by Karren Alenier

In creating a second, third or fourth opera, as is the case with Tobias Picker's new work An American Tragedy that had its world premiere December 2, 2005, at the Metropolitan Opera, a composer and his collaborators are eager to follow the lessons of past experience.  This quest for a formula of success is apparent with Tragedy and works only for certain aspects of the production.

As many critics have stated, the stakes were extremely high for Picker's new work because not only is the Metropolitan Opera the most prestigious opera stage in the United States, but also it has commissioned and premiered few operas in the last 15 years:  1999 John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, 1992 Philip Glass' The Voyager, and 1991 John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles.  What everyone in the opera world wants is for a new opera to succeed because each success opens doors for more commissions and world premieres.


In 1925, Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) published his best-selling novel An American Tragedy in two volumes that numbered over one thousand pages.  In 1931 Paramount released a film based on the novel that Dreiser adamantly disliked. Paramount had spurned the screenplay by Sergei Eisenstein that Dreiser preferred.  In 1951, George Steven's version of the Dreiser novel A Place in the Sun with Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift was released to great public acclaim.  The film received six Academy Awards, including best screenplay.

When James Levine of the Met offered him a commission in 1997, Picker's first choice was An American Tragedy, a book that was his father's favorite.  However, the Dreiser estate had that novel under option for a musical and so Picker considered several other works, including Dreiser's Sister Carrie.  Despite having picked a cast for Sister Carrie, when a nephew of Dreiser's managed in the year 2000 to convince the estate to give Picker the rights, the composer dropped Sister Carrie.


Therefore, taking no risks, Picker began working on Tragedy with familiar collaborators: songwriter Gene Scheer who had written the libretto for his third opera Therese Raquin and director-dramaturg Francesco Zambello who had worked on Emmeline and Therese Raquin.  In fact, Zambello was responsible for introducing Picker to Scheer.  The results of their work included:

A story not unlike Picker's successful first opera Emmeline with libretto by poet
J.D. McClatchy

    WhileTragedy is about Clyde, a young man who gets caught up in American industrialism and causes the death of Roberta, his pregnant girlfriend who works in Clyde's uncle's factory, Emmeline is about a young girl who is forced to work in a mill where she is seduced and made pregnant by her supervisor with dire consequences for her future.

    Emmeline premiered in 1996 at the Santa Fe Opera.  The success of his first opera gave Picker three opera commissions by 1997: Fantastic Mr. Fox, a children's opera for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Therese Raquin, a chamber opera for The Dallas Opera, and An American Tragedy, a full-length opera for the Met.

    Each of Picker's adult operas is set in the middle to late 1800s and falls into a style of storytelling known as Naturalism. Although contemporary author Judith Rossner published the novel Emmeline in 1980, the timeframe of her story and its stylistic approach are in the tradition of Theodore Dreiser and Emile Zola, who coined the term Naturalism.  Therese Raquin is based on Zola's novel of the same name.  Naturalism is characterized by details drawn from real life (factories, mills, the advent of the automobile) and a frankness about human behavior (as incest in Emmeline and pre-meditated murder in Tragedy and in Therese Raquin.)

Selection of the best performing and supporting design artists in the field.

    The impeccably talented cast included soprano Patricia Racette (as Roberta) who created the role of Emmeline and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (as Sondra Finchely, the debutante Clyde jilts Roberta for) who created the role of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby.  Baritone Nathan Gunn as Clyde has had appeared at the Met in a variety of productions since 1995 as well as other prestigious opera houses in the U.S. and Europe.  Also in the role of the district attorney who prosecutes Clyde is bass-baritone Richard Bernstein who created the role of Laurent in Therese Raquin. 

    Zambello gathered a highly successful support team. Most notably, Adrianne Lobel created a multi-tiered set where singers stand on two of the tiers in split scene numbers.  The work of costume and set designers Dunya Ramicova and Adrianne Lobel was recently seen in the San Francisco Opera world premiere of Doctor Atomic.  Ramicova also did the costumes for Emmeline at the Santa Fe Opera.


