In Conversation with Elise K. Kirk
An interview with the author of American Opera.
Anna Reguero: You make a great point in the beginning of your book that most people can only name a few American operas. Early American opera, especially opera written before the 20th century, is mostly unknown. What are your thoughts on why that might be, and why, then, did you choose to write a book on the subject?
Elise K. Kirk: People will say sometimes to me: “There aren’t that many American operas; how did you fill a book on that? There must be two: Porgy and Bess and Nixon in China.” I wanted to take a good look at American opera because there are books on Italian opera, German opera, and French opera, but nothing on American—and this is our own country. So I thought it was important. I like to write historical books because I think one should look at the long skein of history. Very often we’re too myopic; we zero in on one area or one particular opera or style of opera without seeing it within the historical context that helped shape it.
Americans have been writing operas for two and a half centuries. I discovered at least 3,000 operas, but in searching for these, of course, I had to go through manuscripts, scores, librettos, reviews, and dusty old prompt books in many different libraries. But I did want to pull out what was important to me, not just a chronological array of operas going through history. I wanted to see how as a nation we combined music and drama, and then I wanted to look at the social, political, and cultural forces that shaped American opera because I thought that was very important. American opera tells us a great deal about who we are as a nation, and since we are so diverse, and we’ve come from a history of rugged exploration, our operas are diverse as well. Many of them are very original, and we have some that are reflections of Europe.
AR: Why do you think American opera has been under-represented by most opera companies?
EKK: I think it’s mainly because opera companies generally produce operas that are known and will draw audiences – the operas of Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart, for example. But I also think that people tend to put Broadway in one niche and opera in another. One is music for everyday folk, the people; the other, opera, is often considered elitist in some peoples’ minds. What’s happening now (it’s the most interesting thing) is that Broadway and opera styles are merging, producing a wonderfully fresh form of opera that is truly American. Also, I find another strong influence on American opera is Hollywood, where the orchestral scores of motion pictures motivate the drama and define characters in powerful, familiar ways. And finally, of course, we have influences from European romantic opera. All these forms and styles play a role in shaping our nation’s operatic output today and making it more accessible to audiences—certainly in the last two or three decades—and I believe people are starting to enjoy American opera more.
I also think many opera companies today are being more adventurous and are producing American operas. Companies such as Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City Opera have always been champions of American opera, but many other companies today are performing at least one American opera each season. A lot of this has to do with the new millennium, which has encouraged nations to focus on their indigenous music. And I think people are beginning to look at American opera in a different way, as an exciting new form. It’s becoming accessible, because its characters seem real and human and its subjects are interesting to people. Many American operas are based on familiar literary works, like Dead Man Walking, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, A View from the Bridge, The Great Gatsby, and many others. This has been true of American operas even in the 19th century. So a familiar story, I believe, helps.
AR: You mentioned how the Metropolitan Opera has been the leader of opera, and the fact is they haven’t done many American operas or new operas.
EKK: The Metropolitan Opera has always been conservative, but there was a period in its history, from about 1910 to 1935, when Gatti-Casazza was general manager of the Met. He commissioned something like 12 or 14 premieres of American works, mainly because he thought this was new and exciting. Then there was a long period in which there were no American operas at all at the Met. In 1991, The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano became the first American opera to be commissioned and produced by the Met in 25 years. It was followed the next year by Philip Glass’s The Voyage. But, I should add, under the new Met director, Peter Gelb, at least nine new operas are currently being planned – many by American composers.
AR: That’s within how many years, though?
EKK: Over the next 10-15 years, maybe more than that. But, these are projected, and I think this is very telling and very important.
AR: Going back to the separation between Broadway and opera, opera being highbrow and Broadway being lowbrow. If you ask a person on the street with no musical experience what opera is, they might tell you Broadway. What do you think of the general public’s knowledge of opera? What is your idea of the part Broadway plays within opera?
EKK: I think for most people, you mention the word opera, it means “grand opera,” a long work sung throughout in a foreign language and performed in a large, ornate opera house. (Someone once said “opera is when a man gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings.”) Broadway, of course, implies a lighter dramatic work, sung in English with catchy, tuneful music, often spoken dialogue, and staged in a theater. Today, there is much that American opera and Broadway share. They are both in English, but they also often integrate such popular styles as jazz, blues, ragtime, and pop. Many of our most enduring American operas, by the way, were first performed on Broadway—these include some of Menotti’s operas and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Still, many people tend to draw a line of distinction between opera and Broadway. If we go back in history, the Italian word “opera” originally meant merely “work.” Early opera very often combined popular, serious, new, and older styles. Comic and tragic elements coexisted in many of these operas. It wasn’t until the romanticism of the 19th century that the term “grand opera” took hold, and I think we have become conditioned by that designation for opera ever since.
Another element that Broadway and American opera share is the strong portrayal of character. Simple, folk-like characters comprise our most popular operas – characters like Baby Doe, Porgy, or Susannah. These characters are part of the American soil. They are down to earth, fragile, and, like all of us, they have to struggle to survive. And like the Broadway tune that lingers on long after the audience leaves the theater, the American opera aria has become an important signature in a work.
AR: The characters are definitely a big draw; people want to be able to relate to what they see on stage.
EKK: It seems as if the characters and the subjects today are more important than the composers. If we see the name Puccini, we say: “It’s an opera by Puccini; let’s go!” But, you see an opera by Jake Heggie…in all fairness to Jake Heggie, the words Dead Man Walking are a stronger draw than the name of the composer. But, that’s going to change, too.
