American Dream, American Opera

The Red Hook section of Brooklyn is only 20 miles from Manhasset Neck on Long Island, but the places stand worlds apart. Red Hook, as depicted in Arthur Miller's 1955 play A View from the Bridge, is a sturdy working-class neighborhood that depends on the nearby dockyards for its livelihood. Manhasset Neck, in its incarnation as East Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 novel The Great Gatsby, is an enclave of wealth and privilege. Yet both literary settings reveal the boundaries of the American Dream: No matter how many opportunities for self-advancement may be here, society still dictates how those goals can be achieved.

On the treacherous terrain of modern opera, contemporary American composers have been forced to confront their own peculiar version of these boundaries. Regardless of how many high-profile commissions they earn or how much esteem is lavished upon them by the critical elite, if they crave popular success--achieving a place in the standard repertoire--they must conform to certain norms: lush melodies that yield a memorable tune or two, harmonies that don't veer too frequently into dissonance, and a clearly etched narrative of grand passions. By these measures, William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge, which premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on October 9, 1999, and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, which made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 20, are quite opposite. Bolcom's View is rich with musical life and theatrical drama, while Harbison's Gatsby squanders its considerable assets before the evening is through.

With André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, first mounted in San Francisco in 1998, View and Gatsby form a trilogy whose common elements define American opera at the end of the twentieth century. The three works are based on classic literary sources. Each incorporates popular songs and other "lowbrow" musical material into its score to connect with audiences. And most significantly, all three pieces are aware of their characters' social milieu: Red Hook's immigrant melting pot, East Egg's monied leisure, and New Orleans's shabby glamour. This is a marked departure from operas of the recent past, which tended to be concerned with public figures (Richard Nixon, Harvey Milk, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), not the quotidian lives of the American experience. Perhaps the vigorous economy has made it easier for us to acknowledge the divide between affluence and indigence, but for the first time since 1935, when the curtain went up on Catfish Row in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the class structure is part of the scenery on the nation's opera stages again.

For Bolcom and his librettists, the playwright Arnold Weinstein, and Miller himself, the proletarian setting is integral to the opera's action. The Italian-American stevedore Eddie Carbone is obsessed with his niece Catherine, who lives with Eddie and his wife Beatrice. Beatrice's two cousins, Rodolpho and Marco, illegal immigrants from Sicily, arrive and move in with the Carbones. Catherine falls for Rodolpho, igniting Eddie's jealousy. In a rage, he reports the cousins to the authorities. Shunned by his neighbors for this violation of their code of honor, Eddie is killed by Marco, who is driven by his own fury at being forced to return empty-handed to his starving family in Italy. Everyone is motivated by the desperate scramble for the basics of food, shelter, and a little love. Relocate the story to the suburbs, and it wouldn't have the same urgency.

In the Bolcom opera, the tale retains its mythic power, even though the second act's homosexual kiss has lost a lot of its shock value over the years and the Freudian symbolism of Eddie getting stabbed with his own knife is a bit much. The story builds relentlessly, and, until the last 15 minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour work, Bolcom's rhythmically restless music keeps pace. Snatches of jazz, doo-wop, and tango weave in and out of a score whose influences are as smoothly assimilated as the opera's characters strive to be. The harmonies stray, but never too far. (At the intermission of the performance I attended, the lobby buzz was palpable relief that the music was genuinely listenable.) Bolcom gives each character a readily recognizable musical motif, and Rodolpho gets a ravishing first-act aria, "New York Nights," that will inevitably become an encore staple at Manhattan vocal recitals despite its mangled syntax ("There's only one place that I long to be--and that's New York, and the New York lights"). Just as the story approaches its wrenching finale, though, Marco delivers a ponderous aria ("To America I sailed on a ship called Hunger") that stalls the momentum, and the music accompanying the climactic knife fight, which should be explosively expressive, is merely loud and exciting.

