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  • The Great American Opera:Klinghoffer, Streetcar, and the Exception
  • Lawrence Kramer (bio)

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel? . . . Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.


A wild, mystical, sympathetic feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine. . . . [The] whale in question must have been no other than Moby Dick.


Like Hamlet's cloud, American opera today is very like a whale—make that a white whale—except when it's not. No two instances are really alike, which is a good sign that the genre is alive and reasonably well. Yet only one American opera has achieved anything like the popularity and prestige of the great European exemplars, and that one is hardly new, though its prestige is recent. It is, of course, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which stands to its successors much as another belatedly canonized work, Melville's Moby-Dick, does to its literary heirs. The Great American Opera, like the Great American Novel, is inimitable: a deeply problematical masterwork, epic and epochal, that both inspires and frustrates emulation. These works do not so much set an agenda as symbolize an agenda that has long since been set for a host of deep-seated cultural reasons. It is an agenda that conjoins specific narrative and aesthetic characteristics with questions of national character that have animated and bedeviled American high-cultural discourse from its earliest beginnings. In what follows I seek to examine that agenda in a pair of distinguished and problematical recent operas: André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998) and John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer (1991).

On the surface these two works are strikingly different, and that is a part of my point. Their differences are real and polar enough to highlight several key issues surrounding current American opera in high-profile venues. But the [End Page 66] differences also tend to mask an underlying continuity that is independent of overt style and subject matter. This continuity is a matter of attitude, custom, tradition, and ideology; it is not controlled by the conscious intentions of the composer, librettist, or director. It traces its lineage to the worlds of American literature and theater, which established their iconic power and prestige value long before American opera did—if indeed it has—and on which much recent operatic writing conspicuously depends.

It is no accident that a short list of recent high-profile American operas is topped by Mark Adamo's Little Women, John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, William Bolcom's McTeague and A View from the Bridge, Scott Eyerly's The House of Seven Gables, Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, and Previn's Streetcar. Go back a few more years and the list includes Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers, Thomas Pasatieri's Washington Square, Lee Hoiby's Summer and Smoke, Philip Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher, and Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, among others. The ambition of these works depends in no small part on the specifically national illustriousness of the names Fitzgerald, Williams, Miller, Norris, Alcott, James, Poe, Hawthorne, Dreiser, and Steinbeck. The list can also accommodate Toni Morrison, whose libretto for Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner concerns the same historical incident that inspired her novel Beloved. At this moment in its history, American opera is often the village storyteller writ large.

Not always, of course—the whale is a camel, too, and the scene is diverse—but often. The list keeps growing: prominent recent additions include Ned Rorem's Our Town, Lowell Liebermann's Miss Lonelyhearts, and Ricky Ian Gordon's The Grapes of Wrath, all of which compete with classic films as well as classic texts. As movies do, opera in America today often stakes its artistic claims on the reproduction of an older literary work. With opera in particular, the work comes more often than not from the national canon. The opera tells the story of America by retelling one of America's stories; tragic stories, for the most part, but with a particular form that, as we'll see, supports a national mythology that the operas...


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