pride and prejudice
Opera in Two Acts
Duration: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Libretto in English by the composer
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Singers: 4 Sop, 2 Mz, Alto, Ten, 2 Bar, B-Bar, Bass, chorus
Orchestra: 2222 2210 timp., perc. harp strings
Publisher: G. Schirmer, New York
Concert premiere, Redwood Symphony, 2019
SYNOPSIS: A wealthy and single young man from London, Charles Bingley, has just moved into the Netherfield estate. At a ball he gives for his neighbors, Mrs. Bennet is overjoyed to see that Bingley is attracted to her eldest daughter, Jane. But her second daughter, the witty and independent Elizabeth, is slighted by Bingley's even wealthier friend, the proud and aristocratic Darcy. The spirited courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth — who at first cannot abide one another — is the main story of the opera. They not only misjudge each other, but are both victims of their own pride and prejudices. Only after much sparring and indignant misunderstandings do they come to recognize their own faults and true feelings, and can forgive themselves and each other.
Excerpts from reviews of concert performances
“. . . full of strong and distinctive characters, it has an appealing and emotion-laden plot that’s enhanced by underlining it with music; it’s full of dance and spectacle. This is the very stuff of opera. [Mechem’s] libretto is ingeniously written, often using Austen’s own words and filling in gaps intelligently. [His] music is not only attractive, it’s busy and evocative. Vocal lines often reveal character, as with Mrs. Bennet erupting in peals of ornamental notes at words she wishes to emphasize. The orchestra . . . is an active participant in the plot. Dances at house balls enliven Act I, catching up the vocal lines into [their] lively rhythms. . . . Both composition and performance were a real treat.
— Daily Journal, San Mateo CA
“ . . . It turns out that Austen’s Pride and Prejudice practically begs to be set to music—not slavishly, not without edits and rearrangements, but in a way that explores the text in a new and totally entertaining light. Most striking was the way in which the music coordinated with and then illuminated each character — a spot-on aural representation of the people and universe of the novel. Mrs. Bennet as high soprano? Check. Darcy as graceful yet manly baritone? Also check. Mr. Collins as hilariously imperious bass baritone? Check check check check. . If you think Jane Austen is funny, you’ll think her opera’s funny, too. . . . consider this the Austenacious stamp of approval: we loved what we saw and heard.”
— “Austenacious,” a Jane Austen Society blog
Excerpts from workshop performances
1 Mr. Bingley and friends give a ball at Netherfield Hall, where we meet the Bennet family—father, mother and their three daughters, Jane, Elizabeth and Lydia. Mrs. Bennet is rhapsodic to see Bingley instantly fall in love with Jane. Their friends and townspeople (chorus) observe and comment on Bingley’s arrogant sister and the single and very rich Mr. Darcy: “He must be in want of a wife.”
2 Later in Scene 1 Darcy avoids dancing with Elizabeth, whom he finds only “tolerable.” This opinion is overheard by Elizabeth and her friends, who vent their indignation with a short chorus: “What’s a handsome man to me?”
3 Scene 2: Elizabeth finally agrees to dance with Darcy (a sarabande on a theme by Handel).
4 Scene 3: Mr. Collins, the pompous clergyman, proposes to Elizabeth.
5 Act II, Scene 1: Darcy proposes to a stunned Elizabeth.
6 Act II, Scene 2: Lydia gets ready to follow the regiment to Brighton. (This music is based on the opening of the opera.)
PREFACE TO THE OPERA
Pride and Prejudice
“AN OPERA on Pride and Prejudice?” I’ve been asked. “After all the films, plays and books, who needs an operatic version?” I can answer this question only with a more difficult question: “Why has no one ever dared to write an opera on Pride and Prejudice before?”
It is the most beloved novel in the English language; it has strong and varied characters, humor, opportunities for dancing, for ensembles and scenic beauty, and above all, it is built around one of the most fascinating love stories of all time. These are the hallmarks of opera. While films have the technique to open up action in ways the stage cannot, opera can more powerfully convey the passions and nuances of human emotions. The language of love is music.
