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Cheryl North Interviews Tappan Wilder on Our Town as an Opera

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - August 10, 2007. (Note: this colum was abridged as published. This is the unabridged version submitted for publication.)

The first and only time I've seen Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play, Our Town, was when it was performed by members of the senior class of Coachella Valley Union High School near Indio, California, when I was a freshman. The play's impact on my psyche was, and has ever after remained, indelible.

That was why I, and countless others in the Bay Area are elated to hear that the transcendental Our Town, set to music by the famed American composer Ned Rorem, with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy, will be given its West Coast premiere tomorrow (Saturday) by Festival Opera at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, in Walnut Creek. Repeat performances will be at 8 p.m. August 14 and 17 and at 2 p.m. August 19.

At first thought, such a monumentally great play ought to be easy to make into a great opera. After all, much of the required work - the shaping of a meaningful theme into a profound yet artful format - would already have been done by the play's writer, yes?

Well --- sort of. Music can be dangerous. It has a pervasive emotional power as well as an almost mystical ability to insinuate subtle, even subconscious, meanings and colors to mere words. Like fire, music can illuminate or warm the word; or, like water, it can quell any of a word's potential fire.

That's probably why, when composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland approached Thornton Wilder about making Our Town into an opera, he turned them down flat.

According to Our Town librettist J. D. McClatchy, who is also a professor of literature at Yale University, "Wilder's reasoning seems to have been that his plays were conceived in a specific genre, and to adapt them into another, would compromise their integrity."

But that didn't stop Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder's nephew and the designated executor and manager of his intellectual property, from giving permission to McClatchy to set about the task of transforming the work into an opera.

"My uncle, who died in 1975," avowed young Wilder, "left NO instructions saying 'never, ever' to set it to music. In fact, he broke his own rule himself," he said during a telephone chat from New York City last week where he and his wife, Robin, were taking a mini-vacation.

"After all, he allowed Copland to write music for a 1940's Our Town movie starring William Holden and Martha Scott, and later, permitted Bernstein to use some of his words in the Chichester Psalms and his Mass. Besides, he also wrote librettos himself for musical settings of two of his own plays, The Long Christmas Dinner. with music by Paul Hindemith, and The Alcestiad, with music by Louise Talma," the younger Wilder added.

In program notes, McClatchy has written that, in 2001, there was a great deal of pressure on Tappan to approve a Broadway musical version of Our Town. "But, Tappan could see that opera was indeed an appropriate medium to preserve the play's dramatic intimacy and emotional force, and thereby extend the its reach across time," he writes.

It was also McClatchy, with Tappan's consent, who convinced Ned Rorem to undertake the music. Rorem, both Wilder and McClatchy agreed, seemed a natural fit to do so because of his passion for classic American texts and his mastery of vocal writing.

The opera's East Coast premiere was in Feb., 2006 by the Indiana University Opera Theater. The initial reviews were full of praise.

The New York Times concluded, that after beginning the opera with a hymn, Rorem "retained and refracted the familiar melody, turning pat modulations slightly bitter, as if the music were heard through a lens of nostalgia that turned it sepia."

The Financial Times critic wrote, "Languorous melodic lines or fragments, many with an unmistakable American flavor, interact in the orchestra and the vocal parts engagingly follow suit."

Sounds hopeful. However, some of the words and themes to which Rorem's music must measure up are formidable indeed.

Wilder himself, in a "Preface to Our Town" published in the Feb. 13, 1938 New York Times, wrote that the play's central theme explores "What is the relation between the countless 'unimportant' details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other?"

And, during our recent phone conversation, Tappan Wilder recalled, "My uncle once told me that, 'since my play is about everybody, then everybody is in my play.'"

Tappan also stressed that Our Town has a dark side as well as a great deal of gentle nostalgia.

"It's actually rather existential," he said. "My uncle was quite taken with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. Even though the play was a sort of complete immersion into everything about a New Hampshire village, he hoped that the audience would gradually feel it to be an allegorical representation of all life."

Another sage friend of Tappan Wilder has said that Our Town reflects the final two sentences of Albert Camus' 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus: "The struggle itself toward the heights (of the mountain) is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." It is not just the goal of getting the huge stone to the top of the mountain that is important, but the ongoing willingness to push it up.

Michael Morgan will conduct the local performances of the opera, with members of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra in the pit. Beth Green is the stage director and Michael Antaky, the set designer.

The pivotal role of the stage manager will be performed by Richard Byrne, with soprano Marnie Breckenridge singing the role of Emily Webb and tenor Thomas Glenn, the role of George Gibbs.


Cheryl North, Tappan Wilder, and
Warner North, at dinner prior to the
Festival Opera production of Our Town
August 2007

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