Newswise — American composer Ned Rorem has accomplished what many of his predecessors could only dream of: the transformation of the classic play "Our Town" into an opera.
On Feb. 24 -- almost 68 years to the day that Thornton Wilder's quintessential American drama debuted in Princeton, N.J. -- what legendary composer Aaron Copland and others once imagined will finally become a reality. On that day, Indiana University Opera Theater, the foremost collegiate opera program in the nation, will present the world premiere of Rorem's "Our Town," with libretto by renowned American poet and writer J.D. McClatchy.
Additional performances are scheduled for Feb. 25 and March 3-4 in the Musical Arts Center on the IU Bloomington campus. All performances will begin at 8 p.m. The opera will serve as the centerpiece of IU's and Blooomington's annual ArtsWeek celebration, which is scheduled for Feb. 24 to March 5.
IU Jacobs School of Music Dean Gwyn Richards said, "IU Opera Theater's rich tradition has included world premieres. However, it is particularly rewarding to be the site of the world premiere of 'Our Town,' based on the quintessential American play, and crafted by two of America's most distinguished composers and librettists. Our hope is that the opera will find a place in the international operatic repertoire just as the play has in the world of the theater."
IU Opera Theater is the lead commissioner for the opera. Five co-commissioners will present the opera soon after the IU production: Opera Boston, the Aspen Music Festival, North Carolina School for the Arts, Lake Georgia Opera in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Many composers have longed to transform Wilder's "Our Town" into an opera, but Wilder, who died in 1975, resisted the idea. Following years of consideration, Tappan Wilder, executor of the Wilder estate, supported the notion that his uncle's play deserved to be interpreted as such. With McClatchy, a longtime Thornton Wilder scholar, Wilder concluded that the legendary Rorem was the right composer for the opera.
"My family and I cannot be more thrilled at the prospect," Tappan Wilder said.
Rorem, 82, who was born in Richmond, Ind., said "Our Town" "is the ultimate American play and theatrically very successful. It is also singable, unlike some literature. The danger, of course, is that it's terribly famous."
Winner of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral suite "Air Music," Rorem has created an evocative score for both small and large orchestra. The textures are light, with the focus on the voices and dramatic action.
Wilder's play calls for no set, just props, presenting an unusual challenge for veteran IU stage designer C. David Higgins. Higgins will seek to provide "visual support" for the audience, while working together with IU stage director Vincent Liotta to preserve the simplicity and emotional impact of Wilder's original concept.
IU Opera Theater, which music critic Andrew Porter called "just about the most serious and consistently satisfying of all American opera companies," has considerable experience working with the world's leading professionals. In addition to presenting William Bolcom's "A View from the Bridge" in 2005, IU Opera Theater presented the Midwest premiere by an academic institution of John Adams' "Nixon in China" in 1995; the revival of Leonard Bernstein's "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" at the Kennedy Center in 1992; a production of John Eaton's "The Cry of Clytaemnestra" at Moscow State Conservatory in 1990; and the American premiere of Bohuslav Martinu's "The Greek Passion" at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1981.
To date, IU Opera Theater is the only opera company at a college or university to have staged an opera at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Opera seasons at the Jacobs School of Music feature as many as eight productions each academic year -- three in the fall, three in the spring and up to two in the summer. The productions are presented in the Musical Arts Center, which features technical capabilities that are among the best in the nation and a stage size second only to the Metropolitan Opera's.
ABOUT WILDER'S "OUR TOWN"
Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" opened on Broadway on Feb. 4, 1938, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama that year. When the play premiered, some of its elements were considered unconventional, if not radical, including the absence of scenery, the direct address to the audience by the character known as the "Stage Manager," and the kaleidoscopic use of time. Still, it quickly became known as a classic American play.
