Dallas — For much of his career, American composer Ned Rorem, now 95, was relegated by the musical establishment to the critical gulag of “neo-romanticism,” far from the self-proclaimed mainstream of atonality and extreme academicism. Similarly, the works of playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, who died in 1975, have slipped onto a lower shelf in the literary canon, not so much in spite of, but largely because of the immense popularity of his play Our Town as a piece de resistance for amateur and regional theater companies, and as a standard item, back when this critic was young, for study in high school literature classes.
Rorem adapted Our Town as an opera in 2006; the beautifully staged, superbly sung and acted production now in an all-too-short run at the Bob Hope Theatre of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, asserts without a doubt the genius of both composer and playwright.
One element of the ongoing appeal of Our Town as a play has been its susceptibility to creative staging, a trait neatly exploited by the creative team of director-producer Hank Hammett, a member of the Meadows faculty, and a trio of graduate students at the Meadows School: scenic designer Amy Poe, costume designer Yvonne Johnson, and lighting designer Lindsay Silva. This production opens with an ugly jumble of chairs in the center of the stage, from which the townspeople of Grovers Corner create organization—a profound statement of the way in which human communities create order out of chaos. The chorus, appropriately clad in early 20th-century rural and small-town attire, moves in blocs suggesting the omnipresent, sometimes oppressive power of community that anyone who has ever lived in a small town or a tight-knit urban community can recognize.
Rorem and his librettist, J.D. McClatchy, necessarily trimmed some elements of the play (most notably principal character Emily’s younger brother, who is absent from the opera). The opera and this production likewise cast a slightly stronger emphasis than the original play on two minor characters. Mrs. Soames, the town gossip, cleverly costumed by designer Johnson in garish attire (suggesting that she belongs to a higher social class), transforms through the opera into an intriguingly sympathetic character, with her character brilliantly enlivened by mezzo-soprano Alyssa Barnes. Likewise, the operatic version invites the viewer to look more closely at the character of the choir director Simon Stimson, surely a channeling by Wilder (clearly recognizable to McClatchy and Rorem) of the lonely plight of the isolated artist in traditional American culture, and, if the viewer so wishes, of the marginalized, closeted homosexual in the American hinterland as well. Tenor Reed Mullican took on that complex role with the appropriate combination of anger and resignation.
Tenor Matthew Corcoran towered vocally and dramatically with a luxuriant vocal quality in the demanding narrating role of the Stage Manager, giving the part a touching nostalgic aura. Bass Prosper Makhanya, mezzo-soprano Olivia Duncan, baritone Tshilidzi Ndou, and mezzo-soprano Elleka Okerstrom turned in solid performances of upright citizens Dr. Gibbs, Mrs. Gibbs, Mr. Webb, and Mrs. Webb, respectively. Tenor Ndumiso Nyoka performed the role of George Gibbs with a beautifully clear voice and winningly earnest stage presence. But the most impressive performance came from soprano Claire Dillahunty, musically and dramatically perfect in the central role of Emily Webb. (Many of these performers will be seen in these roles on Saturday; the cast at the Friday and Sunday performances is different.)
The chorus, showcased in the gorgeous settings of traditional hymns with which Rorem decorates the score, produced a striking variety of tones, from the emphatic opening of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” to the tender lucidity of “Love Divine.” The crucial placement of hymn tunes is just one example of the inspired musical strategies with which Rorem enhanced and elucidated Wilder’s themes, combining an unashamed lyricism, subtle dissonance, and a brilliant array of orchestral colors. This score also underlines Rorem’s position as one of the greatest of all composers of music for the voice.
The Meadows Opera Orchestra performed with flawless precision under conductor Paul Phillips, who guided the combined forces through this complex but melodic score with sure momentum and insight. In the play Our Town, Wilder communicated awe of the beauty of everyday life, and sorrow at human incapacity to completely realize that beauty; Emily encapsulates this in her climactic realization that human life is “too magical for anyone to know your miracle.”
One could easily come away from this production with the sense that Rorem’s operatic version is a masterpiece of American music, and that the gently molded profundity of the original material makes the play worthy of its rank as an icon of American literature.