The Embattled Road of the Opera Composer in History - Marshall Opera

The Embattled Road of the Opera Composer in History

by Mark N. Grant

If composing new music for the concert hall in our thankless 21st century cultural environment is a fine madness, composing an opera for such a world must be a barking madness. Ours is a culture ruled by the Taylor Swifts, where classical music radio stations are unceremoniously sacked, and the arts patronage of yore seems to be MIA. Perhaps one reason poet W. H. Auden called Wagner the greatest artist who ever lived was his recognition of Wagner’s Siegfriedian slaughter of the dragon–the dragon of the monumental difficulties of realizing the Gesamtkunstwerk in an unsympathetic society. As Aaron Copland, who had enjoyed success in ballet and film scoring but not in opera, later commented, “One must be almost doggedly foolish to mess with the musical theater in our world.”

The truth is, thousands of professional, competently written operas have been written and published across the globe in the last 400 years, and of the small group that actually got staged, only a tiny percentage ever received more than an initial short run of performances. An infinitesimally smaller percentage entered the international repertoire. All that work for so little return: preparing, rehearsing and staging a full-length opera are herculean, exorbitantly expensive tasks, and most operas sink on their initial voyage like the Titanic. You never hear of most of them, but music dictionaries and encyclopedias are replete with their names, a dolorous necrology of noble aspirations that met the fate of Icarus. Don’t be deceived by the Bohèmes, Don Giovannis, and Rigolettos. “Brief existence has been the absolute norm for operatic works throughout history….a glance at (say) Paris Opera posters will remind us that huge, dead-on-arrival hopefuls regularly littered the landscape”, as opera historians Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker have written. Despite this tale of mass burial, some neglected operas, of course, eventually get revived, and, more rarely, restored to a rightful place in the sun (Rusalka, for instance).

The surviving major opera company in the cultural capital of the world, the Met, struggles, despite a vast endowment (which it has had to invade). Its flagship Lincoln Center partner, the New York City Opera, once seemingly a bastion of continuity, not only went bankrupt, but its score-and-parts archive, stored securely in a Manhattan building basement, was lost in storm-surge flooding after Hurricane Sandy, an event as unthinkable as the collapse of the Twin Towers. Even in good times, the City Opera operated on the razor’s edge; not infrequently, the first public performance of its productions was actually (unknown to audiences) the dress rehearsal, owing to budget shortfalls. In Europe, state support for opera houses has always been more munificent and rehearsal time far more generous. Gerard Mortier, the Belgian opera impresario, once nonchalantly proposed 34 orchestral rehearsals for a NYCO production of Messiaen’s St. Francis of Assisi that never happened.

Opera history is pockmarked with war stories of ill-fated premieres or the frustration of never reaching the stage. Look at the disastrous critical reception given to the premiere of Carmen, which arguably killed Bizet. Musicologist Joan Peyser opined that the less-than-panegyric critical reaction to Porgy and Bess damaged Gershwin’s psyche and perhaps even hastened his demise from the brain tumor. Scott Joplin’s futile Ahab-like obsession with getting his opera Treemonisha produced despite racial barriers drove him to an early grave. Then there’s the singular case of the Budapest-trained Hungarian emigré Gabriel Von Wayditch (1888-1969), gifted contemporary of Bartok and Kodaly, who spent most of his life living in a small apartment in the Bronx, perseveringly composing to his own librettos a dozen operas of Meistersinger length and Gurrelieder-sized orchestration, with nary a commission or performance (well, he did have one single performance in 1939 of his opera Horus in Philadelphia, paid for in advance).

Sometimes timing, and even bad weather, can hex. Howard Hanson was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to compose Merry Mount to a prewritten libretto. It was not a merry mounting for the audience, which had to brave the second coldest day in New York City history to attend the Saturday matinee premiere on February 10, 1934. The day before, the dress rehearsal day, was, at 14.3 degrees below zero, the coldest ever recorded in Manhattan (then or since) and no doubt a strain on the voices of the cast. (Somehow Sergei Rachmaninoff played a piano recital that same evening 25 miles north at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.) An irritated principal singer, tenor Edward Johnson, told the press that the opera was “lousy”; under Johnson’s subsequent 15-year term as general manager at the Met, Merry Mount was never revived despite the record fifty audience curtain calls it had enjoyed at its premiere. Another winter victim was the first ever production of Marc Blitzstein’s singspiel The Cradle Will Rock with full orchestrations, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It opened on Broadway December 26, 1947, the night of the greatest blizzard in New York City history (until 2006). The production never quite recovered from the storm’s toll on newspaper (and thus press review) delivery and lingering snow drifts, and had a short run despite Bernstein and an illustrious cast (Bernstein himself acted a part as well as conducted).

