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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 21, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Louisa May Alcott’s Words, Adamo’s Tunes
Of the almost 30 performances of his opera “Little Women” since its 1998 debut, composer Mark Adamo has attended about half. “There’s something to admire in each of them,” he says in a telephone interview from his New York City home. “In performances around the country, others are discovering things that I didn’t know were there.”
“I always go if I can,” Adamo says. “But after a certain number of productions ‘Little Women’ began acquiring a life of its own, and I began acquiring the status of a dead composer.” The opera is based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel about the four daughters in the March household.
Westminster Choir College of Rider University presents four performances of Adamo’s “Little Women” in its 200-seat Playhouse on the Westminster campus Thursday through Sunday, April 29 through May 2. Bill Fabris is stage director and choreographer. J. J. Penna is music director. The vocalists are Westminster students.
First presented by the Opera Studio of Houston Grand Opera, the least prestigious arm of the company, “Little Women” caught the attention of General Director David Gockley who scheduled the work for 10 performances on its mainstage. “I was very fortunate with ‘Little Women.’ Adamo says. “Very often the first production of a new opera is the last.”
The size of venues for the opera has varied. “It was written for a small theater and a smallish orchestra,” Adamo says. “But the New York State Theater holds 2,400 seats, and venues in Omaha and Colorado were still larger.” Adamo uses a different measure for the magnitude of a production. “The size of a piece is the size of its emotional gestures,” he says. “Mozart wrote for theaters with 500 seats, but his operas are done at the Met.” The Met, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, seats 3,000.
Adamo steps out of his role of dead composer to give a private master class for Westminster composing students and the “Little Women” cast on Thursday, April 22.
In June he takes control of staging the opera for a performance at the Lyric Opera of Cleveland, where he, himself, is the stage director. Comfortable with both his composing and his stagecraft, Adamo determines his own path. “Unlike composers who believe that when they’re writing they can’t hear other music, I don’t feel that I have to protect myself. I don’t feel that listening to other compositions will mess up mine. It’s a release to get out of your own ear. I know what I want to do. It’s the same thing as a director.”
What Adamo wants to do is use opera as a dramatic medium. Late to arrive in a musical environment, his formal training after high school began at New York University, where he won the Paulette Goddard Remarque Scholarship for outstanding undergraduate achievement in playwriting. His formal training in music came at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a composition degree in 1990.
After graduating from Catholic University, Adamo reviewed music for the Washington Post for three years. His standards for music critics are hard to meet. “A critic should know how everything in music works,” he says. “I think of criticism at its best as scholarship for a general audience. Readers would like to keep up with new music, but don’t know how. The purpose of my criticism was not that readers should get a sense of my likes and dislikes. People didn’t have to agree with me for me to give them more ways to listen to music. I used music criticism as a free lance musical education, as a way to understand the broader cultural context of a piece. I would write, ‘Here’s how Mozart is usually done and here’s how he was done tonight.”
“An education in musical composition is good training for a music critic,” Adamo adds. “If you’re training to be an orchestral soloist, you need only to know your own instrument. A violinist doesn’t need to know how a bassoon works.” The composer has wider horizons.
Adamo began work on “Little Women” during his Washington Post period. After its success in Houston and New York, New York City Opera named him their composer-in-residence. He is completing the last year of a three-year appointment in the post.
Born in Philadelphia in 1962, Adamo is the second youngest in a family with five children. He says that there was “music in the family, but not classical music.” And the musical activity was not prominent in the family’s mythology. “Little Women” was the first opera that his parents saw. They plan to accompany him to the Tokyo premiere of the opera in May 2005.
His mother, as Adamo discovered when he was 19, sang with the big bands of Cab Calloway and the Dorsey brothers. “She was reticent only because she didn’t want to turn into the stage mother her mother had been,” he says. A retired administrator for a Lakehurst nursing registry, she now spends her time being a grandmother, Adamo says.