Why then, for two centuries, was Pride and Prejudice overlooked by opera composers? Could it be because the soprano doesn’t die? In 19th-century opera that seems to have been obligatory, except for comic operas, which Pride and Prejudice could never have become. In spite of its frequent irony the book has important scenes of anguish and even anger. As Somerset Maugham observed in naming Pride and Prejudice one of the world’s ten greatest novels, Austen “had too much common sense and too sprightly a humor to be a romantic.”
But what about 20th-century English composers? Britten, the most prolific, was interested mainly in the uncommon. Austen was interested in the common, according to Maugham. “She made it uncommon by the keenness of her observation, her irony and her playful wit.”
For American composers, opera — except for Porgy and Bess — was relatively unimportant until the latter half of the 20th century. After Menotti’s post-Puccini period, our composers concentrated on American subjects and idioms. The last quarter of the century saw the rise of what one critic called “CNN operas.” A 200-year-old British love story hardly seemed relevant to American composers and impresarios of that mindset. But I agree with Anna Quindlen: “Jane Austen wrote not of war and peace, but of men, money, and marriage, the battlefield for women of her day and, surely, of our own.”
Another reason 20th-century composers ignored Pride and Prejudice probably had to do with musical style. Austen’s novels are so rooted in their time and place, it is hard to imagine them being sung to atonal or dissonant tonal music. I did not consider this a problem, as I have always tried to respect not only the words themselves but the style in which the original works were written. That is not to say that I have limited myself in this opera to the musical styles of the early 19th century (the novel was published in 1813). While I have imitated certain stylistic characteristics of the period, particularly in the dances, I was writing to engage a 21st century opera audience, which is just another way of saying that I was trying to compose inventive and expressive music that I would like to hear if I were in the audience.
As one would expect, the music of Pride and Prejudice is tonal and melodic, but because the characters and situations are multifarious, so is the music. Like the novel, the opera changes gradually from comedy to poignant drama. Act I is full of gaiety, irony, humor and flirtation. Act II is deeper in feeling, suspense, and the possibility of tragedy before things get sorted out. It comes close to being a “grand opera.” It uses chorus and dancers and sometimes calls for a split stage, i.e., there is occasionally action in both the house and the garden at the same time. The orchestra, however, is only slightly larger than that of a Mozart or Stravinsky opera.
It is not by accident that this is my most lyrical opera. My first three operas are quite different one from another: a satirical comedy (Tartuffe); a historical drama (John Brown); and a comic opera/musical (The Rivals). For my fourth opera I had my heart set on finding a play or novel with a great love story — one which also offered the variety of characters and situations that I always look for. Additionally, I hoped my source would be an American work, preferably from the middlewest where I grew up. But several months’ reading turned up nothing that I thought would make a good opera. Then I happened to see the old 1940 Pride and Prejudice film and a bell rang in my brain. I was not very fond of that adaptation, but it reminded me of how much I loved the book. I immediately read it again and was delighted to find how theatrically Jane Austen set up many of her scenes. (I later learned that her family and friends regularly produced plays at home.) I realized that Pride and Prejudice satisfied all my requirements except for being set in small-town England, not mid-America. I briefly considered transferring the story to America, but quickly realized that would be a great mistake. Can you imagine Darcy as a Kansas cattle baron?
To compress 400 pages of words into two hours of music is daunting. The 1995 television version ran over five hours. My project was so formidable, in fact, that I told no one about it until I had written several scenarios, gradually whittling them down to workable size, then trying out several provisional librettos until I thought I had achieved one short enough to leave room for music. And now that the work is finished, I tremble that hard-core Pride and Prejudice fans — there are millions of them — will not forgive me. I apologize in advance for the necessary cuts, the telescoping of scenes and characters and the occasional rearrangement of locales: in the opera there are only three Bennet daughters, not five; scene 1 does not begin at the Bennets’ house nor at the first assembly. In order to get the action moving quickly, we plunge right into the ball at Netherfield. I have tried to arrange all this so that the important words and actions occur in about the same order as in the novel. I use Jane Austen’s own words wherever possible, only making changes necessary for modern comprehension or in the interest of brevity, or for musical reasons. I also put some of the choral passages into verse. (The chorus represents the townspeople and friends of the Bennets.)
Finally, I want to assure fans of the novel that I love it as much as they do and have tried my best to remain true to its characters and its story. I sorely regret the cuts I had to make. But please remember: only Wagner could get away with five hour operas.
— K. M.