Opera and ‘Our Town’ blend together seamlessly | AspenTimes.com

Opera and ‘Our Town’ blend together seamlessly

Stewart Oksenhorn

The opera "Our Town," with music by Ned Rorem, pictured, and a libretto by J.D. McClatchy, will have its Western states premiere tonight in Aspen. It is sold out. (Indiana University Jacobs School of Music)

In adapting “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s enduring classic of small-town America, librettist J.D. McClatchy had good reason to toe the line.For one thing, Wilder was, at best, ambivalent about the prospects of his signature drama, which earned the 1938 Pulitzer Prize, being transformed into opera. An exasperated Aaron Copland moved on to other things while waiting for the green light that never came from Wilder. (Correcting what has become the conventional, but inaccurate wisdom, McClatchy says that Leonard Bernstein never attempted to make an opera of “Our Town”; he sought, also unsuccessfully, to do Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.”)McClatchy overcame the late author’s hesitance through various means. Wilder, he explained, was never adamant in resisting the transformation of “Our Town.” The playwright was a passionate music lover, and had even adapted two of his works, “The Alcestiad” and “The Long Christmas Dinner” into operas. “He had mixed feelings about it,” said McClatchy, who was the founding director of the Thornton Wilder Society. “He spoke out of one side of his mouth, and acted out of the other.”

McClatchy also believes in his own creative instincts, and believes that old works of art are fair game for reinvention. “If I felt it was a great idea, I don’t think Wilder’s thinking would have outweighed my own,” he said. “I don’t think that Shakespeare would have wanted Verdi to turn ‘Othello’ into an opera.” The trump card is that McClatchy had the approval of Tappan Wilder, Thornton’s nephew and literary executor, to make an opera of “Our Town.”In keeping “Our Town” within proper bounds, McClatchy likewise had to contend with another powerful faction – the audience. Operagoers would likely have an intimate knowledge of “Our Town” – the setting of Grover’s Corners, N.H.; the lovers Emily and George; the guided tour given by the Stage Manager – and would hold Wilder’s text close to their hearts.”This is the most familiar of any American play – the most successful, the most produced,” said McClatchy, a professor of English at Yale, a poet, and the writer of eight librettos. “People know it. So why would I want to mess with that? My job was essentially to distill the play, not change it.”Those who attend tonight’s Western states premiere of “Our Town” by the Aspen Opera Theater Center – composed by Ned Rorem, conducted by Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman, and directed by Opera Theater Center head Edward Berkeley – might initially ask, why change it indeed? The opera version opens on a novel, but congruent note, with a funeral that presages the conventional later action.”I wanted to give it more shape, in a poetic sense,” said McClatchy. “And it underscores that sense that, in the midst of life, we’re in death. I wanted that melancholy to be present not only in Act III, but in Act I.”

McClatchy blends the unexpected with the familiar. For that opening scene, he pushed Rorem to compose a new setting for the well-known hymn, “Oh God, our help in ages past.””What I wanted was to have the opera start with something everybody knew, that way of taking everybody back to their past,” said McClatchy. “I wanted to draw the audience back into the familiar, their beloved. And then pull the tablecloth out from them.”In fact, the tablecloth only gets a gentle tug, mostly to account for the different demands asked of theater and opera. Some characters have been eliminated and others combined. Some dialogue has been moved from one mouth to another. Rorem’s music is designed not to upend expectations, but to fulfill them.”Ned Rorem preserved the tempo and integrity of the play,” said Aspen Music Festival artistic administrator Asadour Santourian, who saw the world premiere of “Our Town” earlier this year, at Indiana University. “And J.D. has been able to distill the play so that it can be an opera. It’s a crystallization of the main plot.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com