Some 400 amateur productions of the play are still performed in the United States each year, and countless others are staged around the world. Professional productions abound as well. A week before the IU opera opening, the Madison Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin, which serves the community where Wilder was born, will inaugurate its new "Playhouse" theater with a production of the play staring AndrÃ© De Shields as the Stage Manager. In 1989, a Lincoln Center Theater production won that year's Tony Award for "Best Revival." Paul Newman was nominated for a Tony Award in 2003 for his performance on Broadway as the Stage Manager, a role he repeated for PBS' Masterpiece Theater. Recent full-scale productions in Brazil, China, Poland, Germany and elsewhere continue to attest to the play's worldwide popularity.
ABOUT THE COMPOSER
Words and music are inextricably linked for Ned Rorem. "Time" magazine has called him "the world's best composer of art songs," yet his musical and literary ventures extend far beyond this specialized field. Rorem has composed three symphonies, four piano concertos and an array of other orchestral works; music for numerous combinations of chamber forces; nine operas; choral works of every description; ballets and other music for the theater; and hundreds of songs and cycles. He is the author of 16 books, including five volumes of diaries and collections of lectures and criticism.
Rorem has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship (1951), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957) and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968). He received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards in 1971 for his book "Critical Affairs, A Composer's Journal," in 1975 for "The Final Diary" and in 1992 for an article on American opera in "Opera News." He was chosen "Composer of the Year" by Musical America in 1998.
Among his many commissions for new works are those from the Ford Foundation (for "Poems of Love and the Rain," 1962), the Lincoln Center Foundation (for "Sun," 1965), the Koussevitzky Foundation (for "Letters from Paris," 1966), the Atlanta Symphony (for "String Symphony," 1985), the Chicago Symphony (for "Goodbye My Fancy," 1990) and Carnegie Hall (for "Spring Music," 1991). Among the distinguished conductors who have performed his music are Bernstein, Masur, Mehta, Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Previn, Reiner, Slatkin, Steinberg and Stokowski.
His suite "Air Music" won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in music. The Atlanta Symphony recording of "String Symphony, Sunday Morning, Eagles" received a Grammy Award for "Best Orchestral Recording" in 1989.
Rorem will be up for another Grammy Award when the 2005 awards are announced on Feb. 8 in Los Angeles. His "Nine Episodes For Four Players" has been nominated for "Best Classical Contemporary Composition." The recording by the Contrasts Quartet is available on the Phoenix USA label.
In January 2000, Rorem was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
ABOUT THE LIBRETTIST
J. D. McClatchy, who served as founding president of the Thornton Wilder Society, is the author of five collections of poems, the most recent of which is "Hazmat," a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. He has also written three volumes of essays and edited a dozen other books and the acclaimed series "The Voice of the Poet" for Random House Audiobooks. His work appears regularly in "The New Yorker," "The New York Times Book Review," "The Paris Review" and "The New Republic," among other publications.
McClatchy has taught at Princeton, Columbia, UCLA and Johns Hopkins, and he is currently a professor of English at Yale University. Since 1991, he has served as editor of "The Yale Review." McClatchy has risen to an increasingly prominent role in the opera house as a librettist; writing for William Schuman's "A Question of Taste," Francis Thorne's "Mario and the Magician," Bruce Saylor's "Orpheus Descending," Tobias Picker's "Emmeline," and (with Thomas Meehan) Loren Maazel's "1984." This spring will see the premieres of two other operas for which he has written libretti: Lowell Liebermann's "Miss Lonelyhearts" and (with Julie Taymor) Elliot Goldenthal's "Grendel." He has also written a new singing translation of "The Magic Flute," set to debut at the Metropolitan Opera in January.
Because of McClatchy's experience with opera and extensive knowledge of Wilder's work, the Wilder Estate had no hesitation in entrusting McClatchy with the challenging task of adapting "Our Town" as an opera, allowing necessary alterations to the text (including changing the structure of the three-act play to better fashion a two-act opera).
Tickets are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center Box Office (for information, call 812-855-7433), open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; at all TicketMaster outlets; by phone through TicketMaster at 812-333-9955; and online at http://music.indiana.edu/opera.