Tuning Up American Plays

Classic Arts Features   Tuning Up American Plays
Michael Feingold asks the question: If opera is drama then why shouldn't it be American drama?

For decades, opera has been moving down to the theater district: On Broadway, where Carmen Jones, My Darlin', and Aida blossomed in the 1940s, Baz Luhrman's La Bohème is currently joining Rent and (Elton John and Tim Rice's) Aida. But why, if opera can become vernacular theater, can't there be some movement in the other direction? With William Bolcom's operatic version of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge onstage at the Met next month, set to a libretto by poet Arnold Weinstein and the playwright himself, the question naturally comes up: Why have so few American plays become operas?

An immediate, if partial, answer is that, in fact, many have. But the 20th-century struggle to keep the operatic repertoire contemporary has been rough going for dramatists everywhere: Any number of major European plays have been turned into operas, but virtually none into lasting operas. Major poets and playwrights have created wonderful libretti for modern opera, Auden, Brecht, Cocteau and Colette are among the names that come alphabetically to mind, but few of their creations have been based on preexisting plays. Brecht did not know he was going to write a full-scale opera about the City of Mahagonny until Weill read his poems on the subject and told him so.

When modern composers haven't invented their own libretto, or had a poet invent one for them, they've gone pillaging exactly where their predecessors pillaged: the Greeks, Shakespeare, and post-Renaissance classic comedy as exemplified by Molière. Richard Strauss, for example, began his operatic career with two near-verbatim settings of then-current major plays, Wilde's Salome and Hofmannsthal's Elektra. But all his subsequent operas, on libretti written to order for him, harked back to Greek myth, fairy tale, or classic comedy; the one tenuous exception, Intermezzo, dramatized an incident from his own life. If we had no other evidence, we might conclude, erroneously, that Strauss never saw or read a contemporary play.

Viewed from that standpoint, American drama may seem to be holding its own rather handsomely on the world's operatic stages. Let's review some of the data. We must start with the composer who rivals Strauss as the most important operatic figure in the first half of the last century: Giacomo Puccini. A master of theatricality himself, he knew dramaturgic skill when he saw it, and he saw it in the works of a youthful, and Broadway's dominant director-playwright, David Belasco. The result perhaps to the discomfiture of literary snobs: The American playwright whose work has racked up more opera-house performances than any other is the unesteemed author of Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West‹a man whom nowadays we hardly think of as a playwright at all. This is partly because Belasco (1859-1931) not only churned out innumerable scripts, but produced, staged, and sometimes designed them as well. Still, he never lost sight of the emotional core of his dramas, as the lasting popularity of Puccini's two Belasco-derived operas demonstrates.

The Girl of the Golden West, the operatic version of which had its world premiere at the Met in 1910 as Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (the house's first opera on an American subject), was drawn partly from the San Francisco-born Belasco's own boyhood experience. In contrast, Butterfly, based on a popular short novel by the Japanophile John Luther Long, is the first in a long string of works with more ambiguous sources. Because we have such a propensity for adapting a cultural object into as many forms as possible, it isn't always easy to tell whether an opera is based on the play, the novel, or the movie. For instance, Carlisle Floyd, who has a legitimate claim to be called our contemporary Puccini, numbers among his many operas exactly one based on a famous American play: Of Mice and Men. John Steinbeck's drama, however, was adapted from his even more famous novel, and was followed by a widely seen film version. Floyd's much-produced opera draws to some extent on all three. Another work that has had many productions nationally, William Mayer's A Death in the Family, openly credits both James Agee's classic novel and Tad Mosel's Broadway adaptation, All the Way Home, as sources.

Of the major American playwrights whose work has been operatized, the clear champion is also the writer generally acknowledged as the greatest: Eugene O'Neill. Neither the bleakness of his outlook nor the occasional woodenness of his dialogue has kept composers away. Fittingly, O'Neill's operatic career started at the top, with works commissioned and performed by the Met. Louis Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones, premiered in 1935, was a tour de force for the beloved bass-baritone Lawrence Tibbett, whose recording of a searing excerpt from it often leads connoisseurs to wonder why some African-American basso with a powerful stage presence doesn't seize the opportunity to revive this long-neglected work.

