Our Town, the Opera

Dave and I went last night to Festival Opera’s production of Ned Rorem’s recent opera based on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

One of my longtime rules of thumb about musical theater and opera librettos is: Don’t adapt a much-loved classic unless either (a) you’re going to change it radically and subvert everyone’s expectations or (b) you’ve achieved much-loved classic status yourself, like Verdi adapting Othello. Otherwise you’re only begging everyone to compare what they actually see and hear not just against the original but against the idealized mythicized version of the original they carry around in their heads. You can be handsomer than somebody’s college boyfriend really was, but you can’t be handsomer than somebody’s fond memory of his college boyfriend — first, you just can’t be; and second, even if you could be, he would not allow you to be; and third, even if he allowed you to be, he would resent you rather than appreciate you for it.

A related rule of thumb of mine: Beware of adapting as a musical or opera any work that you know about only because you were assigned to read it in school or because your high school or college did a production of it. That’s the wrong kind of relationship to have with a work you’re adapting, like agreeing to spend a romantic month on a tropical island with someone because you’ve read his biography and admired it. Respect is great but if something about him isn’t actually getting you hard, you’re going to be bored long before it’s over. So unless you’ve reread The Red Badge of Courage on your own a couple of times since graduation just for the pleasure you get from the story, don’t try adapting it. It’s not that it can’t make a great musical or opera — I believe that anything can make a great musical or opera if you understand what needs to be done and you’re willing to do it. It’s that that relationship with the source is the wrong vantage point from which to have that understanding and that willingness. It’s that you’re not the right person to adapt it, and you’d do much better to keep looking for something you are the right person to adapt.

Our Town falls down on both of my rules of thumb and, in spite of some interesting music along the way, the result is plodding and heavy and charmless. Much of the time it felt to me like the librettist and composer were just going through the motions. Did either of them ever find an answer to the crucial question of how this story is going to be enhanced by singing it? Was either of them really excited to be telling this story in this way? If so, I don’t think it shows in the result. Except for a haunting piece sung by the dead in the cemetary in act three, I never felt the singing contributed anything; rather, it slowed everything down and made ponderous what is charming in the play.

The third act worked best, or maybe failed to work the least, because the play turns dark in the third act and the words there can bear a little better the stately gravity of this setting. But at the same time, act three of the play depends for its effectiveness on the seeming lightness of acts one and two. Telling us in act three that all that charm and lightness in the first two acts was concealing a great tragic emptiness seems kind of silly when when there has in fact been no charm or lightness, when everything has been plodding heavily along all the way through.

The libretto plods along heavily, too, and on a first hearing seems to consist of dialogue sections that should have been tightened for musicalization but weren’t, punctuated here and there by sections meant for set pieces written in clumsy rhymed couplets.

As I write this, I catch myself tending to idealize Our Town in my mind, to go beyond “you know, the opera doesn’t handle this element of the story well” to “oh, this was sooooooo good in the play!” Actually, while I like Our Town okay, it’s not a big favorite of mine and I wouldn’t go very far out of my way just to see it. But that’s what happens in the audience’s heads when you adapt something with that kind of iconic stature in the culture. There’s something in our brains that makes us unconsciously defend and glorify our icons, even if we never gave them much thought before they were challenged.

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