The little OPERA theatre of ny has become known for its adventurous programing of rarely seen and heard operas in English including the New York premieres of Benjamin Britten’s opera for television, Owen Wingrave, and Carlisle Floyd’s final work for the stage, Prince of Players, as well as new translations of works by Gluck, Mozart and, Rossini.
Now in association with Harlem Opera Theater and National Black Theatre, they have presented an unusual double bill of contrasting American One Acts, both set in the American South. Act I was a performance of Highway 1, U.S.A. (1962) by William Grant Still, called the Dean of African American Composers, and the first Black composer to have an opera performed by a major company, his Troubled Island premiered by the New York City Opera in 1949. The second half of the bill was Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley, a folk-opera intended for schools and community groups, written for the radio in 1945 and then revised for stage production in 1948 at Indiana University by the Bloomington Opera Workshop. After its premiere it had 85 amateur productions in the following ten months. However, it has not remained in the repertory.
Conducted by Gregory Hopkins with an orchestra of 21 musicians, the production was beautifully played and sung. The cast includes former Metropolitan Opera stars Isola Jones and Terry Cook, each featured in one of the two operas. Directed by Philip Shneidman, the minimalist production which eschewed scenery except for some tables and chairs seemed rather one dimensional with a great deal of emoting. However, the dramatic stories, the lovely scores and the unfamiliarity of the material kept the interest level high. The two operas work well together, both depicting similar milieus and sounding very American.
The libretto to Still’s two scene Highway 1, U.S.A., written by Verna Arvey, Still’s wife, which reads like prose is surprisingly melodic. It is set in the kitchen of Bob and Mary’s two-bedroom cottage, adjoining their filling station in an unnamed small Southern town. A tale of passion and revenge, Bob saves his money in order to educate his younger brother Nate according to a deathbed promise made to their mother. Only Mary his wife knows what a selfish, shallow person Nate really is. She is appalled when Bob, on the way to Nate’s graduation, informs her that they will still have to support Nate until he can get settled.
In scene two, we meet Nate who is everything that Mary described. When Mary refuses Nate’s romantic attentions at breakfast, he stabs her. Thinking Mary dead and still trying to shield his brother, Bob tells the sheriff that he is responsible. However, Mary regains consciousness and accuses Nate of the crime. As he is taken away, Nate begs Bob to save him. Now Bob admits that Mary was right all along and that the future will be different for them from now on.
Shniedman’s production uses only a table and two chairs to set the scene but with the large chorus the stage never looks empty. As Mary, dramatic soprano Lynnesha Crump gives a passionate portrayal of a woman who loves her husband despite his mistaken views of reality. Robert McNichols, Jr. lends his resonant voice to Bob and David Morgans as Nate demonstrates a powerful tenor. Isola Jones as the neighbor Aunt Lou brings her warm mezzo-soprano to her cameo role. Still’s tonal music is in the mainstream tradition of such composers as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, whose music is more familiar to most music lovers.
With its libretto by playwright Arnold Sundgaard, Down in the Valley is unusual in that its score incorporates four well-known traditional folk songs, “Down in the Valley,” “The Lonesome Dove,” “The Little Black Train” and “Hop Up, My Ladies” and its “Hoe-Down” is a variation of “Sourwood Mountain.” Some of the songs have had revisions by Sundgaard to better fit his story while others have original lyrics by him to new melodies by Weill. Surprisingly there is no evidence of the jazz rhythms that made Weill famous but shows how assimilated the German-born composer had become to the American idiom.
The story begins in the Birmingham jail before an execution and is told in flashback. Brack Weaver, a teenager, has fallen in love with a neighboring girl, Jennie Parsons, who returns his love but whose father disapproves of him. He prefers that she go out with the older Thomas Bouché, a malevolent moneylender who Brack knows helped his family lose its farm. Jennie’s father believes if she goes to the dance at Shadow Creek on Saturday night, Bouché will help bail him out of his money problems.
Jennie disobeys her father and attends with Brack. However, Bouché shows up and threatens Brack with a knife. They fight and Bouché dies on his own weapon. Unfortunately, it is not considered self-defense and Brack is sentenced to death for the killing. The night before his execution he escapes from jail to spend his last night with Jennie who he has not heard from in all this time in prison as her father forbade her from writing to him.
In his staging, Shneidman used no scenery except a bench, creating Brack’s prison cell through Seth Reiser’s lighting. Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish’s choreography created patterns with the dance chorus. Kyle Oliver’s fine tenor graced the part of Brack Weaver but he seemed too boyish for the role. Cast the role as Black adds a racial level not present in the original libretto. Sarah Nelson Craft’s lyric soprano beautifully sang Jennie Parsons but sounded too operatic for the music and a good deal older than Brack. Singing a role written for a baritone, bass-baritone Terry Cook played both The Leader (i.e. the narrator) and the Preacher. As Thomas Bouché, hulking baritone Andrew Richardson made him extremely sinister. In non-singing roles, Ron Loyd played the overbearing Father and the conscientious Sheriff, as well as the Sheriff in Highway 1, U.S.A. The large ensemble of 15 including the leads excellently sang in both operas.
While American One Acts was much more successful in the music than the drama, it was a novelty in its rarity as neither of these operas are often heard. While there are several extant recordings of Down in the Valley, there have been few productions in recent years. The world premiere recording of Highway 1, U.S.A. is currently out of print. This production performed a service in letting us hear forgotten works of major American opera and theater composers that have unfairly fallen by the wayside.
American One Acts, a double bill (May 31 – June 4, 2023)
the little OPERA theatre of ny in association with Harlem Opera Theater and National Black Theatre
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue at 25th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours including one intermission