In retirement, Adamo’s father devotes himself primarily to golf. When Adamo was growing up, his father drove a truck for a Philadelphia construction company. Because of his job, he needed to nap during the day, and the household had to be quiet.
Adamo remembers his late start in music. “We couldn’t afford a piano till I was 15,” he says; he taught himself to play. And he remembers his disappointment when he first attended an opera performance at age 17. “I was surprised to find a synopsis in the program,” he says. “I thought, `Gee, I already know what’s going to happen, and it took away the thrill.”
Still, Adamo joined the large swathe of Americans who have become enthusiastic about opera in recent years. One factor in opera’s popularity, he says, is the use of titles, which corrects for the distress of knowing the story in advance. Although their use has been controversial, even the mighty Met has agreed to supply titles. When titles are used the English text captures the words sung on stage and no longer do operagoers need to have the story in their heads. “Titles return you to the theatrical experience,” Adamo says. He points out that those who want to ignore the titles needn’t look.
Opera, Adam believes, carries on a sense of community that began in ancient Greece. “Opera,” he says, “is linked with public address; it derives from classical theater. Athenian amphitheaters were the place where the whole community came together. Recently, operas have been addressing the public in an intelligible way.” He cites the recent operas “Nixon in China” by John Adams and “Ghosts of Versailles” by John Corigliano, which he says “were close enough to each other in time that composers had to wake up.”
Their awakening consisted in abandoning the belief that the test of quality music was its impenetrability. “Till the mid 20th century,” says Adamo, “a lot of composers were educated to believe that if you’re reaching the audience you’re not intelligent. That has changed.”
Observing that opera has been more popular in the United States than classical music, Adamo says, “There is a separation between opera and classical audiences. The audience for opera does not always spill over into symphonic or chamber music. A baseball fan is not a hockey fan.”
He contrasts the public nature of opera with the intimacy of some classical music. “With a little suite of 10 piano pieces, there’s one person to perform, and the audience can be 100 people. The performance can be private, like writing in a journal or reading poetry out loud. Opera is not so hermetic or so private.”
Adamo was his own librettist for “Little Women.” “In opera so much depends on the quality of cooperation between composer and librettist,” he says. “It’s an ancient question: which comes first, the text or the music? There’s a third answer: the performance. The performance is the gestures. I use an adaptation of the Stanislavsky method.”
Adamo was also his own dramaturg for the opera. “Neither the words nor the music comes first,” he told the late John Ardoin of Houston Grand Opera. “When I begin an opera, I first make an outline of what the scenes will be. Then I pretend I am sitting in the theater seeing the piece in front of me, and I am deaf. I ask myself, ‘What’s going on on stage, who are these people, and what do they want?’ And then I pretend I am blind and try to understand what is happening – what am I hearing and what does it mean dramatically. Once I do this I have a good idea of what the words and the music should be and they start percolating at the same time. Until I find the action, however, I can’t write either.”
“What’s really important is the spine:” he says. “What is the big question? It must be a question, not a statement. The question spurs you to write the piece. In `Little Women’ the question is, `Why must things change?’ Once the question is decided on you break it down into details.”
Adamo is developing new operas for Houston Grand Opera . “The Naked Goddess,” based on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” premieres in Houston on March 4, 2005, and plays seven additional performances there before it reaches the New York City Opera. For “Lysistrata,” Adamo says, “The question is ‘Can we ever stop war?’” For “Dracula,” which follows, Adamo doesn’t know the question yet. “It’s too early,” he says.
With major commitments to writing opera, Adamo’s activity as a music critic is temporarily suspended. “It’s difficult to be both a working composer and a reviewer,” he says. “It’s a matter of time. I enjoy reviewing and I’d like to go back and write the occasional Sunday article.”
Little Women, Westminster Opera Theater, the Playhouse, 101 Walnut Lane, 609-921-2663. $15; $10 students, seniors. Thursday, April 29 to Saturday, May 1, 8 p.m., Sunday, May 2, 3 p.m
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