Some of the greatest composers have experienced creativity-chilling reversals when writing for the theater. Bartok and Shostakovitch were both cowed by the receptions (critical or political) to one of each’s first two stage works (The Miraculous Mandarin and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and never essayed the medium again, a tragic loss for art. Samuel Barber never wrote another opera after the debacle of the Met premiere of his Antony and Cleopatra in 1966. After a period of enormous success in the 1940s and 50s, Gian Carlo Menotti was essentially driven out of New York by a hostile press. Marvin David Levy was the heralded young composer of Mourning Becomes Electra which the Met commissioned for a 1967 premiere; in the wake of its lack of critical success, he spiraled into drug deal bagman activities and was sent to prison for a few years. “You do a world premiere, it’s a novelty, and it gets you noticed,” Levy told a reporter. “Once it’s over, the novelty is gone; you become a secondhand rose.” Even Prokofiev, though a prolific creator of successful operas, repeatedly went through ordeals getting his stuff produced, especially in the West, according to his biographer Harlow Robinson.

Unless you are Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, or Strauss, repertory status for one or two works does not guarantee enduring fame for the larger part of a composer’s operatic catalog. Mascagni wrote many operas after his early Cavalleria Rusticana but few are ever staged and none entered the international repertory, and his reputation fell into eclipse after his association with the Mussolini regime. Leoncavallo, despite his quasi-Wagnerian librettist-composer ambitions, never made the canon after Pagliacci and suffered the indignity of his Bohème getting upstaged by Puccini’s. Ambroise Thomas wrote about two dozen operas; only Hamlet and Mignon are remembered. Massenet was as prolific as Verdi, and Manon and Werther are still repertory, but how frequently are Thais and Don Quichotte heard today, let alone all his others? Same for Rimsky-Korsakov. How about Eugen D’Albert (1864-1932), once considered the outstanding exponent of German verismo, regarded by some critics as superior to Mascagni and Leoncavallo? After a career as one of the world’s greatest pianists, he composed 20 operas, all 20 of which were produced in their day. When was the last time you heard–or even heard of–one of them? Or of him?

Some composers are fated to be better known by their completions (or libretto translations) of other composers’ stage works than by their own prolific oeuvres: Franco Alfano (Turandot), Friedrich Cerha (Lulu), and Marc Blitzstein (The Threepenny Opera) come to mind. This overshadowing even happened to Arrigo Boito, though his Mefistofele is repertory. Serving as librettist for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff seems to have attenuated Boito’s focus on his own composing: after Mefistofele (1868) he worked on his only other opera, Nerone, for fifty years, and left it unfinished at his death in 1918. (It was completed posthumously by Toscanini and others, and conducted by Toscanini at its premiere in 1924).

Despite the sink-or-swim risks of an opera premiere, armies of composers have willingly undertaken the long investment of time and labor required to write one, often without a commission, because there is no greater creative challenge for a composer. The demands of writing an opera can expand and enrich a composer’s expressive vocabulary enormously: the score to Shostakovitch’s The Nose seems to road test every type of musical mood and device he later employed in his symphonies. Dvorak’s New World Symphony essentially consists of themes he had imagined for an abandoned opera project based on Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha.