Musically Picker's opera breaks no new ground.  There are a number of beautifully rendered numbers, particularly those split scenes involving the seduction of Roberta and the girl talk between Sondra and Clyde's cousin Bella as well as Roberta's letter-writing scene and Clyde's romancing of Sondra at the lake.

As this writer has gone on record to say, Picker and Scheer's music and words fail to create sympathetic characters and a message that informs today's audiences about current day issues.  Going back to Dreiser's novel, one can see how Clyde becomes a victim of his circumstances.  Take this example of Clyde as a little boy forced to sing on the streets by his parents:

    "The boy moved restlessly from one foot to the other, keeping his eyes down, and for the most part only half singing.  A tall and as yet slight figure, surmounted by an interesting head and face— white skin, dark hair—he seemed more keenly observant and decidedly more sensitive than most of the others—appeared indeed to resent and even to suffer from the position in which he found himself.  Plainly pagan rather than religious, life interested him, although as yet he was not fully aware of this.  All that could be truly said of him now was that there was no definite appeal in all this for him.  He was too young, his mind much too responsive to phases of beauty and pleasure which had little, if anything, to do with the remote and cloudy romance which swayed the minds of his mother and father." from Chapter 1 of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

The final chapter also affirms Clyde's feeling of victimization leading to the electric chair for the death of his pregnant girlfriend:

    "… because of this final completely convincing sensation, that very soon he was to die, he felt the need, even now of retracing his unhappy life.  His youth. Kansas City.  Chicago.  Liturgies. Roberta and Sondra.  How swiftly they and all that was connected with them passed in review.  The few, brief, bright intense moments.  His desire for more—more—that intense desire he had felt there in Lycurgus after Sondra came and now this, this!  And now even this was ending—this—this— Why, he had scarcely lived at all as yet—and these last two years so miserably between these crushing walls.  And of this life but fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight of the filtering and now feverish days left.  They were going—going.  But life—life—how was one to do without that—the beauty of the days— of the sun and rain—of work love, energy, desire.  Oh, he really did not want to die.  He did not.  Why say to him so constantly as his mother and the Reverend McMillan now did to resolve all his care in divine mercy and think only of God, when now, now, was all? …  Would no one ever understand—or give him credit for his human—if all too human and perhaps wrong hungers—yet from which so many others—along with himself suffered?" from Chapter 34 of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser is not asking his reader to condone Clyde's behavior, but one cannot help feeling sympathy for Clyde who still seems to be the same little boy forced to sing religious hymns on the street.  This is what the opera tries to effect by bringing back on stage the boy soprano Graham Phillips who plays the young Clyde so he can walk hand in hand with the older Clyde (Nathan Gunn) to the electric chair.  The libretto misses the opportunity in the opening scene to show the little Clyde as a pagan who resented what his parents made him do.


Clearly in creating an opera based on an existing work, choices have to be made.  Michael Wilson and Harry Brown who wrote the screenplay for A Place in the Sun started their version of An American Tragedy with George (the Clyde character) showing up at his uncle's business to take the job the uncle promised him.  What we see consistently throughout the film is a young man who acts on impulse and has a childlike view of the world.  At one point, the debutante he falls in love with urges him to reveal how much he loves her by saying, "Tell Mama, tell Mama."  

Another problem with the opera is we do not know how much the debutante Sondra loves Clyde.  Was she worth what happens to him?  In the film, the debutante comes to see George/Clyde in prison.  In the opera and in the novel, an unsigned, typed letter from Sondra is sent to him in prison.  Dreiser seems to say that the debutante, like the pregnant girlfriend and the mother, was one of the devils that factored into Clyde's fall.  

Materialism and moral conduct are themes we continue to live with.  Plotting someone's demise to free a man to graze in greener pastures is a theme we hear regularly on the evening's news.  What's missing in the opera is Clyde's anguish that revolves around whether he should take full responsibility for his pregnant girlfriend's death and what role Sondra, the church, and his mother should have in this decision.  Without understanding Clyde's anguish, the operagoer cannot connect to anyone in An American Tragedy and does not know what message Picker and Scheer mean to impart.   

Images - Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


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©2006 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren Alenier is a poet and librettist and writes
a monthly column for Scene4 (q.v. here)

For more of her commentary and articles, check the




january 2006

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