Today we would like to introduce an American composer you may not have heard of, Douglas Moore. Born in Long Island, Moore was the descendant of original colonizers of that area. His education was spent in the halls of Fessenden School, the Hotchkiss School, and then to the ivy walls of Yale University. While attending Yale, Moore focused on music earning two degrees, one a B.A. and the other a B.Mus.
After serving in the Navy for some time, Douglas Moore continued his musical education in Paris under notable musicians like Nadia Boulanger, Vincent d’Indy, and Ernest Bloch. He became the Director of Music at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1921, and had his conducting premiere in 1923. Then in 1926 he became a professor at Columbia University and taught there for the next thirty-six years.
He wrote two books, Listening to Music and From Madrigal to Modern Music, published in 1932 and 1942 respectively. In the midst of this busy career, Douglas Moore somehow found time to compose five operas. We would like to take a moment to check out works by this intriguing American composer.
1. Giants in the Earth
Moore won a Pulitzer Prize for this piece in 1951. Arnold Sundgaard penned the libretto based on the novel of the same title written by Ole Edvart Rølvaag, and it was the librettist’s idea to create the opera in the first place. When the work won the Pulitzer, the jury concluded that “no opera by an American” had “such freshness, beauty, and distinctive character” They went on to say that the “subject” was void of “cliché” and exemplified “strength and sincerity.”
Brenda Miller Cooper was the soprano who took on the lead role, Beret, in this award-winning opera by Moore. Also starring was Josh Wheeler, Roy Johnson, Sam Bertsche, Vivian Bauer, and Frances Paige. Works that were being considered for the Pulitzer that year were String Quartet No. 8 by Quincy Porter, Symphony No. 3 by David Diamond, and Symphony No. 5 by Peter Mennin.
Douglas Moore’s technique lacked melody at times with the use of recitative, or the Italian recitativo, which is a vocal style where performers implement normal speech rhythms through the music. The folks judging for the prize felt this all happened rather naturally in Moore’s piece. Still, this work was not without its critics who felt the themes were subdued.
At the suggestion of Carl Fischer Music, a New York City publisher, Moore reworked the musical instrumentation and the way the lead character was perceived by the audience.
2. The Ballad of Baby Doe
Next, we have a piece with a libretto written by John Latouche, a native of Baltimore Maryland and a humorist known to stress out the censors. Although Giants in the Earth won a Pulitzer for Douglas Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe is his most celebrated opera. It is also one of the rare operas composed by an American to become a part of the standard repertory. It premiered at the Central City Opera in Colorado with Hanya Holm in the directing chair.
This work premiered in 1956. Dolores Wilson and Leyna Gabriele, both sopranos, took turns performing the lead role. From there it went on to be produced on the East Coast by the New York City Opera in 1958. This production was directed by Vladimir Rosing, a Russian living and working in the United States.
The character Baby Doe has the most notable arias from the work, including “I Knew it Was Wrong,” “Willow Song”, and “Letter Aria.” Other vocalists who have portrayed the title character include Elizabeth Futral, Beverly Sills, and Karan Armstrong.
Falling under the genre of “soap opera housewives” this one-act piece is a satire of the standard soap opera notorious for keeping house wives and folks that work from home distracted from what they should be doing. This work even comes with faux commercials that are sung by the cast. Arnold Sundgaard wrote the libretto for this opera as well and it opened at the Brander Matthews Theater, which used to be on 117th Street.
Gallantry premiered with Dominick Argento’s The Boor that night on March 19, 1958. Since then, this opera has been a favorite for universities to produce. Gallantry has been staged by Columbia University School of Music, UCLA, Immaculate Heart College, Goucher College, University of Michigan, University of Toronto, San Diego State University, Pepperdine University, George Washington University, and the University of Wisconsin. Even professional companies love this work too.
The Detroit Opera was the first professional company to produce Gallantry, also part of a double bill. This time with The Medium by Gain Carlo Menotti. Moore reworked this piece for a television production by CBS on August 30, 1962.
Pamela Ilott produced the production with Martin Carr in the director’s chair. Jan Peerce, a celebrated American tenor hosted the show while the CBS Symphony Orchestra played the score. Starring in the production was Laurel Hurley, Ron Holgate, Charles Anthony, and Martha Wright.
The Florida International Music Festival had their own production in 1967 hosted by the Metropolitan Opera. The Canadian Opera Company had a production in 1977 and the Lake George Opera, based in Saratoga Springs, New York, had one in 1986. The most recent production on record is by the Pocket Opera, based in San Francisco, in 2000.
4. Carry Nation
Based on the title character, this next opera was created on commission by the University of Kansas to celebrate their centennial. W. N. Jayme wrote the libretto, which follows the tale of an American woman who became a powerful force in the temperance movement, which led the successful campaign toward Prohibition, a time when the consumption of alcoholic beverages was deemed illegal by the United States Government.
Besides alcohol, Nation, who spelled her name Carry and Carrie, also opposed women wearing clingy or revealing attire. She was against the corset saying it was harmful to the health of women’s internal organs, and she personally called herself “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus barking at what He doesn’t like.” Carry Nation was also immortalized by Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto which named one of their IPA’s “My Bitter Wife” to in reverence to the prohibitionist. Also in the 1970s movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls there is an all-girl musical group named The Carrie Nations.
The opera Carry Nation opened at Murphy Hall on KU’s campus on March 28, 1966. Several professional opera singers starred in the opening performance with students from the music department playing supporting roles. Robert Baustian conducted while Lewin Goff directed. The first professional company to stage this work was the San Francisco Opera in June of 1966 with Herbert Grossman at the conductor’s stand.
In March of 1968, The New York City Opera held their own production and Carry Nation debuted closer to Douglas Moore’s home. The next year a recording of the New York production was released with Beverly Wolff singing as Nation.
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