"In Connecticut," Wallace Stevens wrote, "we never lived in a time when mythology was possible." As a young country of burgeoning power situated in a newfound land, Americans have had to create their own myths, usually resorting to a deification of the Founding Fathers‹a cultural trope that has provided a host of Presidential biographies but not a lot of great art. So when American writers reach back to ancient subjects, it's not surprising that they frequently get in to trouble. In his long series of novels, Gore Vidal has searched, with some success, for common threads that stretch from the days of the Roman Empire to our own imperial 19th century, but Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings or John Updike's Toward the End of Time, two fantasias with old Egyptian settings, are among their authors' most problematic books.
Our classical composers have had a hard time of it, too. Roger Sessions's opera Montezuma, a legend about the Spanish invasion of the Aztec empire of South America, lurks beyond the edges of the repertory, with listeners and producers scared off by the composer's unrelentingly dissonant and challenging style; his opera of Classical Rome, The Trial of Lucullus, is even more obscure. Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, drawn from Shakespeare, has (in its revised version) good structural bones, and a pair of resplendent arias for its doomed heroine; but the composer's gift for intimate lyricism gets lost amid the political and military machinations necessary for its plot. It took Philip Glass to break the spell: the epic waves of sound that power Akhnaten (1984, performed by the New York City Opera), created with the designer-director Robert Wilson in 1984, and performed by New York City Opera the same year, bring a heroic grandeur to the story of the myopic Egyptian Pharaoh who was the first to worship a single God.
Mark Adamo, the composer of Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess, finds himself at the center of a contemporary American operatic scene that is torn between realism and fantasy. Tobias Picker leads the naturalistic camp: his Emmeline (1996; performed at City Opera in 1998) and An American Tragedy (premiered at the Met in December 2005) are stylistically conservative works that bring the sex-and-death world of Italian verismo into the American Northeast of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Jake Heggie is not far behind, writing lyrically supple, heart-on-sleeve operas like Dead Man Walking (presented by City Opera in 2002) and The End of the Affair that, while based on literary sources, have benefited from the publicity generated by cinematic treatments of the same subjects. And then there's William Bolcom, who in his three operas with the librettist Arnold Weinstein (including A View from the Bridge) has used his cool command of a range of American popular styles to create a loose and casual aesthetic that harks back to Kurt Weill.
On the other hand, John Adams, a politically engaged composer of minimalist masterworks, has discovered a kind of magic realism that, in such operas as Nixon in China (1987) and Doctor Atomic (premiered at San Francisco Opera last year) has revealed the ironic underside of such seismic modern moments as Nixon's historic meeting with Chairman Mao and of Robert Oppenheimer's creation of the nuclear bomb. Daron Hagen, in his collaborations with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, has moved boldly into the surrealist realm; Vera of Las Vegas (2003), a lurid tale of two on-the-lam IRA irregulars stuck in Sin City for a layover, is a mélange of raunchily eclectic music and dazzling wordplay. And then, sitting as if on the island of Cythera, there is John Corigliano's sole opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, a work at once so conservative (William M. Hoffman's libretto takes off from Beaumarchais's La mère coupable, the third play of the Figaro trilogy) and stylistically groundbreaking that its aesthetic is still being absorbed.
It is a measure of Adamo's talent that he can so easily stake his claim among such impressive artists. A virtually unknown composer before the success of Little Women (premiered by the Opera Studio of Houston Grand Opera in 1998 and performed by NYCO in 2003), he has shown himself to be the Gian Carlo Menotti of his time‹not only in his double gift as both composer and librettist, but also in his way of slipping almost startlingly poignant music into vehicles that might seem to be just diverting middle-class entertainment. Intellectuals love to write off Amahl and the Night Visitors as cornball, but it takes a hard-hearted listener not to be affected by the final moments, as Amahl's mother, following the same Star of Bethlehem that has guided the Three Kings, releases her son to join a religious pilgrimage that would change the world. Similarly, Little Women seems to move smartly along as a reverent adaptation of a beloved literary classic, until the Act II aria "Kennst du das Land"‹a setting of Goethe's immortal poem that can stand, without shame, alongside the versions of Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, and Wolf‹knocks us out of our seats; it is an experience for which we have been unconsciously, and professionally, prepared. I also mention these two scenes for personal reasons: along with the death-of-Desdemona climax of Hagen's Bandanna, they are the only moments in American operas that have moved me to tears.
In creating this catalog of American achievement, I do not pretend to be complete; the radical operas of such Downtown stalwarts as Mikel Rouse and Robert Ashley would make for a very different kind of study. And yet if the efforts of men like these seem directed toward fulfilling Ezra Pound's dictum to "make it new," Adamo's creed is, as he says, to "make it matter." Certainly, he is the inheritor of the living theater of Gershwin, Bernstein, and Sondheim, whose work he has studied in depth, and yet his musical style shows not only the additional influences of Barber, Britten, and Puccini but of Webern: notice how the orchestral accompaniments eschew counterpoint for a series of complex harmonic patterns that support the voices like velvet.
Lysistrata certainly develops differently than Little Women. Listeners will remember how Adamo, in the latter work, deploys certain kernels of text and tone‹"Things change, Jo" or "Perfect as we are"‹with the precision of chess moves, as they crop up frequently amid the music's flow. But in this saucy adaptation of Aristophanes' pacifist tract, Adamo instead uses entire blocks of music in different places, sometimes in the same harmonic guise, but often in different vocal and rhythmic shapes, and always to different dramatic effect The best example is the seductive duet between Nico and Lysia in Act I; first used as a statement of two characters' passion for one another, it becomes a colder kind of political game when another pair of lovers, Myrrhine and Kinesias, sing it in Act II.
That music, with its timeless habanera-like rhythm and its thoroughly modern frankness, conjures up shades of both Bizet's smoldering Carmen and of Sondheim's lackadaisical Ladies Who Lunch. But then the deft way in which life-and-death seriousness can alternate with low comedy is also part of Adamo's inheritance from Sondheim, that great man of the theater who, freed from the responsibility of creating An Important Work, could compose an utterly entertaining version of Aristophanes' The Frogs (with a book by Burt Shevelove) and succeed where far loftier artists had dropped the ball. Adamo's pacifist Lysistrata may come to New York in a time of war, but one suspects that it will have the resilience to appeal in more peaceful times as well.
Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at the New Yorker.