William Bolcom marries opera and comedy in ‘A Wedding’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
The Aspen Opera Center production of "A Wedding" opens Thursday night at the Wheeler Opera House.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go ….

What: ‘A Wedding,’ presented by Aspen Opera Center

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, July 28, 7 p.m.; Saturday, July 30, 7 p.m.

How much: $25-$35

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices;

William Bolcom began his storied career as a composer with a summer in a very different Aspen from the one he’s visiting this week as his comic opera, “A Wedding,” opens at the Wheeler Opera House.

The Pulitzer Prize winner was a student at the Aspen Music Festival and School in 1957 at age 19. He recalled the school as a gritty upstart that was more dream than reality eight years after its founding.

“It was still in a pretty rough state,” he said of Aspen and its music school in an interview last week. “It was all dirt roads, and the sewer and water system were all mixed up, so you couldn’t drink the water. The mining cottages were falling down, and we just put pianos in them and used them as practice rooms.”

Bolcom has returned occasionally in the decades since as the school and resort have grown in stature, including recording a 1989 concert album of show tunes with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. But that carefree summer as a student holds a fond place in his memory.

“It was a marvelous time,” he said. “There was a real sense of beginning. The whole upscale quality of what you find in Aspen today was hardly present at all. … I remember loving the place a lot.”

Bolcom is proud to see “A Wedding” performed by today’s opera students. With 16 singing parts in the ensemble cast, it recounts a raucous wreck of a wedding day between a pair of kids whose families mix like oil and water. It’s well-suited to young performers like the ones at the Aspen Opera Center.

“It gets played a lot by students,” Bolcom said. “In student productions, you always want to have plenty of things for the students to do.”

Adapted from the 1978 Robert Altman film of the same name, Bolcom adapted the opera with a libretto by Altman and frequent Bolcom collaborator Arnold Weinstein. The film has Altman’s signature sprawling cast — 48 in all, including performances by Mia Farrow and Carol Burnett. The years he, Altman and Winstein spent adapting it were devoted largely to cutting and combining characters.

With its pastiche of musical styles and its laugh-out-loud moments, “A Wedding” offers up all the sex and death and treachery of the opera tradition with a contemporary comic spin. It premiered to wide acclaim in 2004 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as part of the company’s 50th anniversary season. Altman, the Hollywood legend behind modern classics like “MASH,” “Nashville” and “Short Cuts,” directed the premiere production himself.

Bolcom’s relationship with Altman goes back two decades before “A Wedding” made it onto the stage. He had been impressed by an Altman-directed production of the opera “The Rake’s Progress” in Michigan in 1982. So as Bolcom was developing his 1992 opera “McTeague” for the Lyric Opera, he requested Altman as his director. It began a friendship and collaboration that continued up to Altman’s death in 2006.

“At the same time, I had just seen ‘A Wedding,’ which was kind of a flop when it came out, but I loved it,” Bolcom said. “It was just this rich treasure trove of character studies.”

Some of the seemingly more outlandish combinations of characters in the adaptation, Bolcom said, were actually rooted in reality. Fusing a doctor and an art dealer character, for instance, made sense because the creative team all knew doctors who — after being paid by emerging artists with paintings — got rich as art dealers. In Bolcom’s eyes, Altman’s strong characters were ideal for an opera adaptation.

“That’s what attracted me to the whole idea of ‘A Wedding’ as an opera,” Bolcom explained. “If you have a regular pop song, a singer will tell you how he or she feels in a song. In an opera, you’re going to tell people who you are.”

Bolcom is that rare composer who has kept his feet firmly planted in the worlds of opera, musical theater and concert song. His theater work, he said, taught him the comic timing that enabled him to write the rare opera that allows the audience some belly laughs. With “A Wedding,” he hoped to bring a more character-based performance to opera. He recalled working as a vocal repetiteur with opera singers early in his career and seeing a disconnect between song and the singer.

“It was so demoralizing when the singer didn’t care much about what they were singing about,” he said. “I think it’s changing. I’m seeing more singers who do want to know what they’re singing about. … That’s where I’d like to see American opera going: finding a balance between musical values and theatrical values.”