Many casual music fans are not aware that there is such an entity as American opera. In fact, Americans have been creating some form of operatic entertainment since Colonial times. Unfortunately, it is also true that few people living today have ever seen an American opera written prior to 1911. Of course, the same could be said of other forms of American music. Few Americans could name two important composers who lived prior to the twentieth century. Only Stephen Collins Foster, whose oeuvre was confined almost entirely to the song repertoire, stands out from that period.
During the 1700’s American writers composed a number of “ballad operas,” often incorporating music from various sources with new lyrics. It was not until 1794, with the premiere of Tammany, or The Indian Chief (music by James Hewitt, libretto by Ann Julia Hatton) that a true American opera, with original music by a single composer, appeared. These writers, like many who followed them, achieved a distinctly American flavor by writing about Native Americans. Early in the twentieth century Charles Wakefield Cadman incorporated the rhythms of Native American music in his compositions. Significantly, contrary to the way in which Hollywood generally portrayed Native Americans, opera librettists generally showed these subjects in a positive light.
Some American composers adopted a practice which was to become commonplace later by adapting American literary classics for the operatic stage. Among these were George Frederick Bristow’s Rip Van Winkle and Caryl Florio’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The American productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance inspired many American composers and librettists to write for the stage, but most Americans exhibited a taste for Viennese style operettas (many written by immigrants) in preference to true operas. Over the years, the operetta evolved into the Broadway musical, though beginning with the 1950’s and continuing into more recent times, the line between the Broadway musical and opera becomes blurred, as in West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein), Most Happy Fella (Frank Loesser), or Sweeney Todd and Passion (Stephen Sondheim).
The earliest opera (by date of composition) that can be said to have even a toehold in the standard repertoire is Scott Joplin’s Treemonishia, composed in 1911 but not given a full production until many years later. This opera contains much beautiful music, but it is hampered by a didactic libretto (lauding education as a means of battling superstition) lacking in real dramatic tension. Between 1915 and 1935, under the directorship of Giiulio
Gatti-Casazza, the New York Metropolitan Opera produced several new works, but despite their popularity at the time, few of these are performed today. The first truly great American opera, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, first appeared in 1935, though it took some time before it was accepted as a true opera rather than a Broadway musical. This is one of a small handful of operas composed prior to World War II that still holds the stage.
The 1950’s are often stereotyped in the media as a bland, conformist era, but it was actually one of the most creative periods in American cultural history. Not only was this decade part of what is often called the “Golden Age” of the American musical, it was also the period in which many of the most beloved American operas were written. Among the most popular operas of the decade were The Consul and Amahl and the Night Visitors (Giancarlo Menotti), The Ballad of Baby Doe (Douglas Moore), The Tender Land (Aaron Copland), Susannah (Carlisle Floyd), Vanessa (Samuel Barber), and Candide and Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). Amahl, which due in part to its connection to the Christmas season is probably the most popular American opera, was remarkable in that it was commissioned by NBC and had its premiere not in an opera house but in a television studio. Already in 1939 Menotti had begun experimenting with the media when he composed The Old Maid and the Thief for radio.
The twenty-first century has been a remarkably productive era in the creation of new American operas. During the past twenty years we have seen a surge in the creation of new American operas. Some have been based on recent history (Harvey Milk by Stewart Wallace) or by popular films (Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie). More commonly, composers have turned to popular novels and plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire (Andre Previn), The Little Prince (Rachel Portman), Little Women (Mark Adamo), A View from the Bridge (William Bolcom), The Great Gatsby (John Harrison), and Moby Dick (Heggie). With the production of Silent Night and Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath, along with the aforementioned upcoming premiere of Kevin Puts’s newest opera, Minnesota Opera has shown a determination to be a major player in the creation of American opera. In short, we could be in the middle of a new “Golden Age” of American opera.