Since becoming a country in 1776, America has been a major world player with influence all over the world. When it comes to opera though, America got a late start. After all, opera had been performed in other countries like Italy and France for hundreds of years before America was even founded. Despite making it to the show late, Americans have forged a strong opera tradition that reflects the values that the country is built on. What better way to celebrate July 4th than to watch operas that are as American as apple pie. Here are some of the best operas America has to offer.
1. Porgy and Bess
While Porgy and Bess does have some spoken parts, when you hear to some of its most popular and challenging arias like “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Summertime” there’s no doubt that this show deserves the title of opera and a place among America’s historic, artistic productions. Adapted from the Dubose Heyward’s novel, Porgy, this opera has been a popular and controversial show since it first premiered in 1935.
Porgy and Bess is the story of Porgy, a disabled beggar, in Charleston, South Carolina. The setting is a run-down area on the waterfront called “Catfish Row.” After a murder, Bess is abandoned and left looking for somewhere to stay. Everyone on Catfish Row rejects her except for Porgy, and that’s where this story takes off. This Gershwin opera about transformative love has been seen all over the world but is a controversial show today.
2. Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck is one of America’s most beloved authors, so it makes sense that one of his novels was adapted into one of America’s best operas. It’s no surprise that this opera turned into something special since its foundation was in Steinbeck’s gritty realism and built upon with a score and libretto by Carlisle Floyd.
Since it debuted in 1970, Of Mice and Men has been performed all over the United States and more recently across the world. The story of George and Lenny’s struggles during The Great Depression has touched people for decades and seeing it in Opera only enhances the pain and beauty of the original story. While Of Mice and Men is not Floyd’s most famous work, it is certainly one of his best.
One reason why people may not know about Floyd’s Of Mice and Men is that they know him for his more famous wotrSusannah. Full of American folk music and themes and set in the Appalachia mountains where America first flourished, Susannah, is a truly American opera.
Susannah is set in the Tennessee Appalachian Mountains during a time when Tennessee was on the frontier of America. Susannah Polk is an innocent 18-year-old girl who is falsely accused of trying to seduce an elder in her town. Susannah does her best to fight the accusation, but the atmosphere of the town and her poor social standing as a young woman work against her. Since this opera was written in the 1950’s some believe that it’s meant to show the dangers of McCarthyism which was running rampant in America at the time. No matter what Floyd’s intentions were, Susannah is a moving story and one of the best operas America has to offer.
Just like Susannah, Treemonisha is an opera full of the culture and music that was at the foundation of America’s culture today. Scott Joplin wrote the score and libretto in the early 20th century, but the opera wasn’t fully performed until 1972. Since then it has become one of America’s most famous operas, despite being considered a ragtime opera by some.
Although Joplin was known for his ragtime piano pieces, he based the score of Treemonisha on operas he heard at the Metropolitan Opera and European operas. Treemonisha is based on a character of the same name during the period after the American Civil War. Treemonisha is one of the few educated people in her community of former slaves in the South. Her knowledge clashes with the superstition and greed of others in her community and her struggle is the basis of this opera.
While Leonora may not be as well-known as the other operas on this list, it certainly deserves a place here since it’s considered the first grand opera written by an American, William Henry Fry. Although Leonora was written and performed early on in American history, its story and themes are distinctly American.
Although this opera has a distinct place in American history, it is heavily influenced by other opera traditions. The story is based on an Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel, but the story of overcoming adversity through hard work and creating a name for yourself align with America’s most cherished values. Despite being set in Spain and influenced by other opera traditions, Leonora paved the way for American operas for years to come.
Happy 4th of July everybody!