Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren LaLonde Alenier

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13What is American opera? What characteristics distinguish it from its European roots? How important is it to create American opera?  What's the difference between opera and music theater? These are questions the Steiny Road poet has been pondering and has posed to several contemporary American composers, including Mark Adamo, Deborah Drattell, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Elena Ruehr, and Adam Silverman.


Before the Poet begins quoting the composers who graciously agreed to respond to questions which might be considered too broad or too narrowly focused or, worse, irrelevant and passé, a few facts might help orient those not familiar with the origins and status of American Opera.

— American opera, originally deriving its musical education from German music and with a predilection for Wagner, is the offspring of European opera.  

A simple definition of opera is a drama set to music that consists of specialized singing with orchestral accompaniment and an orchestral overture and interludes. The less sophisticated theatre arts of operetta and light opera played a substantial role in the development of American opera.

— The earliest form of American opera occurred in 1730 when American-born James Ralph premiered his harlequinade, ballad opera The Fashionable Lady in London.  

Derived from the commedia dell'arte the American version of the harlequinade gave way to the melodrama which eventually became American grand opera.

— American operas began to enter operatic repertory only in the twentieth century.  

Some aficionados of American opera point to the 1934 premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein as the beginning of mature American opera. This is not to say that other significant American operas, such as Scott Joplin'sTreemonisha and Victor Herbert's Natoma, did not occur, but is more about Four Saints having entered operatic repertory by its number of repeat productions.

— Opera America, lists the most frequently produced North American works (in order of frequency and with the date of premiere) as:  

*           Porgy and Bess (Gershwin, 1935)

*           Susannah (Floyd, 1955)

*           Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti,1951)

*           Candide (Bernstein, 1956)

*           The Ballad of Baby Doe (Moore, 1956)

*           The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky, 1951)

*           Of Mice and Men (Floyd, 1970)

— One of the most current and thorough resources for understanding the development of American opera is Elise K. Kirk's American Opera published by the University of Illinois Press in 2001.

To get a quick overview, check this book's appendix entitled: "Milestones in American Opera." This is a detailed chronology running from 1730 to 2000.


Virgil Thomson, a touted man of letters and music critic as well as a major American composer, said, "The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish." From this well-known quote, Mark Adamo, in answering my questions, extrapolated logically that "Virgil Thomson would have told you that any opera written by an American was an American opera." In his book American Music Since 1910 (published in 1970), Thomson discussed American musical maturity as it relates to nationalism as follows:

    "The major problem, after technical mastery, that any maturing music has to face is that of nationalism. Lacking local masters to feed on - the Beethovens, the Mozarts, the J.S. Bachs - is there perchance a folklore that can serve as nourishment? Is the heritage of commercial popular music usable at all? Are you limited to local sources for expressing your time and place?"

Thomson answered the first couple of questions by listing and examining Negro spirituals, cowboy song-poetry, Appalachian ballads, ragtime, blues, and jazz. He pointed out that only blues and jazz stand up to the test of time as these two American music forms continue to "evolve in subtlety" with their own literature, history, performance traditions, and world audiences. Basically what Thomson said is that nationalism is a phase that American music needed to go through, and he made it clear in more than one statement that, "in Europe they are pretty firmly united toward creating a music of the Common Market, an idiom free from nationalistic propaganda and folkloric charm."


Four out the five composers in the Poet's survey mirrored Virgil Thomson's definition that a composer need only be American to write American music and by extension, as Mark Adamo pointed out, write an American opera. The fifth composer, Adam Silverman, ignored the inescapable fact of nationality and said, "I don't consider it a priority to represent my country musically."

The Poet persisted nevertheless and asked, "Is it important to you to write American operas?" All the composers, except one who definitively said no, gave a qualifying answer that was not a yes. Jonathan Holland said, "It is important to me that American opera become established.  I don't feel that there has truly been an American composer yet that could be called THE American Opera composer, unlike Puccini or Britten or Mozart, whose music is easily associated with their nationality." Elena Ruehr answered, "It's very important to me to write operas. What the American has to do with it is kind of complex." Deborah Drattell replied it was a moot point. Mark Adamo made it clear at the beginning of the interview that, "While there are operas written by Americans in any number of inherited, pan-Atlantic styles - or, for that matter, the very American style of minimalism - I think the thing that distinguishes most of us these days is how easily we shrug off all these so-20th-century politics."