In the set-piece and number days before Wagner, opera composition could be facile and copious (Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini); after Wagner, it seemed as if almost every composer’s approach to the stage became freighted with the greater ambitions of music drama, which can slow down composition as the composer works with the librettist. We all know that it took Wagner a quarter century to complete the Ring tetralogy (while he worked at other operas on the side); what’s more remarkable is that Wagner devoted several years solely to drafting the librettos, prose and verse, before writing a note of music for the Ring. Olivier Messaien worked many years on St. Francis of Assisi and very nearly gave up before finishing. But these epic works are the leviathans of the repertoire. Composing operas of conventional length can also be time-consuming. It took Berg about eight years to finish Wozzeck, which clocks in at less than an hour and three-quarters. Jennifer Higdon told interviewers she worked on nothing else but Cold Mountain for two and a half years. The very same arduous gestational labors can result in the outcome visited upon Gabriel Von Wayditch and many other composers: an artistic stillbirth. A never performed score.

Have the same difficulties bedeviled operas created in America? Before he had completed Leaves of Grass, in the 1840s Walt Whitman, that singer among poets, was an opera reviewer for several Brooklyn newspapers, but at that time only European operas were produced in New York. (Late in life Whitman told his literary executor Horace Traubel what he really thought of Wagner’s Ring: “ I question the wisdom of selecting Jack and the Beanstalk stories and putting them into this modern medium.”) Whitman was intrigued by the idea of an American opera, jotting in a notebook, “American opera–put three banjos (or more?) in the orchestra– and let them accompany (at times exclusively) the songs of the baritone or tenor….” But Whitman never saw the operas of 19th century American composers William Henry Fry, George Bristow, or Dudley Buck, none of which were performed in opera houses.

In 1910 the Metropolitan Opera, then 27 years young, presented its first production of an opera by an American composer: Frederick Converse’s The Pipe of Desire. For the next 25 years the Met, under general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, produced a fair number of new American operas, among them Victor Herbert’s Natoma (1911) and Madeleine (1914), Walter Damrosch’s Cyrano (1913), Horatio Parker’s Mona (1915), Reginald De Koven’s The Canterbury Pilgrims (1917), Henry Hadley’s Cleopatra’s Night (1920), Deems Taylor’s The King’s Henchman (1927) and Peter Ibbetson (1931), Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones (1933), and Hanson’s Merry Mount. They’ve almost all disappeared (a concert version of Merry Mount was presented by the Rochester Philharmonic in the “Spring for Music” series at Carnegie Hall in May 2014). Under general managers Edward Johnson and Rudolf Bing, American opera production at the Met slowed to a trickle, as the New York City Opera became the prime forum for new American opera premieres while regional companies became increasingly important venues for the same. Alas, most of these operas ended up with the same fate as Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount: a big initial splash, then a long disappearance. A minority have had a modest future in occasional revivals, but few if any of these works, however deserving, have become enduring repertory like Amahl, Susannah, or Porgy and Bess. Interestingly, Broadway in the mid-century years was a prime venue for new American opera, not only Porgy and Bess but Weill’s Street Scene, Blitzstein’s Regina, several of Menotti’s works, Jerome Moross’s Ballet Ballad dance operas, Bernstein’s Candide (an operetta), and others. Unfortunately this era on Broadway did not last long, though some of these works (Street Scene, Regina, Candide) have succeeded in entering the opera house repertory.

The creators of the Marshall Opera are all too well aware of this rueful legacy. Too many deserving orphan operas desperately seek a foster home and a new lease on artistic life. Isn’t it high time to rediscover some of the forgotten gems among them and give them first–or second–performances? Unexpected finds await. How about the operas of George Antheil (1900-1959)? The “Bad Boy of Music” (the title of his memoir), hellacious avant-garde composer of Ballet Mécanique, co-inventor with Hedy Lamarr of a patented torpedo guidance device during WWII, amateur criminologist, and prolific symphonist and film scorer in later life, also wrote several operas. Perhaps it’s time to produce them? What about a new hearing for Virgil Thomson’s Lord Byron, with its libretto by actor/playwright Jack Larson, the Jimmy Olsen of the 1950s Superman TV program? What about the many operas of Thomson’s good friend Nicolas Nabokov, cousin of the novelist, titular subject of the 2013 Lincoln Center Theater play Nikolai and the Others, prolific but now neglected composer who was better known for leading the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom during the 1950s and 60s?

