New American opera at the U - "Elmer Gantry"

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
November 15, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — "Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."

So opens the 1927 best-seller by Sinclair Lewis about a vulgar and licentious college football player who becomes a messenger of God as an evangelist preacher.

The U of M Opera Theatre presents the Minnesota premier of the opera "Elmer Gantry" with a brilliant score by Robert Aldridge and creative libretto by Herschel Garfein this weekend.

They'll be my guests at noon today on Classical MPR and we'll hear selections from the opera.


Elmer Gantry is the great American un-hero whose fraternity-brother anti-intellectual personality actually aids in his rise to power. It's a story that resonates with a modern audience as it simultaneously provides great fodder for opera.

All roles are sung by University voice students, except for one, that of the revival singer, sung by Minnesota gospel singer J. D. Steele.

Opera Theater Director David Walsh told me he was eager to do some new American opera and challenge the students who would have no commercial recordings to study or model themselves on.

He was also struck by the accessibility of the story and music, that's still sophisticated and grounded in grand opera tradition.

The New York Times writes a "vibrantly lyrical, cinematic score (sometimes redolent of Gershwin and Copland) unleashes no great dissonances or avant-gardisms on the unsuspecting listener." The score melds jazz, gospel, and even college pep songs, as well as some of the most heart-wrenching lyricism.

It's upbeat music to a rather dark story - that of the ways religion and the myth of the "self-made man" are woven into the fabric of American culture, and how they can be used for more nefarious purposes by one man, Elmer Gantry.


Remaining shows at Ted Mann are at 7:30 tonight and tomorrow and 1:30 on Sunday afternoon.

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