Perhaps, like composer Mark Adamo, you think that Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women is not a good idea for an opera. For one, there already exist endless adaptations, including musical ones.
"Little Women," Adamo observes, "has materialized on the lyric stage five times before. Each treatment‹Evelyn Everest Freer's 1920 opera Scenes from Little Women; Geoffrey O'Hara's 1930-era operetta; Richard Adler's 1950 televised semi-musical; and two Broadway musicals, both titled Jo and both produced circa 1966‹strove to sing the March sisters' story on stage. Yet none of these incarnations survived its own day."
So the question remains: why take on a property that had been tried‹apparently with little success‹so many times? Truthfully, it wasn't his idea in the first place.
"Little Women has a rather peculiar genesis," says Adamo. "It…began with a little company in Washington, D.C., where I did my undergraduate degree and was having some small-scale success as a composer. And Summer Opera Theatre [at Catholic University] knew of me vaguely because I was writing criticism for the Washington Post. It was their idea to do an opera on Little Women. At the time, I wanted to write an opera, but the kind of opera that could be produced in the theater. I was going to be the Sondheim-Bernstein-Gershwin bridge; I was really thinking of writing the next Sweeney Todd. So it really was a good news/bad news call. The good news: you get to write an opera; the bad news: it's Little Women. How am I going to find my way into that?"
But find his way in he did. He took a big shaggy beast of a book and pared it down, and in doing this found out that there was more to it than a story of a few women in Civil War-era America‹this was a story with a still-relevant emotional thrust. "The thing that really gave it to me," recalls Adamo, "is the scene in which June Allyson (playing Jo in the 1949 film) is walking home; she's just sold a story; Laurie says 'I know where your sister's glove is.' (We don't really know if that's what he whispers into her ear, but he whispers something.) Then she runs home and then she sees Meg and Brooke in this clinch, and I thought 'My God, this is a book about abandonment.' So I got extremely excited about it. It seemed to me that the whole dynamic of it was crystal clear: she is not an adolescent trying to get out of her family, she is not trying to be Virginia Woolf, she is not a free spirit struggling against convention. She's got in her family, at that particular moment, the support and balance and freedom that people usually get in a marriage. She's smart enough to know she is happy and not yet wise enough to know that it is going to change."
In Adamo's reading, this is no folk opera; these are sophisticated, urbane people. Quite often the turning point in an American folk opera is when the young, sheltered adolescent leaves the farm to face the world‹as Laurie does in Copland's The Tender Land or Alexandra does in Blitzstein's Regina. Jo does not need‹like Tom Sawyer‹to escape her family in order to discover her own self. She is, in her own way, fully formed, just not yet ready to cope with one particular (and ultimately universal) emotional reality: change. "The conflict of Little Women," according to Adamo, "is Jo versus the passage of time."
Two poetic refrains define the libretto of Little Women: one is "Perfect as it was" and the other, "Things change"‹sentiments which outline the true pain of growing up. In the opera's first scene, Adamo wrote an aria for Jo‹sung just after Laurie has suggested that their relationship ought to revert to the "perfect-as- it-was" friendship they used to have‹which perfectly embodies her desperate cynicism. The words are poignant and sad:
Un-bake the breads;
Un-weave the mittens;
Un-feed the cats, see 'em
shrink back to kittens?
Just give me a moment…to
Un-make the beds;
Un-brew the tea;
Paste every fallen leaf back on the tree.
I'll just need a moment…
Clearly, in the battle against the passage of time, Jo‹like all of us‹cannot possibly win. And with a surface simplicity that only barely masks the emotional complexity beneath, Adamo gives us the universal struggle at the core of this piece: things do, in fact, change. Or, in the words of another American artist, Thomas Wolfe: "You can't go home again." Families dissolve; those we love move away; marriages happen, and work or don't; people die; people grow; feelings of friendship turn to love; love fades; work suffers or prospers; people have their exits and entrances‹and Jo, in turn, faces all of this head on.
The music of Little Women is, like its libretto, full of deep-seated‹as opposed to surface‹complexity. "The joke is," according to Adamo, "that I had determined the psychology of the piece, and then wondered what the music was going to sound like. I didn't want to do fake Brahms or Copland, but how do I get a great range of music without it sounding affected?"
For a book with such a strong sense of period and place, Adamo chose to create music with stylistic freedom‹all musical materials were at his disposal. Some of the music is spiky and a touch dissonant‹all of his recitatives are composed in high modernist style, more reminiscent of Berg or Schoenberg‹while there are arias of intense lyrical beauty, tonal and in major keys. "I'd like to think that what's the most intellectually American about Little Women is the fact that all of these materials are used as materials and not as political stances."
Adamo hearkens to a tradition, but like all progressives, he "misreads" the tradition his own way, creating something palpably new. What this amounts to is a new kind of opera, one that has no genre name yet attached to it. It is a piece in which the music and the libretto are of equal importance: sung theater rather than a symphony with words‹something more akin to the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, but with a larger orchestral palette. "In music school," Adamo says, "we learn a great deal about the workable range of the English horn but almost nothing about how to make a theatrical piece."
"American opera," Adamo says, "is a very fragile thing. But I am tickled by the success of Little Women. In a way, this is counterevidence for the argument that either a piece is going to be progressive and only ten of the holy elite will appreciate it and force it on everyone else, or the piece is going to be a popular success. My theory is that the general audience will not resist the progressive, but rather the unintelligible."
Daniel Felsenfeld, a New York composer and freelance journalist, has contributed articles to andante.com, ClassicsToday.com, NewMusicBox, Time Out New York, Strings Magazine and Newsday, and is a regular critic at WNYC.