Despite the plaudits for Tibbett and Gruenberg, it took 32 years before O'Neill returned to the Met: In 1967, the flood of commissions to commemorate the company's move to Lincoln Center included the world premiere of Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra. Darker in mood and harsher in its tonality than Met-goers ears were at that time accustomed to, Levy's imposing work was greeted with respectful discomfort, though calls for its revival are regularly heard. The New York City Opera, too, has had a brief O'Neill outing, with Thomas Pasatieri's setting of the monodrama Before Breakfast, the centerpiece of a NYCO triple bill in 1980. More improbably, Desire Under the Elms has been turned into two operas: One, by Edward Thomas with a libretto by playwright Joe Masteroff, is a solidly traditional American work. The other, by the Chinese composer Hua Meng, is, well, a Chinese opera. Titled The Old House Under the Elms, it was created for the Zheng Zhou Qu company, founded in 1950 to create contemporary works in traditional Chinese style; the company has lately been touring it in the United States.

After O'Neill, the playwright most tempting to opera composers is our most musical writer of dialogue, Tennessee Williams. André Previn's operatic A Streetcar Named Desire, premiered by San Francisco Opera in 1998, triggered extensive debate over whether a composer could add anything to a play so rich. Fewer objections are raised to an opera, based on a lesser Williams play, that has become a music-department perennial: Lee Hoiby's Summer and Smoke, on a libretto by playwright Lanford Wilson that many feel improves on the original. (Hoiby's extensive operatic output includes just one other adaptation of an American play: his setting of Ruth Draper's droll monologue, The Italian Lesson.) And predating all other Williams operas is the one-act Lord Byron's Love Letter, set by the English-born Italian composer Raffaello deBanfield, which still crops up occasionally as a curtain-raiser in Italy.

The first woman playwright most people would associate with opera is Gertrude Stein. Her two most famous libretti, however, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of us All, are libretti, written to order for Virgil Thomson to set. (A third such libretto, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, has been set by legions, notably Al Carmines.) Stein's smaller plays, though, have often served a composer's turn: Meyer Kupferman's In a Garden and Ned Rorem's Three Sisters Who are not Sisters are only the two most prominent of many specimens. (One should note that Rorem has also made an opera of the late Kenneth Koch's delightful mock-historical drama, Bertha, Queen of Norway.) Next to Stein one might put the eccentric William Saroyan, two of whose pithy short plays have been set by composer Jack Beeson; the latter has also reached further back in the repertoire than living composer, with his full length opera of Clyde Fitch's 1901 comedy Captain Jinks.

Even Arthur Miller, the hero of the present occasion, has been on the opera stage before. Robert Ward's setting of The Crucible catches the play's rhythm and excitement as few spoken productions have. (The libretto, by Bernard Stambler, makes intriguing use of a scene that Miller deleted from the final text.) And A View from the Bridge itself has an operatic past: Renzo Rossellini (composer brother of the noted film director Roberto) premiered Uno Sguardo dal Ponte in 1961.

Occasionally, composers have come to an American play as Verdi came to Shakespeare, with the conviction that this was the work for which they had been waiting all their lives. The two most notable such instances began on Broadway but have had a sustained career in opera houses: Marc Blitzstein's Regina, based on Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, and Kurt Weill's Street Scene, based on Elmer Rice's play, with a libretto by Rice and poet Langston Hughes. In both cases, there was a degree of conflict with the original author's protective instinct toward the work. Blitzstein's score exists in several versions, one containing material about which Hellman had mixed feelings. Rice and Hughes clashed during the preparation of Street Scene. Weill, for whom the play had been a passion since he saw Max Reinhardt's production of it in prewar Berlin, was the mollifying factor. Mentioning Hughes brings up a third work in the same category, Jan Meyerowitz's The Barber, a 1950 Broadway opera, based on Hughes's play Mulatto, that received admiring reviews and closed instantly. It probably deserves another look: Meyerowitz, in Germany, had been a student of Weill's friend Zemlinsky, whose own operas are only now being reappraised.

Finally, we come to what may be the most beloved American opera of all, so famous that the play on which it is based has been almost totally forgotten. George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Like some other operas on our list, it comes from a work that was first a novel and then a play. Like Bolcom on A View from the Bridge, Gershwin paired his customary writing partner, his brother Ira, with the author of the original work, DuBose Heyward (whose wife, Dorothy, collaborated with him on adapting his novel into play form). Once derided as a thinly strung collection of show tunes, Porgy and Bess has demonstrated the inner sustaining power that makes an opera a repertory staple. Clearly, American plays can supply that power. They just need a Puccini, a Gershwin, or a Bolcom to awaken it.

Michael Feingold, chief theater critic of The Village Voice, has translated many operas not based on American plays.

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