Ned Rorem’s Our Town

This occurred to me while
attending Ned Rorem’s spare, elegant, uninteresting full-length opera
(his first after a lifetime composing nearly every other sort of thing)
derived from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play as rooted in
the poetry of the ordinary (pre-World War I New England variety) as the
operatic form seems calculated to enhance and transcend it. Mr. Rorem himself
has said that when he first took on this project (here receiving its New York
premiere — the world premiere took place two years ago) he pondered
whether Our Town called for operatic treatment, and whether he was
the man to set it. My guess is the answers in both cases are clearly
negative, but he blithely went right ahead.

Is there anything in Our Town, a play in which God is the most
prosaic of stage managers (agnostic to boot, as Wilder was), and death is
restfully preferable to even the pleasantest sort of living, that could be
enhanced by song? Perhaps — but not the sort of song Mr. Rorem has
provided, the through-composed recitative of mid-twentieth-century opera
without those embarrassing tune thingies that bear unfortunate comparison
with weak Broadway musicals. When Mr. Rorem requires a real tune — a
hymn for the burial of Emily, his heroine, say, or her wedding march —
what we get is a traditional hymn sung against ironic orchestral discords, or
a few bars of Mendelssohn — because Mr. Rorem can’t really be
trusted (by his librettist, J.D. McClatchy, or by himself, evidently) to come
up with anything that would conjure the notion of “hymn” or
“wedding march” on his own bat. The dialogue of the opera —
or should I say play? — is offered without emotion either because the
play does not call for much of it or because the idiom in use does not. (I
wasn’t sure.) The most appealing and interesting portions of Mr.
Rorem’s contribution were the few — very few — times he
allowed more than one person to sing together: a trio of taunting baseball
players calling “George!” when the hero pays too much attention
to the girl he is sweet on, or the chorale of the dead that opens Act II.
Otherwise, there isn’t much here here. If you’re going to make an
opera, you really ought to let people let loose to sing a bit.

We do get singable vocal lines — after half a century producing
beloved art songs, there isn’t much about writing graciously for the
voice that Mr. Rorem does not know. It can’t be an accident that the
large cast of Juilliard students with a considerable and varied level of
experience all sounded able and grateful. The opera gives each one his or her
moment — which no doubt will win it a future in the repertory of music
schools if nowhere else. That’s too bad if it gets in the way of
productions of better works for large casts, such as The Mother of Us
or The Ballad of Baby Doe.

The Mother of Us All gives us a hint about what went wrong in
Our Town: Thomson took Gertrude Stein’s text, as he had the
earlier Four Saints in Three Acts, and set it just as he found it,
using the hymn tune background of his Missouri upbringing to create a
nostalgic rather than referential score, full of original flavor. Rorem,
though he comes from the same part of the country and, like Thomson, was
educated in Paris by Nadia Boulanger, has self-consciously divorced himself
from Americana and can find no way to link back to it. His hymn is not a
charming in-the-style-of, but an intrusion. Nothing downhome permeates the
background here. As for the play, it is typical of the libretto that the
witty sidelong touches, geological and statistical “newsbreaks”
quoted by one character or another, find no answering wit in Rorem’s
music — they appear only in the surtitles. If the opera were produced
without them, they’d have to go. Wilder’s balance of the
quotidian with the eternal is unsprung, here and elsewhere. McClatchy and
Rorem simply did not trust their material. Or (very likely) Our Town
is a play requiring no song at all — it’s got its own, as much as
it could ever need.

It was difficult not to compare Our Town to another American
opera I’d seen recently: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Did
this stage work respond adequately to, or even explicate, Mahatma
Gandhi’s philosophy? There’s no way for me, only vaguely familiar
with that philosophy or that life, to judge, but what Satyagraha did do was
concoct so pleasing a musical language for that life that audiences are drawn
to contemplate its meaning and achievement, both of which are undoubtedly
worthy of operatic grandiloquence — rather the way Stein and Thomson
meditated on Susan B. Anthony’s achievement in The Mother of Us
. Our Town may or may not deserve musicalization on some
level, but the musical language Rorem has provided is inadequate to draw us
in, to make us think the question worth resolving. We simply don’t want
to spend time with this music. We’d rather hear Mendelssohn

The expert Juilliard cast was led by Jennifer Zetlan, who sang Emily at
the premiere, whose unsettlingly bright smile when she meets the other dead
folks in the graveyard was presumably approved by the composer, and whose big
bright soprano seems destined to fill larger houses in the very near future.
I especially liked the voice and poise of Jessica Klein as Mrs. Gibbs and
Julie Boulianne as a nosey neighbor, Marc Webster and David McFerrin as the
two fathers (both given charming, self-involved monologues), and Alex
Mansoori’s regal calm as the almighty Stage Manager. If there was an
unappealing voice in all the large cast, it passed me completely. Now if only
they’d been singing something that needed to be sung.

John Yohalem

image_description=Our Town at Juilliard Opera Center (Photo by Peter Schaaf)
product_title=Ned Rorem: Our Town
product_by=Emily: Jennifer Zetlan; Mrs. Gibbs: Jessica Klein; Mrs. Webb: RenÈe Tatum; Mrs. Soames: Julie Boulianne; George: Alex Shrader; Dr. Gibbs: Marc Webster; Mr. Webb: David McFerrin; Stage Manager: Alex Mansoori. Conductor: Anne Manson. Director: Edward Berkeley.
Juilliard Opera Center at the Juilliard School, performance of April 27.
product_id=Above: Pictured are (seated, from left) Anne Manson, the conductor; J.D. McClatchy, the librettist; and Ned Rorem, the composer; cast members include (standing) Alex Shrader, Jennifer Zetlan, and Alex Mansoori. (Photo by Peter Schaaf).