Magazine article The American Prospect

American Dream, American Opera

Magazine article The American Prospect

American Dream, American Opera

Article excerpt

The Red Hook section of Brooklyn is only 20 miles from Manhasset Neck on Long Island, the places stand worlds, apart. Red Hook, as depicted in Arthur Miller s 1955 play A View the Bridge, is a sturdy working-class neighborhood that depends on the nearby dockyards for its livelihood. Manhasset Neck, in its incarnation as East Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 novel The Great Gatsby, is an enclave of wealth and privilege. Yet both literary settings reveal the boundaries of the American Dream: No matter how many opportunities for self-advancement may be here, society still dictates how those goals can be achieved.

On the treacherous terrain of modern opera, contemporary American composers have been forced to confront their own peculiar version of these boundaries. Regardless of how many high-profile commissions they earn or how much esteem is lavished upon them by Ye critical elite, if they crave popular success--achieving a place in the standard repertoire--they must conform to certain norms: lush melodies that yield a memorable tune or two, harmonies that don't veer too frequently into dissonance, and a clearly etched narrative of grand passions. By these measures, William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge, which premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on October 9, 1999, and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, which made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 20, are quite opposite. Bolcom's View is rich with musical life and theatrical drama, while Harbison's Gatsby squanders its considerable assets before the evening is through.

With Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, first mounted in San Francisco in 1998, View and Gatsby form a trilogy whose common elements define American opera at the end of the twentieth century. The three works are based on classic literary sources. Each incorporates popular songs and other "lowbrow" musical material into its score to connect with audiences. And most significantly, all three pieces are aware of their characters' social milieu: Red Hook's immigrant melting pot, East Egg's monied leisure, and New Orleans's shabby glamour. This is a marked departure from operas of the recent past, which tended to be concerned with public figures (Richard Nixon, Harvey Milk, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), not the quotidian lives of the American experience. Perhaps the vigorous economy has made it easier for us to acknowledge the divide between affluence and indigence, but for the first time since 1935, when the curtain went up on Catfish Row in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the class structure is part of the scenery on the nation's opera stages again.

For Bolcom and his librettists, the playwright Arnold Weinstein, and Miller himself, the proletarian setting is integral to the opera's action. The Italian-American stevedore Eddie Carbone is obsessed with his niece Catherine, who lives with Eddie and his wife Beatrice. Beatrice's two cousins, Rodolpho and Marco, illegal immigrants from Sicily, arrive and move in with the Carbones. Catherine falls for Rodolpho, igniting Eddie's jealousy. In a rage, he reports the cousins to the authorities. Shunned by his neighbors for this violation of their code of honor, Eddie is killed by Marco, who is driven by his own fury at being forced to return empty-handed to his starving family in Italy. Everyone is motivated by the desperate scramble for the basics of food, shelter, and a little love. Relocate the story to the suburbs, and it wouldn't have the same urgency.

In the Bolcom opera, the tale retains its mythic power, even though the second act's homosexual kiss has lost a lot of its shock value over the years and the Freudian symbolism of Eddie getting stabbed with his own knife is a bit much. The story builds relentlessly, and, until the last 15 minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour work, Bolcom's rhythmically restless music keeps pace. Snatches of jazz, doowop, and tango weave in and out of a score whose influences are as smoothly assimilated as the opera's characters strive to be. …

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