Putting Away Childish Things
for Playbill, Houston Grand Opera: March 1998
More than a century after its publication, Louisa May Alcott’s chronicle of growing up female in civil-war era New England remains indispensable American popular fiction. Readers have attended the adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in more than one hundred languages. In our own land and tongue, Hollywood has filmed the piece four times in sixty years. The applause that hailed Little Women in its own century echoes in its rising prestige at the start of our own; writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Joyce Carol Oates have claimed Alcott as a literary ancestor.
Despite all this, Little Women has materialized on the lyric stage only five times before. Each treatment—Evelyn Everest Freer’s 1920 opera, Scenes from Little Women; Geoffrey O’Hara’s 1930s-era operetta; Richard Adler’s 1950 televised semi-musical; and two Broadway musicals, both titled Jo and both produced circa 1966—strove clearly and sincerely to sing the March sisters’ story on stage. Yet none of those incarnations survived its own day.
When revisiting Little Women for the first time since reading it as a child, the novel, with its young, lively characters in their antique locale, reminded me of opera itself, these days: an art buzzing with new writing and thinking while still working with resources (the bel canto trained voice, the acoustic orchestra) that stabilized one hundred years ago. Still, before beginning my own adaptation, I examined these previous treatments to try to answer a crucial question. What was the book about—overall, not just in its many episodes—and how could that theme be best expressed in a design of dramatic actions? In other words…
Pilgrims, No Progress
…What’s the conflict? None of these previous projects find a conflict, an agon, that both challenges Jo with a worthy antagonist and engages all the sisters past the midpoint of the story. Meg retorts to Aunt March that she will marry John, so there—and, in a twinkling, vanishes from action, reappearing only to deliver the first dewy-eyed March grandchildren. Alcott lovingly oversees Amy as she sheds her girlhood like a chrysalis, at last clasping Laurie’s hand under the Alpine sun. But other versions
abruptly pack Amy off to Europe and abandon her there; she returns merely to model her new Paris threads in Act III. In all versions, Amy’s artistic ambitions shrink to footnotes. In Alcott, Beth flowers. In a fluent seaside monologue, Beth reveals to Jo the travail it cost her to embrace death at the last with open arms. But note how easily her story detaches from any taut timeline. Onstage, Freer bids Beth farewell in Act I; O’Hara, in Act II.
Jo, adrift, suffers most. The cast’s most vivid character, she only loses momentum during the course of the story only because she has no foe strong or real enough to engage her. See her in Act I; scribbling madly in the attic, spatting with Amy, romping with Laurie, repenting to Marmee. What’s the conflict? Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film starring Winona Ryder as Jo, spins the story of a thwarted woman artist. Who’s doing the thwarting? Publishers spurn her only at first. Her family thrills to her writing. Prompt and respectful reviews herald her first serious novel.
Nor is this the story of a woman fighting to define herself against oppressive men. Name one in Little Women! Laurie loves her just the way she is. Her father wishes she would quiet down a bit: otherwise he trumpets her achievements, even as her writing eclipses his own. Refusing to wed a usual type, Jo just waits until an unusual type comes along. This little woman meets every man as an equal.
Is this the story of a free spirit struggling against convention? The Marches themselves are free spirits, crypto-Bohemians. They stand on principle. Aunt March constantly scolds Mrs. March for being too idealistic, improvident—unconventional! But the joyful March laughter drowns out Auntie’s querulous caw. Jo takes a husband and, empowered by a convenient inheritance, opens a multi-racial Plumfield Boys Town. Maybe society sniffed: but Jo’s family smiled. What’s the conflict?
A Dramatic Solution
To find an answer, we turn to an unlikely duo: Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss’s longtime librettist, and St. Paul the Apostle.
(…between you and me
it flows in silence, trickling, like sand in an hourglass.
But sometimes I hear it flowing–
Sometimes I arise in the middle of the night
and take the clocks and stop them every one…)
Act One, Der Rosenkavalier
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
First Corinthians, 13:11
The conflict of Little Women is Jo versus the passage of time.
Realize this about Jo: almost alone among adolescent protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Roth’s Portnoy), she’s happy where she is. Adored by her family, she adores them in turn. Not so poor as to starve, Jo is just poor enough to see in each small windfall gold to delight a Midas.
Jo knows adulthood will only graduate her from her perfect home. She fights her own and her sisters’ growth because she knows deep down that growing up means growing apart.
So, Jo spends half the book screaming No! Don’t change! “I’d marry Meg myself if it could keep her in the family,” she grouses. Jo resents not men but women, women who grow up and abandon their sisters, just cast-off bridesmaids in a deserted aisle. How could she resent men? Laurie adores her; they are best of pals for years and years. But then Laurie’s feelings alter, deepen; he wants her as a man wants a woman. No! “Why can’t we go on just as we are?” Jo implores. Don’t change! On stage and screen, happy train music and trailing ribbons herald Jo’s abrupt flight to New York. Yet in Alcott, Jo herself confesses to Marmee another reason why she must leave:
“…Laurie is getting too fond of me.” (Chapter 32. “‘Tender Troubles”)
Her logic is quintessentially childlike: All right, Laurie’s changed; she’ll leave for a while, and he’ll change back!