To the question, "What opera or composer do you consider the first in the establishment of American opera," four out of the five composers answered Porgy and Bess with two also naming Four Saints in Three Acts. Adamo added that he selected Gershwin's opera "for its extraordinary range of musical and dramatic materials: uniting, as it does, Berg and Broadway in one seamless, songful-yet-symphonic arch. Only The Ghosts of Versailles [by John Corigliano] matches it in reach and accomplishment." Adam Silverman's answer reads as a mini-history lesson.  

    "I would have to say that Gershwin wrote the first great American opera to enter the repertory, though it's hard to imagine that America was a country for 160 years before creating its first major operatic contribution. Opera was very popular in the Old West, and every town had an opera house, some of which included new works.  

    "There are very few American operas that have entered the repertory; Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, and Susannah are exceptions, and there are several operas that have been very influential without entering the standard repertory, such as Four Saints in Three Acts, Nixon in China, and Einstein on the Beach. 

    "One problem with the establishment of American opera is a lack of support by opera houses to produce new American work. Many major opera houses premiere new works, especially Sante Fe and Houston Grand Opera, but the bulk of opera in America is in smaller companies (often annual opera festivals put on by orchestras) that might produce one or two works a year, chosen from Verdi, Mozart, or Puccini. How are American operas to make a broad impact without performances in these venues? Also, many operas are premiered and not recorded, making it impossible to hear them if you can't attend a performance." 

Mark Adamo (b. 1962), the composer and librettist of Little Women, has been the composer-in-residence at New York City Opera since 2001. His next opera, Lysistrata, receives its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera in March 2005. Adamo began his education at New York University, where he received the Paulette Goddard Remarque Scholarship for outstanding undergraduate achievement in playwriting. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Music Degree cum laude in composition in 1990 from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, where he was awarded the Theodore Presser prize for outstanding undergraduate achievement in composition.

Deborah Drattell (b. 1956). Her one-act opera, The Festival of Regrets with a libretto by playwright Wendy Wasserstein, premiered at Glimmerglass Opera in 1999 and subsequently at the New York City Opera as part of the Central Park Trilogy, and was seen nationally on television that same year.  Her first full-length opera, Lilith with a libretto by David Cohen, premiered at the New York City Opera in 2001, where it played to sold-out houses. Her next full-length opera, Nicholas & Alexandra, with a libretto by Nicholas Von Hoffman, was commissioned and premiered by Los Angeles Opera in 2003. Drattell's official posts have included Composer in Residence at the Denver Symphony and Composer in Residence at the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera. The most recent premiere was an American Opera Projects presentation at the Off-Broadway D.R.2 Theatre of a chamber opera Marina to a libretto by poet Annie Finch, which deals with the life of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva; it is the first work in the trilogy Three Mothers created by Drattell and Finch. She just finished a new opera Best Friends in collaboration with Wendy Wasserstein, which is a satire on the present-day New York world of society and the arts.  The recipient of prestigious awards and grants, Drattell holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

Jonathan Bailey Holland (b. 1974) has had works commissioned and performed by the Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and Philadelphia Symphony Orchestras, Auros Group for New Music, Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia (currently the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia) and the Plymouth Music Series (currently Vocal Essence), among others. His opera, Naomi in the Living Room has been performed by the Curtis Opera Theater and Orchestra 2001.  The libretto comes from Christopher Durang's one-act play of the same title. Holland has received awards and honors from Massachusetts Cultural Council, American Music Center, American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP and others. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of Composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Elena Ruehr (b. 1963), composer in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project since 1999, has written works for a number of internationally known musicians including the Borromeo, Shanghai and Cypress string quartets, the Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble, and Naumburg winning baritone Stephen Salters. Her opera Toussaint Before the Spirits, written for Salters and the Nicola Hawkins dance company, with libretto by Madison Smartt Bell and Elizabeth Spires, opened to great critical acclaim as part of Boston's Opera Unlimited Festival in June 2003.  A CD of the opera as well as a CD of her orchestral music performed by BMOP are forthcoming, and her work Shimmer, for string orchestra, is available from Albany Records on their Metamorphosen Chamber Ensemble CD. Dr. Ruehr studied at both the University of Michigan and the Juilliard School of Music.

