An American Tragedy: Watching Opera Wearing Pop-Culture Glasses

The Met is wrapping up the first week of Tobias Picker’s new opera, An American Tragedy. You may have heard about it. To be brief, the reviews in the papers and those overheard in the lobby have been decidedly mixed, rarely gushing or especially damning. I was going to post a huge annotated round-up of the media coverage so far, but Charles T. Downey of the Washington culture blog Ionarts beat me to it with this lovely compendium.

If I were to highlight anything from among the thoughts of these gentlemen, (And almost all of the critical commentary on offer in print is from the male quarter. Heidi Waleson apparently added her two cents, but that review is shuttered behind the WSJ‘s pay-to-read wall.) I might point out that much of the chatter has involved holding the opera up to other 21st-century vehicles—from Broadway to the Sopranos. I went into the theater with a similar modern-culture bias and a relatively recent viewing of A Place in the Sun coincidentally under my belt, and a whole lot of excited anticipation for this rare event—as one woman in the lobby noted, “you mean, it’s an American opera?”, as if such a nationalistic concept would never have otherwise occurred to her.

I admit things got off to a difficult start for me. The lyrics and characters felt awkward and clichéd, and I couldn’t help but compare the action on stage with the pacing and style of the film. As a result, I was having trouble staying in the moment and experiencing the performance unfolding before me as its own, self-contained event. I managed to get a hold of myself during intermission and came back fresh to hear the second act. I was rewarded quickly with the two loveliest moments in the score, culminating with the three lead characters all powerfully expressing their greatest desires for the future.

Picker’s opera is not on some quest to be edgy or radical—it’s an opera, in the conventional sense of the art form. We might argue about what it feels like it’s lacking because of invention in other sorts of entertainments, but then we’re arguing about the parameters of writing new opera in this day and age, not with Picker’s success working within this format in the service of the traditional institution that commissioned him.

The set, which consisted of three levels of moving panels, was a high mark of the production which sadly those who tune in to hear the live broadcast on Dec. 24 will miss. But the A-list cast will be quite audible. It should be an interesting opportunity to focus on the score at a further remove from all the easy criticisms a lavish production of a classic story is automatically opened up to. I definitely need another pass at this one.

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