Elmer Gantry vs. An American Tragedy: Grass-Roots vs. Trickle-Down Opera

Elmer Gantry vs. An American Tragedy: Grass-Roots vs. Trickle-Down Opera

Perhaps the novels of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser are considered as pre-modern and démodé as H. L. Mencken in some literary salons, but they have provided fodder for a real 21st century object lesson: that there are two perpendicular paths for new operas to get up and running today. Borrowing a political/economic metaphor, I’ll call them the trickle-down path versus the grass-roots path: an opera either gets commissioned by a high-mainline institution and given the deluxe treatment in a relative jiffy; or it longanimously evolves from a private magnificent obsession, through a protracted gestation in the hinterlands, to an odds-defying coup with the media gatekeepers. Is there any real difference in aesthetic savor between the grass-roots opera and the trickle-down opera? You bet. Consider Elmer Gantry (music by Robert Aldridge, libretto by Herschel Garfein) versus An American Tragedy (music by Tobias Picker, libretto by Gene Scheer).

On January 23, I attended the New York area premiere of Gantry at Montclair State University. I had read the long piece in the previous Sunday New York Times by Jesse Green about the Homeric 17-year odyssey of this project, but had heard mixed remarks about it from people who caught excerpts of it at New York City Opera’s VOX readings in 2007 (which I attended but arrived late after Gantry ended). Well, I had the best damn time I’ve had at any new opera in years. It’s not just that Elmer Gantry is masterfully crafted; it “lands.” It works, brilliantly, as theater, yet its music never seems to “work at” it. Oddly, this last aspect got me rethinking my originally positive reaction to Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Met two seasons ago.

Composer Aldridge opens the first scene with thunderbolts of skittering energy. But instead of my snobbishly thinking, this is Copland’s Buckaroo Holiday rewritten sideways, the music utterly suspended my disbelief. You can hear the composer’s deep emotional connection with the material; you can tell he feels it deeply, he’s not just painting a portrait on commission. The orchestration is incredibly well handled, smooth as silk yet animating and supporting the story, wonderful string writing, wonderful harp writing. The insistent rhythms and ostinatos early in Gantry recalled to my mind the “Car” aria sung early in the first act by Clyde in An American Tragedy, with its relentless duple-beat ostinato. (A return trip to the aria at Saturday’s Di Capo Opera Theatre marvelous all-Picker program reinforced this memory.)  I knew immediately upon first hearing this at the Met that the composer was trying to double-entendre onomatopoeically the chugga-chugga excitement of driving a motorcar in 1906 with the “bedspring” rhythm of bonking. I knew this, yet the music still didn’t hold my ear. The chugga-chugga seemed annoying rather than snake-charmering. It didn’t even seem to emanate from Clyde’s unconscious, it seemed pasted on. The Aldridge score never for a moment sounds factitious. The church hymn in Tragedy seems academic and boilerplate; the hymns in Gantry seethe with the actual religious revival feeling of the characters.

Garfein is also an estimable composer who orchestrates expertly: I heard parts of his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at VOX in 2006. As librettist here he plays Boito to Aldridge’s Verdi. Gene Scheer is also a musician, and there was nothing wrong with his libretto for Picker—he compressed the post-murder portion elegantly, omitting A Place in the Sun‘s Raymond Burr hokiness—it’s just that Garfein’s dramaturgical know-how is vastly smarter and more assured. You never catch yourself having to refocus your attention in Gantry. There weren’t any supertitles but I didn’t miss them because every detail, even if not dictionally clear, was gesturally clear in Garfein’s libretto. There’s a cognoscenti suggestion afoot that if an opera’s libretto is too theatrically smooth it is somehow too “Broadway.” Yeah? The received wisdom that Lucia di Lammermoor represents relatively good operatic dramaturgy is laughable. Ending Lucia not with Lucia’s mad scene but with Edgar’s talky suicide? Talk about a (yawn) anti-climax! Even some of the laudatory reviews of Gantry sotto voce hinted that because it is smooth and well-made, it is, ergo, somehow, déclassé. Hogwash. Utter tripe and nonsense. Who gave us this complex? Pierre Boulez? Claptrap. This is avant-gardism as political correctness.

Tobias Picker is an extremely musical, natural-born composer. Like many gifted prolific composers, he can be uneven. I often find his idiom—the dreamlike interstices between tonality and atonality—otherworldly and fascinating. A violin/piano sonata, the Neruda songs: just remarkable. Emmeline, Fantastic Mr. Fox: no question, a real theatrical flair. And what a magical instrumentation he devised for that ear-splitting crescendoing unison to signal the execution at American Tragedy‘s finale! Picker can write beautifully and shake just about anything out of his sleeve. But maybe, here and there on occasion, he’s just shaking notes out of his sleeve. (So did Donizetti.)

Elmer Gantry has a palpable feeling of rooted-ness that American Tragedy, for all its high quality, lacks. Garfein and Aldridge were obsessed; they lost money; they did it because they had to do it. And it shows.

(OK, so where are the new operas based on Willa Cather novels? Her The Song of the Lark is a roman à clef about opera singer Olive Fremstad.)

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