Keith Cerny
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The Dallas Opera's Riverboat Adventure

Keith Cerny on why a Great American Musical like Show Boat, rich with the deepest and most treacherous waters of the American experience, warrants treatment on the operatic stage.

published Sunday, August 2, 2015


Dallas — As most readers know, The Dallas Opera will be presenting the first American musical in its distinguished 58-year history this upcoming season: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat, in the Francesca Zambello production that originated at the Chicago Lyric. Single tickets are now on sale, and there is already significant buzz around the April, 2016 production.

As we busily prepare for this production over the summer, I am frequently asked several questions. Why would an opera company produce a musical? Why choose this one? And what does this musical tell us about changes in American society since its premiere at the height of the “Roaring Twenties”?

Programming a musical has been a significant priority for me for most of my time in Dallas, and has been a subject of regular conversation at our Executive Board meetings. Because of the long planning horizon for opera, it often takes three to four years to move any project from concept to stage. (It took almost exactly four years to bring Joby Talbot’s and Gene Scheer’s world premiere of Everest to the Winspear, and even longer than that for our 2015-2016 season opener, Jake Heggie’s and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott). In fact, we are already actively working on some specific programming ideas for the 2020-21 season—a full five seasons in the future!

Photo: Universal Pictures
The 1936 film Show Boat, with Hattie McDaniel and Paul Robeson

As readers of this column know from some of my past postings, our programming strategy at The Dallas Opera is now centered around a core of two popular classics each year, which also make ideal operas to simulcast to Klyde Warren Park and AT&T Stadium. Included in each season is a “neglected gem”—i.e. a work that will be new to many audiences; for the 2014-2015 Season, this selection was a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, conducted by TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume. Rounding out the remaining two productions in a five-production season each year is a selection from commissions, lesser-known works by established opera composers, 20th/21st century works, and, from time to time, great American musicals.

Musicals are an extremely important addition to TDO’s lineup, as they help us to reach out to new audiences who are not familiar with opera; over time, we hope to inspire audiences who enjoy musicals, but are new to opera, to attend our opera productions as well. While we are completely committed to presenting opera (we are an opera company, after all!), producing a musical of this standard will also enable us to stretch TDO’s brand. As I have noted before, one of my tests of the quality of an opera company is its ability to perform works from a wide range of periods and compositional styles to international standards. Musicals also allow TDO to partner with other organizations and artists in the community; in the recent single ticket sale announcement and launch, we have been working closely with the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which presents a highly popular Broadway series, to market the tickets.

At the same time, we want to proceed cautiously with our programming of musicals, since other organizations in the Metroplex present, and in some cases, produce, musicals (e.g. AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway series, Dallas Summer Musicals), not to mention the Dallas Theater Center and Lyric Stage. Not least, producing a musical gives The Dallas Opera the opportunity to present superb singers in a lavish production that contrasts elegantly with our premieres and operatic classics this season.

Having decided (in concept) to present a musical, and with the support of TDO’s Executive Committee, I made the selection of Show Boat very carefully; there’s a lot of tempting choices out there, including many Rodgers and Hammerstein productions—such as my personal favorite, South Pacific, which has some of the most consistently memorable music ever written.

Show Boat, which premiered on Broadway in 1927, is a musical of great historical importance. By design, it was the first musical to address social issues and inequities, rather than to provide merely another “feel good” evening in the theater. (It has thrived for decades in multiple productions, of course, because it is also great entertainment). Its original creative partnership was truly a “dream team”: an original story written by Edna Ferber in one of her finest novels, produced by famous impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld, book and lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein II, and music composed by Jerome Kern. Renowned British-American humorist P.G. Wodehouse even contributed to the lyrics. It’s a compelling story, which skillfully blends timeless themes (e.g. young love, parents’ rejection of children’s romantic choices, romantic abandonment) and more production-specific ones (e.g. racism, poverty and the oppression of African-Americans, alcoholism, as well as fundamental questions about racial identity).

Perhaps most importantly, Show Boat tackles important social issues onstage in a powerfully subversive way, burying potent lyrics behind beautiful melodies. Take the iconic song of the production, which is arguably “Ol’ Man River.” (Some might advocate for “Make Believe” or “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man”; when sincerely performed, Julie’s song “Bill” is also incredibly moving). Buried in the song are the following lines that make it clear that serious issues of racial oppression lie just below the genteel surface:


Colored folks work on the Mississippi
Colored folks work while the white folks play
Pullin’ those boats from the dawn till sunset
gettin’ no rest till the Judgment Day.
Don’t look up, and don’t look down
You don’t dast make the white boss frown
Bend your knees and bow your head
and pull that rope until you’re dead


I think readers will agree that these are not exactly throwaway lines. To avoid the risk of “sugar coating” the experience of African-Americans in the storyline, we are being careful to preserve the “Misery” sequence. In addition to providing some of the best choral music in the entire musical, this sequence includes the lyrics “Misery’s comin’ around”—dispelling any thought that the opening scenes of the musical on the boating dock are set in an idyllic world.

I should also note that Edna Ferber’s original novel has been adapted into three different films in four different versions. The first film version was produced by Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, and premiered in 1929—based only on the book, not the musical. It appeared in two different forms: a silent version, and a part-talkie with a sound prologue. Laemmle had been dissatisfied with the original film, and wanted a “mulligan.” The new film, which includes several members of the original Broadway cast and was directed by James Whale (Frankenstein), was begun in 1935 and released in 1936. A third version was released in 1951, which downplayed many of the 1936 version’s attempt to portray the serious plight of the African-Americans (for example, this version drops the line from “Ol’ Man River,” noted above, beginning “Don’t look up and don’t look down”).



One reason that the 1936 film gradually fell from popularity, and the new film was conceived, was the role of actor Paul Robeson (see video above), both onstage and off. Paul Robeson, who played the stevedore Joe, sang “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 film, and in four separate stage productions over the course of his career. As an African-American, he undoubtedly faced discrimination in the movie world, despite his intelligence, his distinguished athletic career, and his considerable singing and acting talents. In a truly cruel twist, he was also “blacklisted” during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, which all but guaranteed that the 1936 film in which he appeared so prominently would be suppressed; in fact, this version of the film was not widely seen again until after Robeson’s death in 1976. I think it is safe to say that Ferber, who died in 1968, could never have guessed when she wrote the novel that Show Boat would wind up steering such a turbulent course through—not only issues of racial oppression—but also through issues surrounding free speech, McCarthyism, and anti-communism.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, and Show Boat is again steaming into new territory. (Actually, period showboats were guided up river by a tugboat, but why split hairs?). This great work of the American musical theater has found new life in recent years at American opera companies including the Chicago Lyric, Washington National, and San Francisco—often with the shared goal of serving as a “gateway” to attract new audiences. As any reader of news headlines will know, many of the social issues found in the original book, are, sadly, still with us. Still, it is a rare treat to be able to enjoy one of the great musicals of all time in Dallas, while reflecting on where American society has improved, and where it has not, over the last nearly 90 years. At TDO, we are encouraging our patrons to let us take them on an adventure in the upcoming season; we’re truly confident that they will enjoy their ride along the Mississippi on Captain Andy’s showboat, the Cotton Blossom.


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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The Dallas Opera's Riverboat Adventure
Keith Cerny on why a Great American Musical like Show Boat, rich with the deepest and most treacherous waters of the American experience, warrants treatment on the operatic stage.
by Keith Cerny

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