The March of Adamo

for Opera News, March 2003

Mark Adamo has spoken and written so much about his first opera, Little Women, that Andrew Bisantz, an assistant conductor at Glimmerglass Opera, wishes aloud that Verdi had left behind such ample documentation on Aida. Yet composer/librettist Adamo says there’s still one thing he hasn’t said:

“I really do not know how I wrote Little Women,” he says. “I can give you  and have  three paragraphs on how the ‘Things change’ [the opera’s standout aria] theme is supposed to work, how it should contrast, etc., etc., etc. I wrote the music to ‘Things change’ in a day and a half, and I have no idea why it sounds the way it sounds. I just knew that it was right when it was done.”

Audiences and impresarios have agreed with his assessment: since its première, in Houston Grand Opera’s Opera Studio program in 1998, Adamo’s chamber opera hardly has left the stage, with some twenty productions. In 2000, Houston’s production was revived and recorded (Ondine ODE988) and in 2001 it was telecast (PBS’s Great Performances); that production also has traveled to other cities. Rhoda Levine’s new production for Glimmerglass, unveiled last summer, comes to New York City Opera for six performances, beginning March 23.

For any contemporary opera-composer, to say nothing of a first-timer, this kind of success is just about unimaginable. Adamo gives the impression that he doesn’t quite believe that any of this is happening  that he’s attended almost all the productions as a form of pinching himself to be sure they’re real.

“I was trying not to be embarrassing” when he wrote his first opera, he says. Prior to Little Women, he’d written a few instrumental and choral pieces, as well as an extended orchestral work, Late Victorians (1995), and was only just beginning to develop any confidence as a composer. Having grown up in an ItalianAmerican family in New Jersey, though, he did feel some affinity for the form: “Opera is Italian naturalism.” When he began Little Women, originally a commission from Summer Opera (affiliated with Catholic University, from which he graduated in 1990), he remembers telling himself, “The worst that can happen is that it will end up on the same honorable trash-heap as everyone else’s first opera. And then I’ll have done it, I’ll have learned something and then go on from there.”

To see him, slender and irrepressibly animated, recklessly varying the vivid colors of his wardrobe, you’d peg him as twentysomething. Yet he’s forty, as much late-bloomer as Wunderkind, and one wonders if he’d have enjoyed his success more fully and confidently had it arrived when he really was still a kid.

Over a long lunch (which he hardly touches), he does discuss matters other than Little Women. But it’s a favorite topic, and he’s given it a great deal of thought. As he says, one reason he’s spoken so much about Little Women is that “people kept asking,” and he keeps answering, his hands moving like trained birds, his enthusiasm rising, his words rushing ever faster.

Assigned to set what has been to generations of women a nearly sacred text, Adamo felt a heavy responsibility. He reread the novel  only to find it “episodic and disjointed.”

“You might as well set the New York State Tax Code; you might as well set A Guide to Butterflies of North America. I didn’t get that there was any drama in it.” A resident of Washington, D.C., at the time, Adamo went to the Library of Congress, where he found the “shipwrecks” of five previous musical adaptations of Little Women, all failures. He watched three of Hollywood’s several film adaptations (1933, 1949, 1994) and found all (“even the sainted Hepburn”) unsatisfactory.

Trying to figure out why readers and moviegoers cherish Little Women, trying to identify the “something in it that we do not get anywhere else that tells us some kind of truth … became a kind of detective story for me.” MGM’s 1949 movie yielded the clue. When Jo (June Allyson) spies her sister Meg (Janet Leigh) with the tutor, Mr. Brooke (Richard Stapley), “her face goes completely to ice. And I thought, ‘That is what it is about. It’s really about abandonment,’” and how Jo resists change.

Suddenly, he understood Jo. “Almost alone among adolescent protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Roth’s Portnoy), she’s happy where she is,” he has written. Though originally he was commissioned only to write the score, Adamo, an experienced journalist who had studied playwriting at New York University, eventually took over libretto-writing duties, too. Thus, Little Women would hinge on Jo’s development, from her belief that her life and family are “Perfect as we are” (her Act I aria) to her eventual acceptance that “Things change” (a theme sounded first by Meg).

Adamo’s compositional palette surprises most first-time listeners, who are led by the work’s subject matter and popularity to expect warmed-over Aaron Copland or Stephen Foster, and who find instead melodic arias popping up from spiky, dodecaphonic arioso recitative, frankly inspired by Alban Berg. Adamo recalls looking over his score and thinking, “Great. I’ve written Jo as Lulu. It’s the definition of the answer to a question nobody needed to ask.”