In this light, scrutinize the events of the latter part of Part One; see how strongly they shape a plot from what was merely chronicle. Meg’s changed, and Jo’s failed to stop it: she’s had to dance at her wedding. Laurie’s changed, but Jo’s got plans; stay in New York long enough, and Laurie will soon change back. All will be as it was. Alas, Jo doesn’t count on Professor Bhaer. Exotic, older, intellectual, he introduces her to Schiller, contemporary German philosophy, mature male company. She begins to look forward to his visits. Who’s changing now? Then, comes the dire telegram; Beth’s taken a turn for the worse. What a pivotal point this is!: Cinderella hearing the first of the twelve fatal chimes. Now Jo’s Don’t Change! is directed to the mirror. How could she have even for a moment dreamed of a life outside home’? Homeward she dashes. “Beth, don’t die; I won’t let you:” What is death but the most radical of transformations? But Beth is already gone. Even before she dies, she has become another creature.
Dark days. With Beth’s death, Jo’s failed. She’s come home, the home she left to preserve. The house stands. But the home is changed beyond recall. Distant Meg is nursing two children, building a nest of her own. Sweet Beth is a memory, a piano kept dusted, a stack of music yellowing on the windowsill. Soon word comes from Italy that Amy and Laurie have “reached an understanding.” A weary Jo accepts the news. She gave up her new life (and love) to save the old. Now she has nothing.
Now Laurie returns home, a glamorous newlywed, Amy in tow. Bounding upstairs to the attic, he finds Jo, inert on the sofa. She wakes, and exults; how good to see him! An awkward moment. They’ve spoken but little of their great parting of years ago. She will always live in his heart. Laurie begins, but… Jo forgives her friend before he can utter the words. Relieved, delighted, he proposes that they go back exactly to the way it was! to do, in a twinkling, the very thing she’s spent the last bitter years striving for—and failing to achieve. What will Jo say?
I knew what Jo would say; and, now, how she would sing it. Didn’t Jo’s journey call to mind the Buddhist suggestion that a lesson unlearned will reappear over and over again, in different guise, until at last the pilgrim makes progress and grasps the point? Might that not suggest a score in which, amid a riot of inflection and color, one could clearly hear Jo’s music of stubbornness and resistance tangling with and at last yielding to an ardent but unstoppable music of change? In fact, I wanted two scores: a character music which made the emotional journeys of the characters everywhere clear and traceable, in bold relief against a narrative music as distinct as I could make it from the thematic foreground.
So, Jo’s resistance theme and Meg’s and Laurie’s change theme, among others, are written in a free lyric language of triad and key. But those moments driven by language and story, rather than music and psychology, take a kind of dodecaphonic recitativo secco— crisp and terse, made from the twelve tones of the horn melody in the Prologue. That melody also gave Jo the makings of her exuberant scherzando sections in her Act One scena, “Perfect As We Are.” This long solo, which portrays Jo’s divided feelings by disrupting her long-lined F-major cantilena with careening dodecaphonic comedy, best exemplifies what I dreamed for this piece: a music in which even the most unlike materials could fuse into a single music if the ear is sensitive and the design is sound.
Here, then, is one composer’s aural vision of Little Women, meant to illuminate its buried Straussian—Christian?—theme. Who among us, at the pinnacle of a perfect moment, has not prayed for the clock to stop? Who among us has not feared, fought, and at last forgiven the passage of time? Alcott herself might be skeptical of all this attention paid to her little book. (She also, in Little Women, wrote the paralyzing sentence, “Jo wouldn’t be put into the Opera by any means”—a sentence I did not exactly pin over my desk.) Still, as Rilke once wrote, “An artist selects his subjects; that is his way of praising.” Alcott’s praise of her characters has enriched generations of readers. The opera you hear tonight is but one attempt to return the favor.
To Nietzsche is attributed the quote: “An artist chooses his subjects; that is his way of praising.” Certainly I was surprised, as I composed an opera about people far removed in time, space, and gender from my own life, how much of my own feelings, memories, and family history found its way into Little Women. For first suggesting the idea to me, I owe a debt of gratitude to Elaine Walter, and for bringing to the stage the opera that resulted with such care and commitment, I owe a debt of gratitude to David Gockley, Christopher Larkin, and Peter Webster. For their valuable and imaginative commentary on the opera as it developed, I thank Carlisle Floyd, John Corigliano, William M. Hoffman, Messrs Gockley and Webster, and Michael Korie; for their heroic work on the documents of this score, I thank Kent Ashcraft and the staff at G. Schirmer; for her friendship, as well as for her unstinting support of my work, I thank Susan Carlyle. For his brilliant and sensitive leadership of the performances from which this recording is drawn, I thank Patrick Summers and his superlative cast: for the extraordinary filming and recording of those performances, I thank Brian Large, Michael Bronson, Elaine Warner, and Marlan Barry. Above all, for the truths of love and courage I have tried to reflect in this piece, I thank my parents, Julie and Romeo Adamo, to whom Little Women is lovingly dedicated.