They Sing in English, Put on American Works, and Redefine Opera

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember.  This week, operas in English by American composers.

We start with the works of Carlisle Floyd, who just recently celebrated his eightieth birthday.


Most of the operas by Carlisle Floyd are based on stories or plays by American writers.  But he developed his best-known opera, "Susannah," from a Bible story.  From "Susannah," you just heard the soprano Renee Fleming singing "Ain't It a Pretty Night?"

Carlisle Floyd was born in nineteen twenty-six in South Carolina.  He gained recognition even when opera houses rarely performed American works.

"Susannah" first appeared in nineteen fifty-five.  It is now a classic opera performed around the world.


The most recent opera by Carlisle Floyd is "Cold Sassy Tree."  He composed it from the book with that name by Olive Ann Burns.

In "Cold Sassy Tree," an older man marries a young woman soon after his wife dies.  For his community, it is too soon.

The Houston Grand Opera in Texas presented the first performance in two thousand.  The Houston opera has long been known for producing new works.

"Cold Sassy Tree" is part tragedy, part comedy, but it also deals with issues of religious extremism.  Listen as Dean Peterson sings "Rucker's Sermon."


Another opera written by Carlisle Floyd came from the book "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren.  The opera is called "Willie Stark."  The story is about a powerful Southern politician.  He is a lot like Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana who was elected a United States senator in nineteen thirty.

A classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson led to Carlisle Floyd's opera "Markheim."  This is a story of murder and its effects on the murderer.

Some critics argue that works like these are more plays with music than true opera in the European tradition.  But others say new American opera is helping to renew interest in opera in the United States.  This seems true especially when the stories deal with social and moral issues.

As one critic said, the music may not always be easy to remember, but the operas succeed well as theater.

Carlisle Floyd described the situation this way: Some opera boards like to produce only the five or six operas they may know by name.  And these have to be sung in a language they do not understand.


Richard Danielpour was born in New York to Iranian parents in nineteen fifty-six.  He is a Grammy Award-winning composer.  His first opera, "Margaret Garner," appeared for the first time in two thousand five.  He wrote it with Toni Morrison.  Her awards include the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The story is based in part on true events.  Margaret Garner was an escaped slave in the eighteen hundreds.  She killed her baby daughter to save her from slavery.  This real-life story is what led Toni Morrison to write her novel "Beloved."

Now, here are Tracie Luck and James Kee with music from "Margaret Garner" performed by the Michigan Opera Theatre.


Composer Jake Heggie developed an opera from the book "Dead Man Walking" by Sister Helen Prejean.  The Roman Catholic nun and activist against death sentences wrote about her friendship with a prisoner awaiting execution.

Jake Heggie was born in nineteen sixty-one.  Before his opera, he was known mainly for writing songs.

"Dead Man Walking" was a major motion picture in nineteen ninety-five.  But many people did not believe audiences would pay to hear an opera about this subject.  The San Francisco Opera thought they would.

Playwright Terrence McNally went to work on the story.  The opera had a very successful premiere in two thousand.  Since then, it has been produced again and again.

Listen as Susan Graham, as Sister Helen, tells the condemned man that she will be with him as he faces death by poison injection.


The classic American novel "Little Women" was first published in eighteen sixty-eight.  It was an immediate success.  The story by Louisa May Alcott is about four sisters.  Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy live in New England in the eighteen sixties, after the Civil War.

Over the years, the story has been told in plays, films and on television.  Now there is "Little Women" the opera, composed by Mark Adamo.

Mark Adamo was born in nineteen sixty-two.  He had not written an opera before "Little Women."

Carlisle Floyd suggested that he offer the work to the Houston Grand Opera.  Mark Adamo did not think the opera company would be interested.  He was wrong.

The Houston Grand Opera presented "Little Women" in nineteen ninety-eight and again two years later.  Since then, opera companies across the country have presented this work.

The opera shows the emotional conflicts in the life of Jo.  She is a gifted writer.  But she fights growing up.

Listen now as Jo, played by Cherry Duke, sings about a bad day.  She wishes she could start the day over.


Other examples of American operas include "Our Town."  Ned Rorem wrote the music based on the play by Thornton Wilder about life in a small town.

The Tennessee Williams play "A Streetcar Named Desire" led Andre Previn to compose an opera.  And John Harbison composed an opera version of "The Great Gatsby" from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The list goes on.

Composer Douglas Moore and librettist John Latouche called upon the history of the American West for "The Ballad of Baby Doe."


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.