Singing in Grover's Cornersby Karl Gehrke, Minnesota Public Radio
Turning famous works of American literature into operas has become something of a trend. Over the past decade "The Great Gatsby," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "The Grapes of Wrath" have all found new life on the opera stage. Composer Ned Rorem turned Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town" into an opera in 2006. The local Skylark Opera company opens the upper Midwest premiere on Friday.
St. Paul, Minn. — At the beginning of Wilder's famous play, the omniscient character of the Stage Manager introduces the audience to the life and people of an ordinary, turn-of-the-20th century small town, Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. In the opera version, the Stage Manager sings that description.
Both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein wanted to write an "Our Town" opera, but Thornton Wilder turned down their requests. It wasn't until Yale professor and poet J.D. McClatchy approached the playwright's nephew and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, that permission was given for an operatic version of the famous 1938 play.
After persuading Ned Rorem to compose the music, McClatchy got busy writing the libretto. He says he had to condense the play to keep the opera around two hours.
"My job as a librettist in making that adaptation is to first of all take all of these beautiful little kittens, put them in a burlap bag and drop it over the bridge."
McClatchy and Rorem eliminated minor characters and shortened scenes, but the two remained faithful to Wilder's play about life, love and death. Gary Briggle sings the role of the Stage Manager in Skylark Opera's production of "Our Town." He says the part has challenges that are different from the standard 18th and 19th century opera repertoire.
"The librettos for operas are notoriously thin," Briggle says. "They're really skeletons upon which are hung repitition where the music is the developing form. In this one, by hewing to Wilder's play so strictly, the present moment is all you've got. And if the audience misses it or if you drop them along the path there's not a moment to go back and guide them along."
Jeffrey Madison sings the role of Mr. Webb in Skylark Opera's production of "Our Town." He says Ned Rorem's atmospheric music heightens the play's most poignant moments.
"That really adds a nice backdrop," he says. "The play moves in time and space and to have that extra commentary by the music really brings the play alive."
St. Paul's Skylark Opera, formerly known as North Star Opera, is familiar to Twin Cities audiences for staging operettas and musical theater. But Skylark's artistic director Steve Stucki says the company is expanding its scope to include more modern productions.
"I think that doing a regional premiere of an important new work is very good for the company," he says. "It gives us some exposure and recognition."
It also gives the cast the freedom to shape their roles. Sarah Asmar is Emily in Skylark Opera's "Our Town" production. She says it's been a rewarding experience learning such a new part.
"Companies do 'La Boheme' every year and people have an expectation of what it's going to be," she explains. "Here we have the room to experiment and fill moments with ideas that you or the director think are correct."
Although people in the Skylark audience will be unfamiliar with "Our Town" the opera, those who know the original play may have some preconceptions. Librettist J.D. McClatchy says he and composer Ned Rorem have kept all of the famous lines and beloved moments from the play. McClatchy says audiences clearly feel deeply about the story.
"You never hear anybody crying at the end of 'Aida,'" he says. "But believe me, at the end of 'Our Town' I have heard people weeping in the theater as they often do at the play itself. It's a great compliment to the composer and to the singers."
Skylark Opera's production of "Our Town" opens on Friday at Concordia University in St. Paul and runs through June 22nd in repertory with the Victor Herbert operetta, "Naughty Marietta."
- Morning Edition, 06/11/2008, 7:55 a.m.