However, Little Women is listenable, and it packs an emotional wallop. “Mark isn’t afraid of lyricism,” says Paul Kellogg, Glimmerglass’s general director and City Opera’s general and artistic director, “and isn’t afraid of real sentiment, and he has a great gift for expressing profound human emotions.” Beth’s death scene, compared favorably by Opera News‘s John W. Freeman with those of Manon and Mimì (“In Review,” Dec. 2002), drove one audience member out of the final Glimmerglass performance in uncontrollable sobs  “I’ve never seen anything like that in any piece that we’ve done,” says Kellogg. Houston Grand Opera general director David Gockley remembers, “I cried every time at the end, when the sisters sing that gorgeous quartet. What can I say? I found it emotionally very cathartic and touching, in a way that I think chamber opera should be.”

The work also has benefited from extraordinary performances. From the original Houston cast, Joyce DiDonato and Stephanie Novacek have gone on to much praise; and the Glimmerglass cast featured rising performers Sandra Piques Eddy, Christina Bouras, Jennifer Dudley (a knockout Jo) and Caroline Worra (an ingratiating Amy). Dudley and Worra return to these roles at NYCO. In addition to challenging acting assignments, all the sisters get a showcase aria, as do their men, Brooke, Laurie and Prof. Bhaer (who sings a memorable lied in Act II). “Opera is full of killer roles, and it is a temptation to young singers to take on those roles before they’re fully ready,” says Kellogg. “So one looks for pieces that have the same kind of impact that are suited to younger voices.” The work seems likely to continue to provide a launch pad for young artists, and that pleases Adamo  especially since, during rehearsals at Houston’s Opera Studio, a coach assured him that no one would be able to learn these roles, much less project the text, ever again.

At the time of our meeting, the composerlibrettist was at work on his second opera, the much-delayed Lysistrata, aiming for a reading at Houston Grand Opera last month. (A small portion of the work was performed last year at New York City Opera’s Showcasing American Composers program, which Adamo, who is City Opera’s composer in residence, runs.) Adamo strayed from the original play, creating new characters and leaving only a few scenes intact; he also concentrated more on sexual than governmental politics. The stakes are high. It’s the first time he’s chosen his own material, the cast and orchestra are larger, comparisons to other works (not only Little Womenbut Mikis Theodorakis’s Lysistrata, unveiled last year) are inevitable, and he’s already missed deadlines.

In his corner stands another composer whose first opera enjoyed spectacular success: his partner, John Corigliano. The Met’s lavish world-premiere production of his The Ghosts of Versailles in 1991 (televised in 1992, revived in 1994) also played at Lyric Opera of Chicago (1995). Despite being hailed by critics and audiences, Ghosts then lay dormant until 1999, when it received its European premiere in Hannover, Germany, in a leaner, more manageable production. And then nothing.

Adamo fervently wants to see Ghosts in the standard repertory. “As glorious as the Met production was, it obscured the writing a little bit,” he admits. “John says, ‘Oh, gosh, nobody wants this piece,’ and I say, ‘No, nobody thinks they can afford this piece.’” Little Women always was intended to be small-scale, and Adamo rejects the idea that the fate of Ghosts influenced his compositional choices; indeed, it’s hard to imagine anybody writing Little Women on the scale even of the reduced Ghosts. The two operas are “apples and oranges,” he says, and although the men do sometimes look over each other’s work, Adamo characterizes the discussions as friendly advice, far from master-and-pupil lessons or, for that matter, collaboration.

The two have been together more than seven years. Corigliano, who recently turned sixty-five, remains one of the busiest and most successful American composers, “unparalleled in his position,” according to Adamo, with a Pulitzer, an Oscar® and a thicket of laurels in his wreath.

“I had been something of  to use this awful phrase  a biggish fish in the small pond of Washington. And I came to New York, and everybody I knew was more accomplished than me. There was one dinner à quatre where I was the only person without a Pulitzer Prize: deal with that.” But Adamo characterizes the household as remarkably tension-free; the differences in age and accomplishment remove the possibility of competition. In any case, Adamo prizes his independence.

“I am not going to make a decision based on what someone tells me I can or cannot do,” he says, refusing to be “that nice boy musical-politicking, by using tonalism or non-tonalism” to please someone else.

“The worst thing that can happen in contemporary composition is what I call the Nice-Boy Syndrome. Goddammit, use your critical skills; write what you believe in. If this art is as important as we all want to think it is, then it needs authority. Think hard, write hard, feel hard, and really do what you’re going to do. There’s no other reason to do it.”

William V. Madison is a journalist and novelist living in Paris.