A New Opera Destined to Survive

    By Peter G. Davis
    April 25, 2008

    NEW YORK -- Ned Rorem has been in no great rush to write operas, which may seem odd for such a prolific composer of songs. Until now there's been just one extended stage piece ("Miss Julie," after Strindberg's play) and a half-dozen or so brief one-acters. No composer enjoys hearing his music performed hot off the page more than Rorem, so perhaps the huge expenditure of time and energy that goes into writing an opera, not to mention the expense of putting it on and the slim chances of getting future performances, never quite seemed to make such projects worth the trouble. Besides, "Miss Julie" was a flop at its New York City Opera premiere in 1965, and the experience seemed to sour Rorem on the form for good (the piece has since been revised and favorably reassessed).

    Now 84, Rorem may have figured that he still owed the world at least one major operatic effort. He has produced one in "Our Town," which had its world premiere at Indiana University two years ago and its first New York performance on April 23 presented by the Juilliard Opera Center. Surely Thornton Wilder's classic 1938 play would have been turned into an opera long before this, but Wilder always resisted the idea -- he even turned down requests from Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein -- and it has taken this long for the writer's estate to relent. The poet and indefatigable opera librettist J.D. McClatchy prepared a fluent and lyrically persuasive condensation of the play, and Rorem, who has had a long association with the best in American poetry and literature, seemed to be the predestined composer.

    Then, the, two major themes of the play -- how we deal with the past and the mysterious transitory nature of human life -- must also have had a strong appeal for Rorem. Although he may not be any more obsessed with mortality than the rest of us, Rorem certainly dwells on the subject at great length in his numerous diaries and memory books, and Wilder's play gives him ample room to ruminate on the topic and give it full musical expression. Perhaps that explains why there seem to be no "dead" spots anywhere in the score, which is essentially a two-hour conversation piece. The music flows with a quiet lyricism that is just as evocative as the deceptively plain yet disturbingly eloquent everyday talk of the ordinary folk who live and die in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, at the turn of the last century. Rorem no doubt learned a great deal about sophisticated English musical prosody from his old mentor and master of the art, Virgil Thomson. Although the approach to word setting in "Our Town" is entirely different from, say, Thomson's "The Mother of Us All," the absolute rightness of the text-to-note procedures sounds just as smooth and inevitable.

    Beyond that, Rorem judiciously increases the emotional temperature at crucial moments, at times, with a passionate abandon that I seldom associate with this composer. The fated young Emily Gibbs is given especially loving treatment, first during a tiny but delicious duet when mother and daughter discuss what it means to be a pretty girl and, more searchingly toward the end, when the deceased Emily asks to relive her 13th birthday and bitterly regrets the decision. Here the extra dimension that music can bring to spoken drama is just one more forceful reminder of why composers still write operas. All the characters, in fact -- their tiny quirks, homely situations, occasional wise observations, their silliest moments -- are depicted in hundreds of telling strokes in this deeply musical score, one that will surely reveal fresh discoveries at each rehearing.

    Juilliard's production ideally catches the deceptive simplicity of the piece. Edward Berkeley's direction is an artfully realized blend of imagined ritual and down-home realism, exactly right for this understated drama and perfectly complemented by the distantly remembered aura of small-town New England conjured up by John Kasarda's austere sets. The pin-point clarity and expressive power of Jennifer Zetlan's shining soprano made her a particularly appealing Emily and a vocal talent to watch, while Alek Shrader's evenly produced tenor and disarming presence suited George Gibbs, Emily's childhood sweetheart, to the ground.

    Everyone in the large cast contributed positively to this well-integrated ensemble effort, while Anne Manson's skilful musical direction communicated affection for the piece in every measure. Even if the production and performance had been less distinguished, "Our Town" would have emerged as one of those rare new operas that seem destined to survive.