Adam B. Silverman (b. 1973) is a New York City-based composer whose works have recently gained national attention through performances by the New York City Opera, The Brooklyn Symphony, and chamber groups Eighth Blackbird and The Amelia Piano Trio, including performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, and the  La Jolla (CA) Chamber Music Society. Silverman earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Yale and he is a is a co-founding director of the Minimum Security Composers Collective, a group that collaborates with established ensembles and soloists  to present concerts throughout the United States. In May 2004, Act II of Korczak's Orphans of his opera in collaboration with poet Susan Gubernat was presented in concert-performance with orchestra by New York City Opera as part of VOX 2004: Showcasing American Composers.



The next Steiny Road question, which is a logical progression from the discussion about the definition of American opera, relates to the difference between opera and music theater. One problem with the term music theater is that it is often confused with the American musical comedy as Mark Adamo pointed out. Except for Jonathan Holland, all the composers in this group have had some personal experience with music theater. Most of these composers agreed that the lines blur between these two types of performing arts. Since Adamo had considerable response that covers most of what the other composers discussed, I will focus on his reply which, by the way, was part of an earlier discussion conducted on between such notables in the performing arts as composers Stephen Sondheim, Jack Beeson, Philip Glass, Elizabeth Swados, Dominick Argento, and two theater group directors Diane Wondisford and Grethe Barrett Holby.

Adamo introduced the sticky subject by defining the musical play, which the Steiny Road Poet understands as music theatre, versus the songbook-style musical comedy, which he said has little to do with opera.

    "The musical play, as defined by Rodgers and Hammerstein, extends from Oklahoma through Fiddler on the Roof to Ragtime. The songbook-style musical comedy covers most of the Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin, Berlin, Comden and Green, and Jerry Herman shows: a new example is The Full Monty. With the latter, opera has little to do at all. With the former, one primary difference is that the books of the serious musicals are, for the most part, infinitely more intelligent about how to combine music and words for dramatic expression than most contemporary opera libretti, which are, bewilderingly often, written by writers experienced in every kind of writing except the theatrical."

Next, Adamo contrasted the lack of musical sophistication in music theater versus the lack of acting sophistication in opera.

    "But the theatre doesn't encourage musical sophistication, only the sophisticated use of unsophisticated musical materials, which is why the only possible place that music-heavy shows like Rent or Les Miserables could be called operas would be on Broadway. The musical thinness is understandable, given the unreliable skills of that category "singing actor," which has covered everyone from elegant croaker Rex Harrison to opera-singers-on-Broadway Alfred Drake and Barbara Cook. And the musical's up-from-songbook history has own, if not active resistance, than striking disinterest in the idea of symphonic or motivic development as analogous to dramatic process. Conversely, American opera hasn't always encouraged theatrical sophistication, just the musically sophisticated elaboration of theatrically often simple-minded ideas. The skill-sets of the usual performers are again germane here, because the category of "acting singer" has included everyone from Lauren Flanigan to Luciano Pavarotti. As economic quantities, obviously, they're part of different cultural categories: musicals belong to the business softhearted, which retains its shimmer of populism despite $80 Broadway tickets, while opera belongs to the business of elitist classical music."

Adamo concluded by listing technical differences as follows:

  • "Musicals are amplified these days (though 'twas not ever thus): operas not for reasons good (few know how to do so either appropriately or creatively) and ill (the new fundamentalism about the sacrality of the acoustic voice, a catechism about as sensible as loyalty to gut strings or the fortepiano.)  
  • "Composers orchestrate their own operas: theatre composers almost never score their own shows.  
  • "Most actresses sing about a fifth lower than their operatic counterparts, with more use (and abuse) of the chest voice; men sing about a third lower (though A Little Night Music calls for tenor high-B's.)  
  • "Opera singers are invariably better musicians, and generally have broader ranges and more (un-amplified) dynamic and timbral control.  
  • "Theatre singers are generally, though not always, more methodical and resourceful actors. There are, for the composer and librettist, no other substantial artistic differences at all. When I composed Little Women, I imagined writing the libretto for Broadway and the score for Lincoln Center, much as, I imagine, did the writers of Porgy and Bess and Candide. In every production so far, the farce scene that most regularly plays like that of a musical comedy is, coincidentally, the scene most driven by twelve-tone recitativo secco. When talking about opera and musical theatre, the operative word has to be AND."