The Lyric's production helped View transcend these not-too-tragic flaws. Although his role conspicuously lacks a character-defining aria, Kim Josephson made an ideal Eddie, simultaneously burly and boyish in demeanor and with a pliant baritone demanding that attention must be paid. Two Lyric regulars, Catherine Malfitano as Beatrice and Timothy Nolen as the lawyer Alfieri, had modestly sized roles but filled them adeptly. Director Frank Galati coaxed fine performances from his actors, but he made a crucial misstep. In Miller's play, Alfieri serves as a one-man Greek chorus. For the opera, the attorney is augmented with an actual chorus, which, under Galati's direction, kept emerging from one shadowy wing or another and shuffling forward en masse to comment on events, unintentionally comic movements seemingly derived from a giant game of Whack-a-Prole. But the most valuable contributor was Santo Loquasto, whose set and costume designs were even more fully realized than Bolcom's musical vision. The stage was framed by jarringly angled iron beams that perfectly captured Eddie's disturbed state of mind, while the only deviations from the muted grays and browns of the cast's clothes were subtle hues of red or blue, as if they'd been sewn from the scraps of a faded American flag.

The dark side of the American Dream is the subtext for Fitzgerald's novel as well, but you wouldn't know it from Harbison's adaptation. Fitzgerald was a scathing social critic--there are no heroes in Gatsby, only moral failures--and his suspenseful plotting only half disguises the class barriers that separate and defeat his characters. In the opera, the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby may want to reconnect with his beloved Daisy Buchanan, but we never learn that Gatsby amassed his wealth because that's what it would take to win her back from her husband Tom. Harbison, who has served as his own librettist, concentrates instead on the novel's love triangle so that the work becomes a musical soap opera that just happens to take place among the wealthy.

For the first hour, though, the opera's jaunty score helps this Gatsby succeed despite its descent into melodrama. Harbison has penned simulations of Jazz Age popular tunes (with authentically vapid lyrics by Murray Horwitz) for several party scenes, and the exercise results in some catchy, tightly focused melodies whose syncopated rhythms continue to drive other parts of the score. The orchestrations also use unusual percussion combinations to accent the rhythms. In the libretto, too, Harbison effectively compresses the first half of the book into a handful of terse scenes. Unfortunately, characters eventually start to explain themselves, and what had been a ripping yarn turns turgid. At the same time, the rhythmic drive dissipates, and the music retreats into dreary dissonance. At the Met, the lively choreography of the party scenes sparked the production back to life several times, even if the flapper beads on the costumes occasionally drowned out the singers like a chorus of castanets. But by the third hour, the party was definitely over--and long before the opera's corpse-ridden climax and funereal coda.

Harbison has said he felt compelled to flesh out Gatsby, who is something of a blank slate in the novel. But he might have expended more effort on the role of Daisy, whom he's left too much of a cipher for a character whose desirability to both Gatsby and Tom is supposed to be the story's chief catalyst. Soprano Dawn Upshaw was partly to blame for this. Although Upshaw's straightforward style makes her an ideal interpreter of modern song and she is more than capable of handling Harbison's discursive vocal lines, Daisy's charms escaped her at the premiere. Upshaw's voice may be on the money, but it never sounded "full of money," as Gatsby describes it. As Gatsby, tenor Jerry Hadley struggled with the high end of his range, but managed to look like he belonged in a bright pink suit. Baritone Dwayne Croft, playing the narrator Nick Carraway, was far too forceful for his passive position in the plot. But the standout performance, in addition to the splendid Met orchestra under the baton of James Levine, was delivered by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Tom's lower-class girlfriend. If the production had been conceived with more class-consciousness, the gutsy force of her voice would have effectively upset the balance of power.

Neither of these new operas is a boundary-breaking work, which should be a boon, not a hindrance, as each aspires to enter the standard repertoire alongside La Bohème and Carmen. The Met and the Lyric have already agreed to swap productions; Chicago will get Gatsby next season, and View will go to New York in 2002. Ultimately, the operas will be judged more on their musical value than on their social astuteness. Bolcom's View succeeds not because it conveys the importance of its working-class setting in Eddie's character, but because the score comes close to fully matching the timeless drama of its story. Harbison's Gatsby fails not because the opera loses Fitzgerald's sharply honed social commentary, but because its music is unfocused. Where a heightened awareness of class might help, though, is in reaching out to new audiences, on the assumption that people would like to see onstage characters who are more realistic than, say, a spear-wielding goddess. Already, Carlisle Floyd is working on an adaptation of the novel Cold Sassy Tree, about small-town life, and Jake Heggie is writing an opera based on the book Dead Man Walking. If these kinds of stories are able to connect, perhaps the opera house will return to the stature it held in nineteenth-century Europe: a form of popular entertainment that commoners were as likely to attend as kings. For contemporary American opera composers, it is a goal that shines dimly in the distance, like a blinking green light. ¤