AR: How do you think it will change?
EKK: These are young composers, and it will change as they write more and more and get more produced. Mark Adamo, for instance, has written a new opera that was produced by New York City Opera. After Houston Grand Opera staged his Little Women, 40 different opera companies produced that opera. That’s quite amazing. This is a very well known story, of course, but the composer is rapidly making a name for himself, too.
AR: I think you bring up a good point that we don’t know composers anymore. Composers don’t bring in an audience the way they did back in Europe. They haven’t reached the public.
EKK: I think that’s very true. In the concert hall, you often go to hear a new symphony and you don’t know who the composer is, yet it’s a major work that someone has struggled many years to produce.
AR: Do you think it’s different in Europe?
EKK: Yes, I think Europe is more attuned to its own contemporary music. I think this is generally true. Although, it’s very interesting, the Europeans that I’ve spoken with recently know and appreciate the music of Elliott Carter, who incidentally only wrote one opera that I know of. But his music is atonal and very difficult to perform.
AR: I’d like to touch a bit on women’s roles in American opera, which I find interesting in your book. I hadn’t realized the role American women played in opera long before the 20th century. I wasn’t aware of Ann Hatton and Susanna Rowson, who both had a major influence on American opera, long before the women’s rights movement. American opera seemed to be really forward thinking in its early days.
EKK: Yes, this is true. Ann Hatton and Susanna Rowson were both very important in early American opera. But, you know, women were doing some amazing things back in the 18th century. Americans had to do everything; they were very versatile. Women were much more independent and free than they were in England at that time. But for women to be working in the theater was rather unusual, because theatrical appearances were considered immodest for a woman. Ann Hatton’s Tammany; or, the Indian Chief, was staged in New York and other cities in 1794 and is the first serious opera libretto on an American subject.
The other woman, Susana Rowson, I always thought was especially interesting. Her opera, Slaves in Algiers, is about the Barbary pirates and some of the women who were captured by them. One of the lines in her libretto is “women can do anything men can do,” and we’re talking about 1794. This is the year Slaves in Algiers opened at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. This theater was huge. It seated more than 2,000 people. Of course, historically other women came into importance later in the 19th century. Women were beginning to be seen in public in ways they couldn’t be seen before. So you had a black woman, Louisa Mars, writing an opera. She was also the first black woman to have her opera produced – this was in 1889. And in 1885, G. Estabrook wrote the first complete opera by an American woman to be published. Later, in modern times, I had found that many women composers in the 20th century were more innovative in various ways than most of the men. It was the women who really pushed the new avant-garde or metaphoric-style of opera.
AR: Yes, just think of Meredith Monk.
EKK: Yes, Atlas is wonderful. Several women in our era have composed operas about women. Atlas is about a female explorer, of course. Thea Musgrave wrote an opera about Harriet Tubman, and Libby Larsen composed Mrs. Dalloway. And these are wonderfully new, fresh approaches to American opera, both musically and dramatically.
AR: You’ve had a really interesting career as a historian. You were a presidential appointee.
EKK: Yes, I was. That was under Jimmy Carter, and it was very exciting. I served on the national advisory board of the Kennedy Center. I’ve also written another historical book on the history of music in the White House.
AR: That’s a unique take, looking at American music through the eyes of the government.
EKK: Both of the books I’ve written are really cultural histories in the end. In my book on American opera, I had two focuses. One was to explore the cultural, social, and political influences on American opera composers. The other thread that I was trying to explore focused on the operas themselves – how we, as a nation, have taken music and used it as a very powerful dramatic tool. I followed early musical melodrama through Wagnerian influences, through the motion picture score, right up to the present day, showing how composers used music not only to enlarge characters, but even to create them. I feel this ability to portray character through music is a special strength of the American composer.
My White House book is also a cultural history because I went back to George Washington. But I wasn’t interested in the actual music itself the way I was in my opera book. In the White House book, I explored the cultural interests of the various first families throughout history and discovered the forces that came into play when selecting an artist to perform in the White House. Through each administration from George Washington right up to the present—almost the present—I wanted to find out how the various administrations differed. Which ones were innovative in promoting the arts, which ones were following the trends of American culture at the time? Then, of course, through the White House we also discover the whole history of popular music, of gospel, of jazz, of all the different art forms that existed in the United States. This is because every form, every kind of music has been performed in the White House. This book differs from my opera book, but both are tied to my focus on American cultural history.
AR: Speaking of a cultural phenomenon, you spend a good deal of your book talking about how technology impacted American opera.
EKK: That’s another way American opera is being brought to more people. Operas by American composers are being televised and even premiered on TV. Today we are able to do amazing things through media, technology, and stage design. It’s this visual aspect, which derives from movies and television, that plays a vital role in the way audiences perceive the story, such as in The Ghosts of Versailles. This opera was so exciting visually; even young teens were mesmerized by it.
AR: With the advent of technology, opera became a lot more accessible to the public because people could listen to the radio and hear live opera broadcasts, and they still can.
EKK: Yes, actually the first opera to be performed on the newly begun CBS network was an opera by an American composer, Deems Taylor. And in 1951, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors became the first opera to be commissioned for television. So, media has been a very good thing for opera. I’m hoping that an opera by an American composer will be commissioned especially for television again. With the talent we have today in storytelling, composing, singing, and staging – we have a wonderful outreach venue for the cause of American opera.