Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Little heard American opera

I am really enjoying the tapes I have been working with in the last couple of days from the VOA collection. These include close to two dozen 30-minute programs called "American Opera", which featured excerpts and extended scenes from operas by American composers. There are some dogs in the lot, but overall I was quite impressed by the lyricism, integrity, and genuine beauty of some the operas I was able to hear.

Portrait of Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)
"I've never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down"--Virgil Thomson

Frankly I was surprised to hear such inspiration from opera by American composers, even knowing what I do. (I did a junior independent study thesis on Virgil Thomson and American opera before 1947). It was nice to be reminded of that. The themes (on which these operas are based) can be touching and relevant with a solid librettist and the lyrics unstilted.

Listening to Four Saints again reminded me of the experience of hearing Italian opera. The music fits the text logically, and the syllables fall where they are supposed to. Does that mean Thomson's (and Gertrude Stein's) libretto is not a literary experiment that challenges meaning, rhetoric, and comprehension? No, but the text is not really the point me thinks. I have to step back and look at the tapestry they are trying to weave within the episodes, rather than blindly being led along on a narrative (especially in the Floyd).

The crime is that several of these have never been released on CD--some have never been commercially released. Some of the obvious favorites include Aaron Copland's The Tender Land, Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. It was nice to finally hear works by Robert Ward (The Crucible) and Deems Taylor (The King's Henchman) which are considered important, but who has heard them let alone seen them?! Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti is a witty and entertaining set piece, which cooks with all the energy and rhythmic vitality that is Lenny. All of my soprano friends love doing "What a Movie!"

My new favorite? An operatic re-telling of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew by Italian-American composer Vittorio Giannini.

This is a good job.


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