To the Editor:
In “Opera USA” [July-August], Terry Teachout states that Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah is not suitable for big opera houses. But I have heard it performed effectively a number of times in the barn-like New York State Theater and two years ago in the huge Chicago Lyric Opera house. The problem in New York was that the conductor, James Conlon, drowned out the singers and generally directed the piece as though it were Richard Strauss’s Elektra rather than a basically light, lyrical, and relatively minor work.
Mr. Teachout may wish to consider what I see as a fundamental problem with modern operas, whether American or foreign. Most great operas are based on love stories—grand passions fulfilled or thwarted. The geniuses who wrote these works could understand and feel these passions. In our own ironic age, people simply do not fall in love with the intensity and even the madness of earlier times, so we have instead operas about Nixon in China or Gandhi in South Africa.
A friend of mine has likened grand opera to Latin: a dead language that can still be read with pleasure but is now difficult to write well. Until passionate love reasserts itself, I fear that no more great operas will be written.
Robert W. Wilson
New York City
To the Editor:
In Terry Teachout’s discussion of American opera, one misses any mention of Marc Blitzstein’s Regina. Mr. Teachout refers only to the composer’s The Cradle Will Rock, correctly pegging it as “left-wing agitprop,” more politics than music. Blitz-stein surely thought he was tearing up the capitalist turf in Regina as well, but he produced a gorgeous and compelling tragedy on terms more human than political, and the music all but made it so.
Clayton H. Farnham
Terry Teachout writes:
Robert W. Wilson may be right about Susannah—I did not see the other productions to which he refers—but I suspect the question of its “size” has as much to do with the homespun subject matter as the slightly overblown scoring. As for Mr. Wilson’s strictures about the place of romantic love in grand opera, I am inclined to agree, except that I think he means “postmodern” rather than “modern.” Prior to the rise of minimalism, many of the best opera composers of the 20th century were very nearly as preoccupied with love as their predecessors. Of course there were well-known exceptions, most notably Benjamin Britten, but even Britten was dealing with passion in such operas as Billy Budd or Owen Wingrave.
As for The Cradle Will Rock, it is agitprop and then some, but it is musically memorable in its brusquely jazzy way, something I find not to be true of Regina. Perhaps the fault is mine, since other connoisseurs of American opera have had good things to say about Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. A good production might change my mind.