would immediately capture the attention of American audiences and truly reflect contemporary society. 

While composing his new opera in a shack on campus — without airconditioning in the sweltering Florida heat — Floyd drew on his childhood growing up in the American South. He created a uniquely American sound by combining the fiddles of Dixie, the strings of Richard Strauss and a setting which brought the Biblical story of Susannah and the Elders to the Southern Bible belt. Floyd’s new opera, Susannah, premiered at Florida State and was soon the most performed American opera — second only to Porgy and Bess

Susannah was a revelation. The piece was quick, raw, disturbing, and relevant. Lasting only 90 minutes, Susannah gripped audiences from its opening bars and never let them go. Building on the formula laid out in Porgy and Bess, Floyd began a new wave of American opera, which grew exponentially in the decades following Susannah’s success. 

1987—Houston, Texas

“Relevance” is vital to American opera, but John Adams’ Nixon in China redefined the term by ripping its subject from the headlines. Politics in opera have a long, complicated relationship, and political figures historically wait centuries before making their operatic debuts. In England, Queen Elizabeth I had to wait until the coronation of Elizabeth II before appearing as a character onstage in her native tounge, and Napoleon had to wait until Prokofiev’s Soviet masterpiece, War and Peace, before he could sing a single note. However, John Adams and his collaborators, librettist Alice Goodman and stage director Peter Sellars, gave voice to a living U.S. President, and dramatized recent current events on the operatic stage.

However, it was not just its novel subject matter that confirmed Nixon in China as a milestone in American opera, nor was it Adams’ inspired use of minimalism—a new compositional style that relies on intense repetition to achieve emotional catharsis in the viewer. Instead, Nixon in China was revolutionary because it elevated American history to the heights of Wagnerian myth. In Nixon in China, the 37th President looms as large as Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. With Nixon in China, American opera entered adulthood. American opera no longer shied away from direct comparison to the titans of Europe. When Air Force One landed onstage in the opening sequence of the piece, Nixon in China broadcast to the world that American opera was a force to be reckoned with, worthy of its place next to the Italian, French, and German masters.

2017—Tucson, Arizona

Craig Bohmler was lucky enough to study composition under Carlisle Floyd, who continues composing today. Learning from the wonderful composer of Susannah, Bohmler worked to master American musical techniques in both classical and musical theater compositions. But in order for all traditions to thrive, the student must one day becomes the master, and in Tucson, Arizona, Bohmler enters the halls of American opera with the world-premiere of Riders of the Purple Sage

This American tradition began in the early 20th century as a series of experiments, but has since matured into a diverse, progressive repertory. And over the past 25 years, there have been more world premieres of American opera than the previous 75 combined, taking us back to the time of Puccini, Strauss and Gershwin. 

As with all artistic traditions, a breadth of work is required for history to do its job. Only when there is a critical mass of work can audiences, artists, administrators, critics, and scholars organically sift through and discern the masterpieces of any given time and place, American opera, produced at an ever-increasing rate, continues to push musical and theatrical boundaries as we advance into the 21st century.

Who knows what will happen to these pieces? Who knows which premieres will be remembered or disappear into obscurity? However, the first draft of history is written by the audiences who see it first. The audiences who — like you —  sit in darkened theaters, anticipating the music and drama that, for the moment, remains a mystery: a mystery that can only be revealed by experiencing something new and something American.

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