Elena Ruehr who has written both opera and music theater works said that she tailored the music to the type of training her cast would have such that music theater would be written in a standard time signature emphasizing four-bar phrases with lower and more lyrical vocal lines. The result is as Ruehr stated that the music for music theater tends to be more conservative. Unlike Adamo, Ruehr addressed the issue of spoken text in opera by stating, "I think of opera as being sung through, with no speaking, although I know there are lots of exceptions to this of course."

Controversy prevails over spoken text entering the opera libretto. The temperature check on this subject with Drattell, Holland, and Silverman is that opera is sung through or is a mix of aria and recitative. Silverman added that spoken text disrupts the magical spell that opera can effect if the music is continuous. It surprised me that Adamo did not address this issue in our first exchange so I re-contacted him. He said,  

    "I think of spoken text as the vocal equivalent of unpitched percussion writing in an orchestral texture. Because the voice is going to sound dryer, less powerful, and only approximately pitched, I use it for sardonic comic utterances, and also for moments when you want either the elaborate sarcasm of the spoken (ranted, really) sections of the prologue in LittleWomen ("let's just...go back to the way it was! Just like that! Back to the perfect way it was") or the very quiet, simple confessional quality of Jo's monologue in the last scene of the same opera ("I'm happy for you, Laurie, with all my heart.") In that latter scene, I'm using the very unadorned, fragile quality of the spoken voice as one extreme, of which the ardent quartet writing that soon follows it is the opposite extreme."


Biographies, no matter how long, rarely impart the creative spirit of an artist or why an interviewer selected this particular person for information. Because the Steiny Road to Operadom is about process, I will say why I picked these composers and then impart something more about their particular creative processes.   

Ideally I wanted to talk with composers who are on their way up in terms of achievement and recognition. Also I wanted a range of experience. I picked Mark Adamo and Deborah Drattell because they were both composers-in-residence at New York City Opera involved with showcasing newly developing American operas. I picked Adam Silverman because Adamo selected Silverman's work-in-progress opera Korczak's Orphans in collaboration with poet Susan Gubernat for the New York City Opera Vox showcase this past May. Also I picked Silverman because of his collaboration with a poet whose work I have been following since 1982 when I was involved in awarding Gubernat the Word Works Washington Prize, a national award for poetry. I selected Elena Ruehr because like Drattell she had an opera premiere in the 2003-2004 season that I wrote about in the last Steiny Road column. Additionally piquing my interest, Ruehr collaborated with a novelist (Madison Smartt Bell) and a poet (Elizabeth Spires) on a topic (the predicament of a protagonist of color) that tests the political correctness of White artists writing about characters of color. Finally, I picked Jonathan Holland because I enjoyed his one-act opera Naomi in the Living Room that was performed at Swarthmore College in 2001. Holland was one of the composers with whom I networked in 1998 when I was trying to find a composer for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.

I offer three points of biography about these composers that may inform their answers on creative process. The first point concerns American composers who have influenced this group of composers (some close-up and personally as their college professors).

Mark Adamo: George Crumb, John Corigliano, Stephen Sondheim  

Deborah Drattell: Samuel Barber

Jonathan Holland: Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Ned Rorem

Elena Ruehr: Oscar Peterson, George Gershwin, Steve Reich, John Adams

Adam Silverman: Martin Bresnick, Ezra Laderman, Ned Rorem, Michael Torke

The second point relates to musical notation and how fluent these composers feel writing music versus writing an English sentence. Unanimously, the interviewed composers said that writing music is second nature. Most of these composers learned to read music as children in order to play musical instruments. Like Libby Larsen, Elena Ruehr learned to write musical notation at the same time she learned to write English words. Adamo, who was educated equally in music and dramatic writing, notes that ". . . musical notation is really a set of instructions, as well as the blueprint for an event, so it compels a level of precision that not even the most minutely notated play script can match. Any given line of a libretto can lead to quite literally hundreds of decisions, from the vocal line to whether the bass pizz [abbreviation for pizzicato or the plucking of stringed instruments] underpinning it should be dry or vibrant; and you'll hear it if, musically, you've settled for the approximate."

The third point is that one of these composers - Mark Adamo - wrote his own libretto.


