PREFACE TO THE OPERA
After the premiere of my first opera, Tartuffe, the San Francisco Opera sponsored a round-table discussion. The producer, director and a couple of noted composers all wondered why I had dared to begin my operatic career with a comic opera. “That’s so much harder than a tragedy,” they said. I responded in all honesty, “No one told me.”
But after I decided that my second opera would be a serious, historical drama about the American abolitionist, John Brown, I was asked by some of the same people why I hadn’t followed up the great success of Tartuffe with another comic opera. I guess comedy had suddenly become easier.
As it turned out, conventional wisdom was wrong a second time. John Brown took three times as long to compose as the comic Tartuffe, and ten times longer to be produced. I have never regretted that time and effort, however, because I consider John Brown my best work; its premiere was just as successful as Tartuffe’s. Nevertheless, I needed some comic relief, and began to look for another classic comedy.
I wanted this opera to be quite different from Tartuffe — American, if possible — one that would give me a chance to write in the light-hearted idioms of American musicals. I had grown up with the great tunes of Gershwin, Kern, Porter and Rodgers. I tried to imitate them in my own early songs. I liked musical comedies and wrote a couple of bad ones, first in the army, then as a Stanford undergraduate. But as I got to know opera better, I found the comic operas of Mozart and Rossini much more satisfying. Not only were the arias and ensembles more beautiful and musically sophisticated, but I particularly loved the way action and theatrical humor were turned into delightful music. I tried to follow that tradition in Tartuffe, but its musical style was international rather than specifically American.
I failed to discover any suitable classic American comedies, and the popular Broadway works of the 20th century seemed dated or otherwise not right for opera. I widened my search to British plays that could possibly be Americanized and hit upon Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals. It has a brilliant comic story and a rich variety of characters. It takes place in 18th-century Bath, England, where royal titles were wedded to high society money, and it occurred to me that Newport, Rhode Island about 1900 was not only a good American equivalent, but just the sort of flamboyant place and period that would suit opera to a T.
I visited Newport and read about its history, much of which is still evident in the 80-room “cottages” where the Vanderbilts, Astors and their friends sailed, dined and attended balls and horse races. The casino is still there, and from the Newport Historical Society I obtained photographs from the Gilded Age that showed its café open to the lawn tennis court on which the United States championships were first played. (As a former tournament player, I couldn’t resist beginning one of the opera’s scenes with the sound of a bouncing tennis ball.) The casino is a public meeting place; it serves as one of the two main sets in the opera, alternating with the elegant salon of Mrs. Malaprop.
This was the era of the “dollar princesses” but also of their exact opposite, the “Gibson Girl,” made popular in the satirical drawings of Charles Dana Gibson. She was a more independent, modern young woman, seeking personal fulfillment and scorning the role of a traditional debutant looking for a husband from her own wealthy class. In Sheridan’s play, the ingénue is named Lydia Languish, but as I wanted to emphasize her American modernity, I named my Gibson Girl Lydia Larkspur, a feisty young woman with no hint of weakness or dependence.
Several other characters in Sheridan’s play had to change with the time and place, too. I wanted Falkland’s behavior to be a pure example of the egotistical male jealousy that demands total, adoring, unconditional love, impossible for any woman to achieve, so I eliminated the story that he had once saved Julia from drowning. He becomes the insufferable Nicholas Astor. Another transformation changes Bob Acres, Lydia’s rustic suitor, to Jasper Vanderbilt, of the Kentucky Vanderbilts. (There really was a branch of that family in Kentucky.)
The character who changes most is Sheridan’s belligerent Sir Lucius O’Trigger. The stereotype of a militant bully in 1900 America was not an Irishman, but a Prussian, so Sir Lucius becomes the fortune hunter, Baron von Hakenbock. I also gave him an idiosyncrasy borrowed from a character in Sheridan’s next work, The Duenna: he is terrified of marrying a beautiful woman.
But how could I possibly change Sheridan’s greatest character, Mrs. Malaprop, so famous that (like Tartuffe) her name has entered the dictionary. A “malapropism” is any humorous misuse of similar sounding words. Examples can easily be found from Shakespeare (Dogberry) to Yogi Berra and George W. Bush (“Anyone engaging in illegal financial transactions will be caught and persecuted.”) I used as many of Sheridan’s original zingers as I thought appropriate, but two centuries of history and linguistic change have robbed many of them of their humor or meaning. I had fun trying to replace these with my own inventions: “Flatulence will get you nowhere.”
Indeed, writing this libretto and music was sheer fun, and I have been delighted that performers and audiences — even critics — have experienced it in the same spirit. Unlike Molière’s Tartuffe, a funny but moralistic satire, Sheridan’s Rivals is an unapologetic farce. Nevertheless, its humor is based on human character and folly as observed by a genius. (How else can a young man of 22 who writes such a masterpiece be described?) There is plenty of social satire in both play and opera, but at their center is a harmless, ridiculous old lady, not a lecherous swindler posing as a holy man. By today’s standards Sheridan’s dramaturgy is old fashioned; I have changed its structure radically, but the ingenious plot is all Sheridan.
I have often said that diverse characters are crucial to me in choosing a subject for opera. I have come to believe that the main reason — perhaps the only one — for turning a play or novel into an opera is the opportunity for music to make the characters and their actions come alive in a fuller, more palpable existence. The more diverse the characters, the more diverse and interesting the music can be. The right music can tell the listener who the character really is. To smell a rose, to taste a peach, tells us much more than words ever can. So it is with music; it can give us the indefinable essence of a character, which renders descriptive words superfluous. And once a character has been given a musical profile, the composer can vary the music as the character changes. Good operas often demonstrate this technique of variations on a theme, which creates a richer musical experience for the audience, especially if the opera is new. Two hours of unfamiliar music is a lot to digest.
I have sometimes used musical idioms from American popular music in this work, but that does not make it a musical comedy. When I am asked what the difference between a musical and an opera is, I usually answer: musicals are for those who love theater and like music; operas are for those who love music and like theater. But that leaves out the fact that people who go to musicals love music, too — just a different kind of music. A better and shorter definition is this: operas cost money, musicals make money. So if you want to call this comic opera a musical, please go right ahead. And tell all your friends. — K. M.