Leonard Bernstein wanted to, but couldn’t get permission. Aaron Copland was equally enthusiastic, but his interest was rebuffed. So when the estate of Thornton Wilder finally granted the rights to turn the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town into an opera, composer Ned Rorem and poet-librettist J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy understood they were tackling a story that has sparked the imaginations of artists for decades. Many have tried to adapt Wilder’s script, a bird’s-eye depiction of life in small-town America, but the playwright himself was wary that the spirit of the story might not be preserved in operatic form.
“Everybody has wanted to do it because it’s such a terribly American story,” remarks Rorem of Our Town, about to have its New York premiere by the Juilliard Opera Center this month, after receiving its world premiere in 2006 at Indiana University in Bloomington. “It’s about real people; it’s not Madame Butterfly or Lulu,” he says, contrasting the narrative with tales of exotic, star-crossed love affairs. Instead, Our Town—to be directed at Juilliard by Edward Berkeley—invites identification with its “archetypal kids and their parents. This play is about getting out of adolescence,” says Rorem, “taking on responsibilities” and dealing with “parents, sisters, brothers, lovers. That’s a lot to sing about.”
Until librettist McClatchy obtained the rights, however, none of the characters were singing, due to the Wilder estate’s reticence towards seeing the story transposed from one medium to another. But in 1997, when McClatchy wrote an article paying tribute to Wilder in The New York Times Book Review, he was unknowingly paving the way. Wilder’s nephew Tappan took note, and the two ultimately forged a friendship, together founding the Thornton Wilder Society. McClatchy then approached the younger Wilder, the estate’s literary executor, with the potentially controversial idea that “an opera could better preserve the intimacy and emotional force of the play,” rather than a musical, then under consideration. Asked to suggest a composer, McClatchy did not hesitate to name Rorem, now 84, who has earned a formidable reputation for setting the work of American writers to music.
McClatchy apparently chose wisely. Rorem’s score has been praised for keeping the simplicity and poignancy of the play intact. Anne Manson, conductor for Juilliard’s production of Our Town, says she is impressed by the way Rorem trusted the original material, creating an accessible score full of “beautiful, natural vocal lines” that convey the rhythms of small-town life and become more expansively dramatic during the opera’s somber third act.
“Ned has an instinctive way of putting words into music that is superbly natural and elegant,” says McClatchy of Rorem, who has tackled such diverse writers as Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, and Walt Whitman. Rorem began receiving accolades after earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard (in ’46 and ’48, respectively), composing symphonies, piano concertos, choral works, and orchestral suites like Air Music, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. But it is the vocal repertoire Rorem is best known for, and he doesn’t shy away from endorsing the principles he adheres to when adapting texts. “Never repeat a word that the poet himself has not repeated,” says Rorem. He is also uncompromising when it comes to the declamation of words, which should be paced “more or less at the speed of speech. If you sing ‘I’m going to dieeeee,’ there has to be a theatrical reason for it.”
Rorem credits his interest in combining music with literature, in part, to his Juilliard education. Born in 1923 in Richmond, Ind., Rorem later moved with his family to Chicago, where his parents exposed him early on to theater and music. When his father, in Philadelphia on business, dropped off his teenage son’s compositions at the Curtis Institute of Music, Rorem was granted a scholarship from that institution. He later came to Juilliard, where he studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar and took humanities classes that demanded close readings of everything from the New Testament to the Greek tragedies. As a result of this immersion, his first choral pieces were translations of Sappho.
Rorem subsequently became composer-critic Virgil Thomson’s copyist, an arrangement that included orchestration lessons. “I sat at his dining room table while he sat in bed on the phone, talking to everybody,” he recalls of one of the world’s then most well-known musical personalities. This arrangement was profoundly illuminating to Rorem, who says he feels that composition is often too ephemeral to be formally taught.
Of course, Rorem’s own musical vocabulary is quite different from that of Thomson, although they remained in touch even after Rorem’s nine-year sojourn to Paris, where he stayed until 1958, when, encouraged by Thomson, he concluded that a homecoming would accelerate his career. To date, Rorem remains a staunch admirer of Thomson’s collaborations with Gertrude Stein, particularly because of the intricate synthesis of music and Stein’s thorny texts in operas like The Mother of Us All and Four Saints in Three Acts.
Rorem—who himself has previously written a full-length opera, Miss Julie (1965), as well as more than half-a-dozen one-acts—is quick to note that creating a work like Our Town is very different from writing a song. “With opera,” he notes, “you have to have a sense of theater.”
Language fulfills a significant role in that imperative. Librettist McClatchy notes that condensing Our Town’s text was particularly tricky, because he says, “Our Town is so well known. Everyone has read it. Nearly everyone has performed in it!” Wilder’s play includes not only beloved scenes that audience members come to expect, but a specific narrative style, in which the audience is on the outside looking into a microcosm. “It’s part of Wilder’s vision to give us heaven’s idea of earth—lives seen from such a huge distance that they seem both small and precious,” says McClatchy, who occasionally uses descriptive supertitles to deliver commentary that was originally dialogue in the play.
Rorem himself understands the power of the written word. Although he identifies himself as a composer first, he is an author in his own right, having seen the publication of numerous volumes of his own diaries over several decades. They chronicle his personal and professional life, with reflections on music and tales of the many bold-faced names he encountered throughout his career. Initially providing a voyeuristic glimpse into the diaries have taken a more melancholy turn in the last decade, offering musings on mortality and loss, particularly after the death in 1999 of James Holmes, his partner for more than 30 years.
These texts also highlight Rorem’s philosophy on music, espoused by a composer who maintains some occasionally head-turning opinions. “I’m morally against percussion,” he states, elaborating on his belief that percussion is often a shortcut to dramatic emphasis. To Rorem, having a cymbal crash during a climax is “like wearing too much lipstick.” For Manson, however, there’s no danger that Our Town won’t pack a heartfelt emotional climax. “Having studied the score over the past year, I have not once felt the lack of percussion,” she says. Satisfaction in Our Town’s subtle build-up of emotional intensity—rather than the bombast often associated with operatic excess—makes the composer regret that the playwright will never have a chance to revise his views about the limitations of opera. “Every time I’ve seen it,” says Rorem, “I say to myself at the end, ‘I wish Thornton Wilder could have been here.’”