Deborah Drattell said she develops the ideas for an opera with her collaborating librettist, next the librettist writes the libretto, and, finally, she writes the music. Jonathan Holland took an existing text and developed his opera alone. Elena Ruehr described her process in this way:

    "I get the libretto in a rough draft, then work with the librettist on big ideas. Then the words suggest a musical idea, often rhythmic and melodic. Then I start piecing it together.  At some point when it's about 2/3 done, I go back to the librettist and ask for small changes in details to fit the musical structure better."

Adam Silverman detailed his current collaboration as follows:

    "Susan Gubernat is my librettist, and though we worked very closely together in the conceptual details of the opera, I left her alone to do her best work while writing the text. Though she has never written music, she is a poet with a very keen musical sense, and she always had a melody in her mind when writing the opera. My work, then, was eased by the natural lyricism of her words, and when we first heard the music performed, she commented on many instances when I came very close to her own melodies that she had never shared. In composing the music, I try to shape her phrases in such away that heightens the sentiment while retaining qualities of natural speech; a listener should never be distracted by an awkwardly delivered phrase. I shape these phrases into melodies, accompany them in such a way that the orchestra is a necessary participant and not just a follower, and to create a dramatic arc in music that heightens that of the story."

Adamo provided what the Steiny Road Poet calls a systems approach:

    "First you have to answer the big question, bigger than either music or drama: what's the piece about? Then you break it down into a series of actions - not words, not themes, but actable motions, best if they can be expressed by a single active verb - by which your characters can embody - not narrate, not describe, but perform - the theme of your piece. That outline, if done correctly, should give you a shape of the evening that both words, in their playwriting role, and music, in its symphonic role, can take on: so that both libretto and score are driving the evening from the same place, neither words dragging music along nor vice versa. That's the problem to solve. If you have the structure, you have the piece."


The Steiny Road Poet confesses that embarking on an essay about what is American opera and how it might be written is similar to sitting down to a dinner where an entire elephant - four columnar legs, ten feet of trunk, thick-skinned bristled body, head with long floppy ears - is consumed. A comic opera might be written on such subject matter any day now. On the serious side, conversations with contemporary composers such as those listed in this essay, long sessions with scholarly books, and extensive visits to web sites on a multitude of subjects have led me to the following assertions.

— American opera cannot be pigeonholed or pinned to certain characteristics.

The diversity of the American people and their composers will always summon exceptions to any trend noted in American opera. Nevertheless, American composers still have ample opportunity to pioneer in the field of opera and distinguish themselves from their European roots. One still has to ask what value can be ascribed to achieving international homogeneity? In the field of art, one wants to stand alone, but still have an appreciating audience. A composer has to start some place to find support. One would hope the composer's country, whether natal or adopted, provides that support.

— Theater arts continue to evolve.

How one defines opera, music theater, and musicals today is probably not how one will define these performing arts in the near future. Opera is a language of communication. Like any language it will continue to accrue new words, new meanings, and slang if it is to survive and be vital for generations to come.

— Opera in America is still an elite art.

Most of the people involved in creating American opera today are highly educated and communicate with each other with words, terms, and concepts unfamiliar to the majority of Americans. The cost in producing new operas continues to prevent many of those composers and librettists, who somehow find their own financial support for the initial development, from bringing their new works to fruition. Similarly the cost of a single opera ticket is prohibitively expensive for the average American should that person have enough curiosity or education to want to see an opera. Although surtitles have broken down the barriers of operas sung in foreign languages and enhanced the ability to understand sung English words, many Americans believe opera is meant only for wealthy patrons dressed in designer gowns, furs, diamonds, and tuxedos. One only has to read an opera company web site's frequently asked questions to see the angst ordinary people must overcome to attend an opera performance.

 — The act of writing music is no more difficult than the act of writing a libretto in English for an opera.

These two kinds of writing each require training and practice. They are skills that can be taught simultaneously to young children. The main difference between writing a libretto and writing vocal and instrumental scores is that musical scores usually take longer to develop.

The tiny elephant tail that remains to be swallowed is that, as with Gertrude Stein, contradictions, omissions, and repetitions are bound to be flung back at the Steiny Road Poet for attempting such an intellectual banquet. To this she says, with fork in hand, serve it up and let me eat.

©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

For prior installments, click here

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
Much more at
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