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Is the Hoppera Popular Entertainment?
Should it be?

The Dresser applauds librettist Mark Campbell and composer John Musto for grounding Later the Same Evening: An opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper in American subject matter and musical styling. This opera enjoyed its world premiere in four performances November 15-18, 2007, at the Clarisse Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, Maryland, and will have one additional performance at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, on December 2. MG_Hopper_5343-Scene1.jpg
Maryland Opera Studio members Andrew Adelsberger, left, as Gus O'Neill and Claire Kuttler as Elaine O'Neill
Photo by Cory Weaver

While the Dresser knows that most American composers subscribe to Virgil Thomson’s definition that to write American music [or opera], one needs only to be an American, she believes that new operatic works that speak textually and musically from American sources build international and younger generation interest for American operas and their creators.


The question the Dresser thinks operatic collaborators should ask themselves before launching a new project is how will this opera distinguish itself from what has come before, especially 18th and 19th century European opera that continues to dominate opera productions in the United States? One important way is to offer views of American culture.

In the last ten years, operas highlighting American culture include such works as:
• Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998),
• André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998),
• William Bolcom, Arnold Weinstein and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge
• Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (2000),
• Libby Larsen and Bridget Carpenter’s Barnum's Bird (2002),
• Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner (2005),
• Scott Wheeler and Romulus Linney’s Democracy: An American Comedy (2005),
• John Adams and Peter Sellars’ Doctor Atomic (2005),
• Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer’s An American Tragedy (2005),
• Ned Rorem and J. D. McClatchy’s Our Town (2006),
• Lowell Liebermann and librettist J. D. McClatchy’s Miss Lonelyhearts (2006),
• Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath (2007),
• Adolphus Hailstork and David Gonzalez’s We Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story (2007), and
• Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein’s Elmer Gantry (2007).

What’s interesting about this list of fourteen recent operas is that, except for Barnum's Bird, Doctor Atomic, and We Rise for Freedom, most of these new operas are based on well-known literature. Few composers want to take risks with their subject matter.


While it is true that the subject of the Hopper libretto was born from an opportunity that director Leon Major recognized for a co-sponsored project with the National Gallery of Art, the Dresser raises her hands again in applause for Campbell and Musto for creating an original libretto. There are so few of them and Later the Same Evening is a polished, interwoven set of stories about characters who jump off five of Edward Hopper’s paintings into full blown life with all its joys and agonies. The inspirational paintings, listed here in the order in which they appear in the opera and which can be seen at the National Gallery of Art through January 21, 2008, are Room in New York (1932), Hotel Window (1955), Hotel Room (1931), Two on the Aisle (1927), and Automat (1927).

The story, set in one act and seven scenes, takes place in New York City in 1932. There are eleven characters most of whom attend a Broadway musical in the fifth scene. Story threads include a man and wife (Gus and Elaine) who aren’t communicating well with each because he is stressed by his job, a widow who has a date with a flamboyant Portuguese man, a young woman from Indianapolis who has tried to break into the world of professional dance and the young man who plans to surprise her with an engagement ring, a bickering couple who love to fight with each other as the way they best get along, an Italian woman trying to understand what an American musical is all about, a poet/high school teacher from Lynchburg who gets Gus’s ticket gratis from Elaine, and an usher from the musical. Deftly and plausibly, Campbell makes room for these characters to cross paths and to come alive. The Dresser particularly liked Valentina, the Italian woman who, by singing in Italian with English surtitles, reminds the audience in a backhanded and comic way that we are experiencing an opera with an imbedded Broadway show.


Back in June when the Dresser was invited to a press conference for Later the Same Evening, she learned that composer, librettist and director all agreed that their goal for this work, affectionately called the Hoppera, was to make popular entertainment. In American culture today, popular theatrical entertainment is often equated to Broadway shows. What Musto has done is added the pop sound of an invented Broadway musical to Minimalist styling and dissonance within a tonal framework.

Musical variety in both Musto’s operas Later the Same Evening and Volpone makes the Dresser think that the European composer Alfred Schnittke, whose use of past and present musical styles has been called polystylism, may have influenced Musto. Schnittke also stated, "The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so." Necks withstanding, the Dresser thinks Musto has done a good job in blending modern classical music with a more accessible popular sound. She still thinks, however, that what Musto has created musically is much more complex than a popular entertainment. The Dresser plans to hear this opera again because one sitting is not enough to fully understand the overall work. Musto particularly excels when he is writing for multiple voices. The rain number in Scene 6 is an exciting standout ensemble. (Kudos to Movement Consultant Virginia Freeman for the synchronized way the singers move in this act. The visual on this not pleases but energizes.)
Photo by Cory Weaver

Adding to the musical complexity of Later the Same Evening is the large National Gallery Orchestra comprised of over 25 musicians. Although the musical richness did not overwhelm the accomplished student singers performing the night of November 16 (including one singer who was not feeling well but went on stage anyway), the Dresser longed for a more intimate venue than the Ina and Jack Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland Clarisse Smith Performing Arts Center.

Nevertheless, sitting at a distance from the stage was important in order to see the well-engineered set (designed by Erhard Rom) that initially looked like a wall in a big art museum but was also five floor-to-ceiling doors. Even at a remove, the Dresser could see how vivid and true the costumes were to Hopper’s paintings. Costume designer David O. Roberts’ best painting-to-stage costume rendering is seen in the last act where the usher Thelma sits at the automat musing about her life in the big city.
Jenna Lebherz as Thelma Yablonski
Photo by Cory Weaver


The Dresser also thinks it is significant to learn something about the audience who comes to hear a new work. Of course, there is very little that one person can know in a big, packed space like the Kay Theatre short of interviewing everyone who hands in a ticket. However, the Dresser encountered these people: Maryland poets Ann Slayton and Merrill Leffler, composer Daniel Sonenberg (University of Southern Maine), and New York City opera aficionado Lois C. Schwartz. The Dresser’s seatmate was DC composer Janet Peachey. The point of this tiny profile is just to say that Later the Same Evening attracted working artists and entrepreneurs from near and far. The better news is that there were lots of students.

The Dresser offers this gem of poem with its translation in Italian as an echo to the stories and characters Mark Campbell created for Later the Same Evening.


I gaze at the hot coals.
Take fire into my marrow.
Watch the life I knew melt
at my feet. Stomp the past.
Pass through pools of regret.
Feel blood rush hot and fast
though my breast.
Become the flames.
Consume you.

by Emily Ferrara
from The Alchemy of Grief

Copyright © 2007 Emily Ferrara


Fissare i carboni ardenti.
Prendere fuoco nel mio midollo.
Guardare la vita che conoscevo dissolta
ai miei piedi. Pestare il passato.
Attraversare stagni di rimpianti.
Sentire il sangue scorrere caldo e veloce
nel mio petto.
Diventare fiamme.

Translation by Sabine Pascarelli

Copyright © 2007 Sabine Pascarelli


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 25, 2007 4:59 PM.

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