Friday, November 23, 2007

An American Classic

Very few American operas have achieved enough critical acclaim and/or popular success to be regarded as integral parts of the standard repertoire. It took George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess fifty years to reach the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House and, although Kurt Weill's Street Scene, Robert Ward's The Crucible (based on Arthur Miller's prize-winning play about the Salem witch trials) and Marc Blitzstein's Regina (which is based on Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes) are occasionally revived, not one of these operas has gained the kind of audience popularity which would enable a singer to use it on a regular basis as a personal vehicle or a professional meal ticket. Of the handful of operas written by European composers which take place in America, Puccini's Girl of the Golden West (which had its world premiere in New York's original Metropolitan Opera House on December 10, 1910) is by far the best known and most difficult to cast. Until its splendid presentation in 1984 by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis (a production which marked the opera's professionally-staged American premiere) and its recent release on compact disc, Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan was virtually unknown in the country whose folk hero it celebrates.

I doubt that anyone would weep if Douglas Moore's Carry Nation, Robert Ward's Minutes to Midnight, George Rochberg's The Confidence Man and Andrew Imbrie's Angle of Repose were never revived. And, unlike Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (which is chock-full of hit tunes), "black" American operas of impressive artistic merit such as Thea Musgrave's Harriet Tubman: A Woman Called Moses, Anthony Davis's X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie and Scott Joplin's Treemonisha are extremely difficult to sell to largely white and conservative subscription audiences.

What operatic Americana remains active in the repertoire? Of the important American works composed during the past two decades, two of Carlisle Floyd's operas (Willie Stark and Of Mice and Men) continue to pop up from time to time. Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice has received separate productions from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Washington Opera and Greater Miami Opera Association. Thanks to the way in which it was co-commissioned by three arts organizations, co-produced by five different companies, telecast as part of PBS's "Great Performances" series and released in LP, CD, and cassette formats, John Adams's Nixon in China now seems assured of finding its niche in the repertoire.

Ironically, only two American operas, both of which were written in the late 1950s (Carlisle Floyd's Susannah and Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe) seem to have become genuine staples of the repertoire. Thanks to the lurid media coverage of recent sex scandals involving televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and James Bakker, Susannah has acquired an astonishing level of newsworthiness (last summer, Swaggart's lawyers even threatened to sue the Cincinnati Opera for infringing on the defrocked minister's copyright by quoting him in its advertising for Susannah). In recent seasons, Moore's classic about the love affair between Horace A. W. Tabor and his second wife, Elizabeth "Baby" Doe, has been performed in Seattle, Milwaukee, Detroit, Dayton, Long Beach, New York and Central City, Colorado.


While the score to The Ballad of Baby Doe does not always strike the listener as great music, much of Moore's opera captures the roughness and rowdiness of Colorado's silver mining days. A good deal of Baby Doe's charm comes from the fact that it is based on a tale of uncompromising love and, when writing for his heroine, the composer rose above the commonality of Leadville's miners and Denver's pseudo-aristocracy with three big romantic arias: Baby Doe's Willow Song, her "Silver" aria at the end of Act I, and her touching farewell to Horace in the final moments of the opera.

The Ballad of Baby Doe received its world premiere at the Central City Opera on July 7, 1956 and, last summer, I traveled to that historic Colorado mining town to see Moore's opera performed on the stage of the 800-seat Victorian opera house in which it had its premiere. Although I nearly got trampled to death in Stapleton Airport by the horde of frenzied, screaming teenyboppers greeting rock star Eddie Van Halen who, along with members of his band, was aboard my flight from Seattle (Van Halen was performing at a "Monsters of Rock" concert in Denver's Mile High Stadium), my trip to Central City proved to be well worth the effort.

This was really a day for a taste of the Old West. Following a brunch recital at the Teller House Hotel, I crossed the street to attend a performance of Henri Mollicone's The Face on the Barroom Floor. Following Mollicone's one-acter, I entered the Central City Opera House, whose newly restored Victorian decor is a historic delight. Using Donald Oenslager's original sets and Patton Campbell's costumes, Central City Opera's production of The Ballad of Baby Doe (which was directed by Michael Ehrman) seemed fresh, warm and, especially because of the size of the theatre, deliciously intimate. Musically, this performance was by far, the strongest of the four productions I attended in Central City and I must confess that experiencing Moore's opera on its native turf added a historical glow to the proceedings.

Under John Moriarty's baton, the rubbery-faced Dana Krueger held forth as the rigid Augusta while baritone Brian Steele created a powerful impression as her husband, Horace Tabor. Most notable was Amy Burton's winsome portrayal of Baby Doe; a vision of loveliness that could make any miner's heart melt. All in all, it was a delightful performance which upheld the legacy of the Central City Opera.


After an absence of nearly 14 years from its repertoire, the New York City Opera revived The Ballad of Baby Doe last October as a vehicle for soprano Faith Esham. Watching over the proceedings with a critical eye was NYCO's outgoing General Director, Beverly Sills, who had starred in the opera's 1958 New York premiere and recorded it for MGM Records (Baby Doe has since been reissued on Deutsche Grammaphon). Under Rhoda Levine's stage direction, Esham did very nicely with the title character, capturing the healthy glow of Baby's charm and rising nobly to the challenge of her final aria.

A sudden replacement for Timothy Nolen (whose new-found stardom in Broadway's Phantom of the Opera forced him to bow out of this revival) baritone William Parcher scored a major career triumph as Horace Tabor. Parcher's acting captured much more of Tabor's pioneer spirit than many other baritones who sing the role and Sills later confessed to me that even she was surprised at how much his portrayal reminded her of Walter Cassel's interpretation of the Colorado Silver King.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle scored strongly as Augusta Tabor and, with conductor Hal France guiding matters from the podium, the opening night performance was a smashing success. Judging from the enthusiastic cheering after each one of Esham's arias (as well as during curtain calls -- when it seemed as if the New York State Theatre was filled to the rafters with Baby Doe queens) this revival was embraced with the kind of deep-throated enthusiasm reserved for very special occasions in the theatre.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 23, 1989.

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