America Needs Its Own Comic Opera Company
Whenever I’m trying to sell a friend on a night at the opera, my memory calls up a scene from “Twin Peaks.”
The local doctor, Will Hayward, sits down to dinner, clearly haggard, thanks to his work mopping up local catastrophes. Then someone asks him how it’s going.
“I feel like I’ve sat through back-to-back operas,” he says with a sigh. Everyone at the table smirks. In this view, even one opera might prove a test of endurance. It’s a somewhat surprising joke at the music world’s expense, given that “Twin Peaks” often found pleasure in an eclectic array of sound worlds (spurred on by the inventive, varied work of the show’s composer, Angelo Badalamenti, who died this month at 85).
But the gag also makes perfect sense. While “Twin Peaks” had art house trappings, it straddled the line between rarefied and popular: a feat that American opera hasn’t bothered with much since it stopped regularly letting its hair down on television in the 1950s.
Long before grand Metropolitan Opera productions represented the first, last and final word about opera onscreen, thanks to its public-television broadcasts, audiences could find their way to sprightly, comedic musical spectacles. After a successful Broadway run in the 1940s, Kurt Weill’s “Lady in the Dark,” with a book by Moss Hart and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, was performed live on NBC in 1954. This night at the theater at home featured a plot driven by psychoanalysis and songs that unfurled within dreams. (“Twin Peaks,” eat your heart out.)
It was a critical hit again, just as it had been live. Weill’s “One Touch of Venus,” with text by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, followed on NBC in 1955. Around that time, audiences could also catch Oscar Straus’s “The Chocolate Soldier” and Victor Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta” on TV. Shows that would otherwise be found on the stages of comic opera houses — theaters that specialize in the genre of theatrical works with spoken dialogue and often humorous plots — were readily available in living rooms across America.
Thankfully, all those telecasts have been preserved on DVD by the VAI imprint. And although the orchestrations in use weren’t those of the composers, at least the tunes are all there — which is more than you can say for the Hollywood adaptations of the same works. But why do we hardly see this kind of material today, on television or in theaters?
Composers didn’t lose all purchase on humor around 1960. But since then, Broadway has become a less reliable steward of these kinds of scores. Pit orchestras have been reduced in size; amplification of voices has become more common. Sondheim’s catalog, with its complexity and wit, is the exception to these trends (and even his shows aren’t in consistent enough circulation today).
Despite that reduced range of performance, American classical artists still demonstrate comic bents just waiting for an outlet. One example: Anthony Davis, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes serious-minded grand stage works like “The Central Park Five” and “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” which is headed to the Metropolitan Opera in 2023. But he also writes comic operas, and they have languished.
Davis’s 1992 opera on the Patty Hearst saga, “Tania,” contains a satirical jewel titled “If I Were a Black Man,” with words by Michael John LaChiusa. It is sung by a white Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist, and lampoons the liberal fascination with what Tom Wolfe called radical chic. Anyone weary of cringe-y, performative displays of bien-pensant thinking might crack a smile — or let loose a belly laugh. (Davis, too, chuckled while singing a line to himself when I spoke with him this year.)
But you really have to go searching for “Tania,” or this song. Rare is the algorithm that would promote it; and the CD version, from the Koch label, is catch as catch can on the secondhand marketplace.
Davis’s fellow Pulitzer awardee William Bolcom is in similar straits. His verismo operatic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” from 1999, was prominently documented on a New World Records album from Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Yet Bolcom’s comedic efforts, like the 1990 “Casino Paradise” — with its Trump-like land developer protagonist — aren’t as widely known.
Some elements of “Paradise” are dated, but the verve of “A Great Man’s Child,” the show’s failson anthem, with a lyric by Arnold Weinstein, still plays well alongside contemporary talk about “nepotism babies.” Bolcom’s accolades have tended to be for concert works like his “Twelve New Etudes for Piano.” When I interviewed him this year, however, he made his underlying affections clear, saying, “Since the beginning, I’ve had love for the theater.”
This strain of American cultural life clearly exists. But how could it be better represented? The answer is simple: It’s time for this country to create a comic opera company of its own.
The comic opera tradition — which traditionally has included not only spoken dialogue, but also smaller voices relative to grander works in the repertory — has since cross-pollinated with neighboring forms like the musical. The Komische Oper in Berlin or the Opéra Comique in Paris might play “Kiss Me, Kate” one night, and an experimental opera with spoken bits — or comedic angles — the next.
Critics trip over one another for assignments to these houses. (One of the performance highlights of my year was a new production, at the Komische Oper, of Jaromir Weinberger’s riotous “Schwanda the Bagpiper,” whose orchestral music delighted American audiences in the mid-20th century.) But New York has no such organization. And aside from small, specialized troupes — a local Gilbert & Sullivan society, or Ohio Light Opera — the United States doesn’t really have any comic opera companies.
The American Musical Theater Festival in Philadelphia commissioned and premiered both “Tania” and “Casino Paradise” but was shuttered in 2014. You might occasionally find a great chorus like MasterVoices in New York partnering with an estimable local ensemble like the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to stage the original, comic opera version of Bizet’s “Carmen” — but generally for one night only. That same creative team brought “Lady in the Dark” back for a triumphant one-weekend run in 2019. (The short run was billed as a celebration of a previous New York revival, during the first season of Encores!, in 1994.)
Together, MasterVoices and St. Luke’s could form the backbone of America’s first true comic opera company. What else would they play and sing? Perhaps those comedies from Davis and Bolcom, and more of Weill’s works. But also, surely, shows by Sondheim — and perhaps other musicals that wouldn’t be appropriate for commercial runs on Broadway today.
That catalog could include, for example, the vaudeville music of the composer and lyricist team Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, whose 1921 show “Shuffle Along” was a landmark of Black Broadway. The show employed William Grant Still, who was eventually called “the dean of African American composers,” as an oboist in the pit. (Still was said to have improvised a motif in performances that George Gershwin supposedly heard and later used for “I Got Rhythm.”)
The book of “Shuffle Along” is weighed down by racial stereotypes of the period — yet Blake and Sissle’s music deserves a new outing. In 2016, Broadway tried a story-behind-the-show approach, though it shuttered prematurely after its star, Audra McDonald, had to withdraw because of a pregnancy. A new adaptation of “Shuffle” would be fitting for an American opera company, and more viable outside the profit-driven confines of Broadway.
Contemporary composers who would be a good fit for a comic opera company include Joseph White, whose outlandish “The Wagging Craze” — a self-described “radio opera” from late 2021 — dramatizes a ribald (and, of course, fictional) male-bonding fraternity that attracts Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. (J. Edgar Hoover, for his part, is appalled.)
There’s also Kate Soper — the dramatist, soprano and librettist behind out-of-the-box theater pieces like “Here Be Sirens.” We would all benefit from her having the space, and budget, to produce new works, perhaps even her long-delayed “The Romance of the Rose.” (Its premiere, intended for spring 2020, was delayed by the pandemic and remains unscheduled.) Or maybe Soper could just pop into the theater to perform a black box-style show based on her most recent album, “The Understanding of All Things,” in which she winningly dissects a male suitor’s negging in the Yeats poem “For Anne Gregory.”
It’s not likely that we’ll see a contemporary version of mid-20th century opera telecasts. Those old Weill productions would be too ambitious; Soper’s conceits, too experimental.
A proper stage for these and other works wouldn’t merely help to reclaim comic opera’s past and present; it could also set priorities for the future. After all, what incentive is there for budding artists to write in the vein of Davis and Bolcom if their own works can’t be heard? It’s time to give our comic spirits the opportunity to punch up the script of American opera.