Little Women's Big Man: As His Hit Opera Little Women Debuts in New York, Composer Mark Adamo Talks about Bringing Theatrical Spice to the Classical World and Living Happily Ever after with His Partner, Composer John Corigliano. (Music)

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"I would like to think that I had insight into the women in Little Women because I wasn't bound by gender roles," says Mark Adamo, musing about his triumphant hit opera, which opens March 23 at New York City Opera at Lincoln Center in a joint production with Glimmerglass Opera. "On the other hand," he says, "maybe the answer is that I had two sisters and we grew up in the same house!"

Whatever its genesis, Little Women has enjoyed 22 productions in less than five years--as it has astounded critics and endeared audiences to Adamo's vividly drawn characters. "A lot of that dialogue was from my family," Adamo allows. "A straight guy might have done that too."

In fact, Louisa May Alcott's classic novel has often been adapted. But neither the three Hollywood films nor the musical versions fully succeeded in capturing the book's soulful magic while retaining its Victorian-era charm. Rather than ignoring the past efforts, Adamo studied them before beginning his opera, for which he also served as librettist.

"I was trained as a playwright as well as a composer," says Adamo, who was in the dramatic writing program at New York University and then the music composition program at Catholic University of America. "So I'm able to write as knowingly from the theatrical point of view as from the musical point of view."

To translate the novel into the language t)f opera, Adamo focused on the character of Jo March--the most headstrong of the book's four March sisters--and her reluctance to grow old and leave the bonds of family. "Perfect as we are" becomes her motivation as well as her leitmotiv--and receives a melodic treatment that echoes "No One Is Alone," a memorable tune by another composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim.

Like many classical musicians, Adamo becomes thoughtful when questions turn to matters of sexuality. "I was surprised at how relatively square and quasi-conservative the concert-music world seemed in comparison to the theater world, which was much looser and funnier," he says. …