Let’s not neglect the underperformed works of our most celebrated composers, like Britten’s Paul Bunyan or The Rape of Lucretia. Could we finally hear Marc Blitzstein’s intriguing Reuben Reuben, an early 1950s opera misdirected at Broadway that closed out of town before opening? How about one of the five operas by the superb Ulysses Kay, a Black American composer somehow overlooked in the current wave of African-American opera production? Or the operas of such forgotten progenitors of African-American opera as 19th century-born Harry Lawrence Freeman and Clarence Cameron White? How about a new look at the mid-20th century operas of Americans Norman Dello Joio and Jack Beeson? Or little-heard musical theater works by that adopted American, Kurt Weill, such as his 1936 anti-war operetta Johnny Johnson, with its small orchestra, or his 1948 Broadway “vaudeville” Love Life, a heralded Encores! production of which was aborted by the pandemic? And let’s not forget neglected operas from across the seas and around the globe, like the Australian Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ Transposed Heads, or Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, or Busoni’s Arlecchino, or Japan’s Jô Kondô’s operatic Noh play Hagoromo.

The above suggestions are but a sampling of an abundance of revival possibilities planned for the Marshall Opera. The fact is, despite the financially embattled situation of opera houses today, we’re in a golden era of accessible opera presentation. Supertitles are now almost universal, even for operas in English, and have enabled audiences to follow even unfamiliar librettos without fussing in the dark with flashlights for the printed synopsis. (Surely the Wagner of darkened Bayreuth would have approved.) Discreet sound amplification, previously verboten, is now considered aesthetically acceptable in certain situations; even John Adams uses it. Video recordings and live streamings of opera are now established platforms, ensuring that even brief first runs will be both globally viewed and not lost to posterity. And unlike the censorship problems encountered by Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera and Strauss’s Salome in their time, there are no holds barred for librettos today. They can be as topical, graphically sexy, and politically edgy as tabloid news, and frequently are.

In 1967 longtime New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “ To me, grand opera is a synonym for boredom….the stage work on Broadway is vastly superior to the staging and acting at the Metropolitan Opera House….Broadway staged a brilliant performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (book by Lillian Hellman) at the same time that the Met was staging a loose, facetious, sophomoric production of Offenbach’s La Périchole.” All that has changed. Today acting skills of both principals and comprimarios are universally on the highest level in the history of the art form, partly because it is not acceptable today to look like a stick-of-wood in close-ups on camera. As recently as the 1980s, as old videos attest, a singer like Teresa Stratas would stand out for her acting skills among plant-and-sing performers. Now almost everybody onstage is, acting-wise, a Teresa Stratas-type singer. And theater-savvy directors like Bartlett Sher have freshly reanimated the intimate detail and cinematic action of even warhorses of the repertory, bringing today’s opera much closer to the theater experience that Atkinson wrote about.

Marshall Opera will present concert performances with full orchestra. The tradition of concert performance of opera is venerable, and could even be said to go back to Bach’s Passions (which arguably were his operas). It was Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York who brought Boito’s supposedly too-large-to-produce Nerone out of mothballs and revivified it credibly and admirably in concert in 1982. The ability to enhance the dramatic component of concert performances without staging has grown with the increasing sophistication of digital projections. For all the convenience of Blu-Ray and other home reproductions, there is just no substitute for the live human voice, nor for hearing the sound of a live orchestra, with the composer’s coloristic imagination bringing the stage action alive to the mind’s eye.

With the Opera Orchestra of New York and City Opera now lamentably gone, there has been a gaping hole in New York’s concert and theater life for some years. (It feels almost like the twin departure of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957 that left the Yankees the sole baseball club in New York.) Marshall Opera will step into the breach, revisiting recent history’s forgotten masterworks, but also presenting premieres of exciting new American works. Artistic director Jim Schaeffer and principal conductor Mark Shapiro fully intend to provide a forum for those compelling contemporary opera composers who may not yet be household names on the commission circuit for the big houses. Stay tuned!

Author’s Bio:

Mark N. Grant is a composer, librettist, pianist, writer, and lecturer. Among his stage works are the now completed opera The Human Zoo, first presented at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City, and the dramatic cantata The Rose of Tralee. His cabaret works include Sean-Nós Ballads for a New World and Ghost Cabaret: Five Theater Scenes (in progress). He is the author of two ASCAP Deems Taylor Award-winning books, Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America and The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical.


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