Finding a theater company that predominately works with the full scope of American opera is a challenge. Some of the companies that work with American opera or elements of American opera are American Opera Projects, Center for Contemporary Opera, Encompass New Opera Theatre, Golden Fleece, Music-Theatre Group, and New York City Opera. Other companies with a proven track record of programming American opera into their seasonal lineups include such companies as: Gotham Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Minnesota Opera, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, and The Skylight. This writer has written about the problems of commissions and premiers of new American opera for Scene4 Magazine in the past. Also in the past, this writer has talked to and conducted an interview with Nancy Rhodes, the artistic director of Encompass New Opera Theatre. However, Encompass is the only opera company consistently producing American opera in repertory and also developing new American operas.
DRAWING TOGETHER PAST AND FUTURE OF AMERICAN OPERA
In order to achieve an overall view of American opera and where it might be headed in the 21st century, this writer believes one needs to hear from a director with the experience and focus Nancy Rhodes has. Because this writer-critic has gone on record to say that Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts is the most influential American opera in the last one hundred years and because Rhodes is mounting the 50-minute version (Thomson made the excerpt from the just under 90-minute opera) of this 1934 opera that made an unprecedented run of 60 performances, the time is right to feature the work and goals of Nancy Rhodes once again. The contents of this essay are based on a conversation held with Rhodes on January 8, 2009.
THE GIFT FROM VIRGIL THOMSON
There are two critical experiences Rhodes had that set her down the path of American opera. One was asking Virgil Thomson in 1974 for permission to direct a production of The Mother of Us All, his second opera with Gertrude Stein, and the other was developing and directing for the 1982 Holland Festival an ambitious program of excerpts from fourteen American operas, operettas, and music theater. This run through American musical history [presented in the order of the Holland Festival program] included Poia (1907) by Arthur Nevin based on a libretto by Randolph Hartley, Rip Van Winkle (1855) by George Frederick Bristow with libretto by J. W. Shannon, Tabasco (1894) by George W. Chadwick with libretto by R. A. Barnett, The Triumph of Columbus (1892 musical) by Silas G. Pratt with libretto by Pratt, A Witch of Salem by Charles Wakefield Cadman with libretto by Nelle Richmond Eberhardt, "Uncle Gabriel, the Negro General" (traditional minstrel show song) sung in 1848 by E[dwin].P[ierce]. Christy and arranged by the Christy Minstrels, The Emperor Jones (1933) by Louis Gruenberg with libretto by the composer and Kathleen de Jaffa, after the play by Eugene O'Neill, The American Maid [an operetta also known as The Glass Blowers] (1909) by John Philip Sousa with libretto by Leonard Liebling, The Mother of Us All (1947) by Virgil Thomson with libretto by Gertrude Stein, Leonora (1845) by William Henry Fry with libretto by J.R. Fry after Edward Bulwer-Lytton's play The Lady of Lyons, Transatlantic (1930) by George Antheil with libretto by Antheil, Regina (1949) by Marc Blitzstein with libretto by Blitzstein based on the play The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, Privilege and Privation (1939) by John Becker with libretto based on a one-act play by Alfred Kreymborg, The Tender Land (1954) by Aaron Copland with libretto by Horace Everett, and Treemonisha (1975) by Scott Joplin with libretto by Joplin. [Note that the dates provided indicate the premier, but in the case of Joplin's Treemonisha, which he wrote in 1907, the premiere occurred well after the composer's death.]
What Rhodes' first and subsequent meetings with Virgil Thomson gave her was the encouragement she needed to move ahead and work with contemporary composers. "I felt welcomed to move into his and Gertrude Stein's musical landscape, to embrace it, and to illuminate it." When Rhodes formed Encompass Music Theatre, the original name of her company before she and her board changed it to include the word opera, Virgil Thomson agreed to be an advisor and to sit on her founding board. Early on, the Holland Festival program gave her grounding in and passion for the American musical theater and all of this was reinforced by her long time friendship and encouragement from Virgil Thomson.
PRODUCING FOUR SAINTS – THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
In mounting the oratorio version of Four Saints in Three Acts on February 20, 2009 at Elebash Recital Hall of The Graduate Center at City University New York (CUNY), Rhodes is completing her first productions of all four of Virgil Thomson's operas. For Rhodes, this opera presents the ultimate challenge because of the "incredibly beautiful presentation made of Four Saints in its 1934 premier." For Rhodes, this is the Thomson opera "filled with wit, spirituality, and dimensionality." Rhodes said further that this was the opera that broke from the 19th century musical and European operatic tradition, that it set a foundation for new American expression for other creators to build on, that it was a benchmark that continues to serve for composers today, and it created, with its all-black cast in the 1934 production, a link to the Harlem Renaissance. "We are still a young country and it's hard to know where you are going if you don't know where you have come from." One of Rhodes' goals is to educate people about the American music tradition that has set the path for American opera. So it is that Rhodes has been said to have cast deep roots into the American psyche.
CROSS-POLLINATING THE OPERATIC ARTS IN THE 21st CENTURY
When asked what country is the most receptive to new opera work, Rhodes was quick to say the climate has improved in the United States, though the financial basis is still dependent on producing classic repertory from Europe. From 1920 up to World War II, Europe was "very open to American opera, particularly Germany and France." Today, she said, Germany and Holland, and to a certain extent France, are open to American operatic productions. However, an opera requires a "great deal of support and this is where our audiences are as well as our designers."
When asked what does opera in the 21st century entail? Rhodes said it all starts with the creators but added to the librettist and composer must come the opera company to help develop the piece. After that, the next most important component is the audience. "While high tech support is great," she said, "each work will have its own life force" and therefore call for a tailored set of supporting elements.
What Rhodes prefers is a mid-sized theater of 750-1200 seats. What she would like to achieve is her own theater building where artists could "cross pollinate 24-7." In fact, she would like to see these "creative factories" proliferate around the U.S.
Thinking of herself as a philosopher and explorer [she is the librettist with composer John David Earnest of the work-in-progress opera The Theory of Everything, a work exploring the physics of String Theory], Nancy Rhodes emphasizes her interest in the nature of reality, how we explore the dimensional aspects of the world we live in, and how we fit into our galaxy. Exploring time and space figure into her approach for directing. In the 21st century, Nancy Rhodes is a spiritualist steering the American operatic spaceship.