Americana Arcana: What is the Most-Performed American Classical Music?

According to OPERA America‘s recent report on the production of American works, the number of North American operas produced at home rose steadily from 34 in the 1990/91 season to 60 in 1999/2000. The report goes on to tally 201 North American operas produced over the past decade, with those works receiving 430 performances. (Note: Those figures also include such operas as The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky, who wrote that work while residing in the States — but most people don’t think of him as an American composer.) With 117 performances total, the most frequently produced operas written by native-born American composers over the past decade have been George Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess, Carlisle Floyd‘s Susannah, Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide, Douglas Moore‘s The Ballad of Baby Doe, and Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. (Amahl and the Night Visitors by the Italian-born Gian Carlo Menotti is arguably the most frequently performed of all operas written in the United States.)

For sake of comparison, two national bellwethers for opera are New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. The Met has produced Porgy and Bess 54 times since its 1935 premiere, and it’s still in the repertory, with no other American opera approaching it in popularity (or even running for more than one or two seasons). Deems Taylor had a hit in the ’30s with Peter Ibbetson, which garnered 22 Met performances; his King’s Henchmen was produced 17 times. Among other American operas at the Met, Samuel Barber‘s Vanessa ran 18 times after its 1958 premiere, and Menotti’s The Last Savage ran 16 after its Met bow. Although Floyd’s Susannah just debuted at the Met in New York with seven performances, it received 27 performances with the house’s national touring company. More recently, John Corigliano‘s Ghosts of Versailles ran for 13 Met performances and Philip GlassThe Voyage for 12. John Harbison‘s The Great Gatsby just premiered at the Met, running for eight performances, and reportedly, it will be revived in a subsequent season. William Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge is due to bow at the Met within the next season or two.

Since 1955, the Houston Grand Opera has produced a greater percentage of American operas than most any domestic house. Houston has mounted "forgotten" operas by the likes of Marc Blitzstein and Scott Joplin, and has even commissioned works by John Adams, Meredith Monk, Robert Moran, and many others. In recent seasons, Houston has staged Frida by Robert X. Rodriguez and Resurrection by Tod Machover, among others. Carlisle Floyd has had more operas produced in Houston than any other American composer, with six — Bilby’s Doll, Of Mice and Men, The Passion of Jonathan Wade, Susannah, Willie Stark, and in its world-premiere last season, Cold Sassy Tree. After Floyd, Gian Carlo Menotti has had five operas mounted in Houston, including one of the house’s most-performed American works — The Medium. Philip Glass’ Akhnaten made its American bow in Houston, with The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 and The Juniper Tree (the latter in collaboration with Moran) as follow-ups. Leonard Bernstein also pulled the hat trick in Houston, with productions of Candide, Trouble in Tahiti, and A Quiet Place. Still, aside from The Medium, Susannah, and Porgy and Bess, few American operas have been revived in Houston.

Americana Arcana: What is the Most-Performed American Classical Music?
By Bradley Bambarger
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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