Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
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april 2008

by Karren Alenier

This writer never cries at weddings and rarely cries at funerals, preferring to express her mourning privately. However, Ned Rorem and J. D. (Sandy) McClatchy’s Our Town opera presented at The Catholic University of America (CUA) on February 28, 2008, caused a stream of unexpected tears. Except for the 1940 film of Our Town, Emily Webb Gibbs always dies during the birth of her second child. So why is it that this stoic could not contain her tears?

THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN VOICE AND INSTRUMENTS

Quite frankly, Act I of Rorem’s opera did not pull this critic into the story about life and death in a small town. The opening dissonant chords played by the orchestra were interesting and appreciated in the way they supported the scene of the town’s people assembling under umbrellas for Emily’s funeral. Then the dissonance moved into a hymn and hymns are an expected part of the musical landscape of Our Town. This all worked quite well. Problematic to this critic’s sensibilities was that the vocal line after the first hymn did not seem to be in synch with the orchestral flow and that the two separate scores were not communicating with each other. Having recently heard Rorem’s masterful evening-length art song cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen, this fan of Rorem’s work suspects that while the young singers, all students at CUA, were probably getting the notes right, they were feeling their way into the conversation that the vocal music has with the orchestral score. While Rorem’s music is mostly tonal, it is also deceptively difficult and requires an energetic finesse that comes with experience and innate artistry. Acts II and III came across beautifully.

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REDEFINING THE STAGE MANAGER

Another issue that arose in Act I but continued throughout the opera concerns how Sandy McClatchy handled the text for the Stage Manager. To reduce the number of words the Stage Manager says, McClatchy cleverly used a drop down screen where, for example, statistics about the town of Grover's Corners were projected. The problem is there were still too many words from the chatty Stage Manager. In a panel discussion presented at CUA, McClatchy said that Rorem had asked for fewer words in the libretto several times. This critic believes that McClatchy succeeded best with the text when he rendered Thornton Wilder’s prose into compressed poetic lines. Unfortunately, the text for the Stage Manager did not get this kind of poetic treatment.

Also the way McClatchy portrayed the Stage Manager dramatically diminished the role of this important character. In the play, the Stage Manager talks directly to the audience and therefore, someone who has never seen the play (as the critic’s seatmate had not) would not understand the operatic version of the Stage Manager. In McClatchy’s opera, the Stage Manager seems like an extra character that talks too much and one is never sure to whom the Stage Manager is talking. In this critic’s observation of what cutting-edge theater entails today, breaching the Fourth Wall—that is, interaction with live audience members—is highly valued. Playwrights use this technique to keep the audience engaged. This critic could see the operatic Stage Manager standing in the audience, giving a short slide-show lecture while talking and touching paying audience members.

A MESSAGE TO AMERICAN PHILISTINES

One particularly interesting embellish of the Rorem-McClatchy collaboration is that the Grover’s Corners music director, a sad alcoholic character named Simon Stimson, who eventually hangs himself, makes commentary on music appreciation. Ned Rorem requested that Sandy McClatchy add this commentary and it works quite well. One suspects this is Rorem making his own feelings felt about our American philistine culture.

THE CUA PRODUCTION

Stand out performers in the CUA production directed by Dr. James Hampton were Zachary Nelson as Charles Webb and Damian Savarino as Dr. Frank Gibbs. As prescribed by Wilder’s original wishes, the stage was bare except for basic props like tables and chairs and the ladders Emily and George use to suggest that they are each in their second storey bedrooms of their separate family homes. A thirty-two-piece orchestra directed ably by Murry Sidlin, CUA Dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music filled the floor in front of the Hartke Theatre stage and singers were therefore mic’ed to ensure that the words would carry into the audience. Surtitles were projected but mostly not needed.

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OTHER OUR TOWN ADAPTATIONS

Thornton Wilder’s much beloved and produced play Our Town has had various musical treatments despite Wilder’s wish that the work never be set to music. Aaron Copland wrote incidental music for the 1940 film that starred William Holden. Copland wanted to write an Our Town opera and so did Leonard Bernstein. They were turned down. Frank Sinatra (as Stage Manager), Paul Newman (as George Gibbs), and Eva Marie Saint (as Emily Webb Gibbs) starred in a 1955 television musical of Our Town that featured the hit tune “Love and Marriage.” Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, creators of the long running Broadway musical The Fantastics, wrote a musical version of Wilder's play, which they called Grover's Corners. Before she got sick and died, Mary Martin was supposed to have been the stage manager in this musical, but the show ran into problems with the Wilder estate. Wilder estate executor Tappan Wilder (also speaking on the same CUA panel with Sandy McClatchy) said this adaptation was “too sweet.”

McClatchy, who has an impressive record of procuring rights to sought after classic works and whom this writer has interviewed in Scene4 Magazine, became a founding member of the Thornton Wilder Society. Subsequently, he became friends with Tappan Wilder. When asked by a CUA student if McClatchy ever considered asking any other composers to collaborate with him on Our Town, McClatchy looked stunned and said there was no better composer for the work than Ned Rorem. This critic agrees and thinks Tappan Wilder was right to trust McClatchy. Rorem, who has an extraordinary sensitivity for words, said in another Scene4 Magazine interview, that he did not like to collaborate but Sandy was his friend.

COMING TO YOUR TOWN SOON

What has been extraordinarily good for the Rorem-McClatchy adaptation of Our Town, which premiered in March 2006, is that Indiana University Opera Theater co-commissioned the work with five other companies assuring wide spread opportunity for American audiences to hear this work. The co-commissioning theater companies were Opera Boston, the Aspen Music Festival and School, North Carolina School of the Arts, Lake George Opera (Saratoga Springs, NY), and Festival Opera (Walnut Creek, CA). The production at Catholic University represents the first performance of the Rorem-McClatchy opera after the last co-commissioning theater’s production—Festival Opera presented the West coast premiere in August 2007. In 2008, the work will be performed by New York City’s Julliard School of Music (April), St. Paul’s Skylark Opera (June), and Kansas City’s Civic Opera (September). This critic urges her readers to see this opera and then let her know if tears fall.

Photos - Tony Fiorini, The Catholic University of America

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©2008 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For her other commentary and articles, check the
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