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Friday, January 9, 2009

Contemporary Opera in America

I noticed that two of my former classmates wrote an opera and got it performed. Elmer Gantry – based on the book by Sinclair Lewis – was premiered by the Nashville Opera in November of 2007, and had repeat performances at Montclair State University in 2008. Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein collaborated on the work, with Aldridge composing the music and Garfein writing the libretto (although Herschel is a fine composer himself).

Aldridge and Garfein

I had attended New England Conservatory in the late 1970’s and knew Aldridge and Garfein well. Although I haven’t seen either of my colleagues for many years, an article that appeared in the NY Times by Jesse Green explains the genesis of their project, and mentioned some interesting facts that pertain to the logistical, artistic, political, and financial obstacle course that anyone producing contemporary opera in America must consider.

For on thing, it is a massive undertaking that takes years to come to fruition. Their idea started after Christmas dinner in 1990 when Bob Aldridge invited his friends Herschel Garfein (a composer) and Lorraine Hunt (a mezzo-soprano) over for dinner. Garfein and Hunt were “a pair.” After dinner the trio watched the Burt Lancaster movie Elmer Gantry, and with Aldridge’s urging, they decided to collaborate on making an opera out of it. Ms. Hunt would sing the title role of Sharon Falconer.

They began by doing research about the contradictions of faith and religion – the theme of the book. Garfein, who is Jewish and who’s father survived the Holocaust, traveled to the South to research mountain revival meetings at churches in the early 1990’s. In order not to attract attention as a Jew, he changed his name to Curtis Grayson during these visits.

The libretto and music came together quickly, and Ms. Hunt sang part of it at a opera workshop production in Boston in 1992. The team pitched the entire project to the Boston Lyric Opera Company, and the authors raised $75,000 in grants to produce it. But unfortunately the Boston Lyric Opera Company dropped the production for what they termed financial reasons.

Years passed. Life intervened. Garfein and Hunt broke up, and in the process the mezzo “elected not to continue with the piece.” (She went on to become one of the world's leading sopranos and married composer Peter Lieberson). Both Aldridge and Garfein retired from the composer collective “Composers in Red Sneakers” and moved out of the Boston area. They started families, and went on with the business of life, while keeping their opera on the back burner.

For the next decade and a half, Aldridge and Garfein continued to work on Elmer Gantry, and pitched it to every opera executive across the nation who would listen to them. They kept a financial spreadsheet of what they laid out on marketing lunches, phone calls, and travel to opera company board rooms. Between them, the two forked over more the $41,000 in personal expenses – hiding it from their wives as best they could. At one point a Aldridge pitched the work to a representative of the Metropolitan Opera saying, “It took you 50 years to do ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I hope it doesn’t take you as long to do ours.”

Aldridge and Garfein are now in their 50s, and their opera has been finally been performed at the Nashville Opera. After three performances it earned them $7,000 in royalties. There is some interest in Elmer Gantry from other small American opera companies (Columbus, Milwaukee, Louisville, and Houston), but historically world premieres are much easier to sell than something that has already seen the light of day. There is more commercial potential in a world premiere than a second production.

Elmer Gantry’s long time coming is not due to a bad case of contemporary-music-itus. By all reports, this opera is not an avant-garde, screech-and-scream, run-for-the-doors kind of piece. Robert Aldridge is a staunch populist, and wrote no harsh dissonances or discords. Reviewers praised him for his “vibrantly lyrical, cinematic score (sometimes redolent of Gershwin and Copland).”

The obstacles of creating a new opera in America are almost insurmountable, and this makes it even more remarkable that Elmer Gantry ultimately found a venue in Nashville with a production cost of $700,000. In the end it, was well-received after decades of negotiation and struggle.