Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Our Town opens Saturday at Suffolk University’s Modern Theater. This operatic adaptation of a classic play by Thornton Wilder features a score by Ned Rorem and a libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Although the opera was co-commissioned by the late Opera Boston and had a well-received premiere at Indiana University Opera Theater in 2006, Opera Boston fell victim to the Great Recession before its own production could launch, so its disappointed artistic director Gil Rose mounted the opera at the site of the mythical Grovers Corners for Monadnock Music in August, 2013 [review here]. Tufts Opera performed a scaled-down version in 2009, but BOC’s production is technically the opera’s Boston premiere.
The Intelligencer sat down with Our Town’s music and stage directors, Jean Anderson Collier and Greg Smucker.
BC: How are rehearsals going?
GS: I think it’s going to be a terrific show not only musically, but also emotionally and dramatically.
JAC: The parts that I was able to see last night were really beautiful.
The line between who does what in opera direction is sometimes fluid; how have the two of you divided the direction duties?
GS: Usually in our productions the music director (Jean) will work with the singers first, but Jean and I worked together for many years at New England Conservatory in the Opera Department. We have an easy and compatible working relationship, and agree in how we approach music dramatically. Occasionally we’ll have moments where we disagree and want to discuss what a moment is, but it’s usually worked out pretty quickly.
Our Town is not as wide open of a story as our last production, Rinaldo, was—there’s not as much room for reinterpretation. I don’t think we’ve had even lengthy discussions or arguments over a particular dramatic moment.
JAC: One of the things I love working with Greg is that he thinks pretty much the same way the whole time. For this particular show, it’s a very profound but simple show – it doesn’t lend itself to many interpretations. What you see is what you get!
GS: Often, what will happen if I’m having difficulty with a dramatic moment onstage, is that Jean will have a musical insight that solves it. Sometimes it happens vice-versa.
This is a difficult score. If they’re having trouble motivating a particular musical moment, I can sometimes offer a dramatic suggestion that will help them wrap their minds around how to make the music work.
How many weeks did you have to rehearse the cast?
GS: I think we had two weeks of music-only rehearsal, then five weeks with staging.
That’s the opposite of the general industry trend.
JAC: Music rehearsals continued during the staging process. There are always parts in our rehearsals where you stop and take things apart musically before you put it back together.
GS: Staging rehearsals for us are actually music and staging rehearsals. Often, we’ll spend a third to a half of the rehearsal on music: stopping and fixing things, working on ensembles…
JAC: Particularly with this score. There are a lot of rhythmically difficult things, and the kids can’t do anything staging-wise if they don’t have that down. If they’re too distracted, we can just stop and fix it.
GS: We’re approaching music and drama at the same time, which makes it a more integrative process—especially for our younger singers.
Opera is sometimes an approximate art—you have people who’ve done the role before, who do it the way they always do it; you get productions that are done using sets that have been seen before; it sometimes doesn’t come to a fine point so much. But we’re trying to tell great stories through well-rehearsed shows, with some terrifically talented young singers. By being able to do that, we’re able to draw in new audiences as well as people who are old fans of opera.
JAC: At BOC, we’re usually working with younger singers who are still learning the craft, even though they’re young professionals. I think it’s so advantageous for them to be able to dig into the staging at this level of depth. When they get into the higher professional world, they don’t get that, so that when they are in the professional world they can come to the table with a lot already about how you prepare a role. We give them a lot of education for their development.
Tell me a little about the process of engaging with Ned Rorem’s score. This is a piece that was co-commissioned by six opera organizations, including the late Opera Boston, which didn’t get around to producing it before its closure. It hasn’t been performed a great deal, so it’s not part of the classical repertoire that your singers often come in knowing. Does this add any particular constraints?
GS: We would do the same thing for Handel and Mozart as we would for Rorem: make sure that we’re giving the music its due in terms of the amount of time we put into it. Because our singers are often in their 20s and early 30s, they often know, but haven’t sung onstage the roles that they’re cast in with BOC. There is, perhaps, more learning the role as part of a process…
I do think this is harder music than what they’re used to, both rhythmically and by not being the kind of music they’ve sung a lot before. It’s hard to memorize!
JAC: There are a lot of rhythmic challenges. Throughout the entire score, Rorem uses hemiola almost half the time, where the meter is not the same as the grouping of notes. This makes it very challenging for the singers and hard to memorize! The orchestra is always leading them to think the orchestra is here, when it’s not. The music is also amorphous a lot—it’s kind of talky, particularly the Stage Manager’s music. This makes it not intuitive to memorize…
It’s not atonal music, but the pitches are also not intuitive sometimes. The music is very angular; Rorem uses a lot of large intervals, particularly tritones, that singers don’t sing all the time. It creates problems in terms of passaggio…
It’s also in English, which creates problems often, because singers don’t necessarily sing them the way they should, they sing them the way they speak them. They always need to remind themselves [in this production] to sing good Italian vowels, even though they’re singing in English. That’s why in the recordings that I’ve heard of this opera, the singers didn’t sing as well as they probably would in other repertoire – it’s very easy to lose track of any one of these elements in a given phrase.
Before I worked with these singers on it, I thought that the singers on recordings of Our Town were just not very good. When I did work start working with our singers, though, I realized, “Oh – it’s hard music to sing.”
GS: Lest we give the audiences the wrong idea, the music is very approachable from a listener’s point of view. It’s very conversational and it tells the story well, but to make it sound effortless takes a lot of work.
JAC: It’s not atonal, so the audience doesn’t come away with a sense that it sounds like your typical modern music—but it’s very sophisticated in terms of the challenges, even though it doesn’t look like it on paper. I didn’t know what I was in for until I started working on it.
This opera is adapted from a very famous and frequently performed play. In any adaptation, a lot gets cut out in adapting the drama. Did you work at all with Thornton Wilder’s original play, or stay with the score and the libretto?
GS: We’ve stayed pretty faithfully to the score and the libretto. We’re aware of and have studied the original play, but we’ve deviated strongly from its original scenic conventions of a bare stage and ladders. Because the play is so famous, what seemed startling and modern when the play first came out now seems sort of expected and unsurprising—almost cliché. Our scenic design still retains a sense of simplicity to it and fluidness that the original has and that the opera suggests, but people won’t see the play’s typical scenic setup.
We’ve cut one interlude because we’re performing Acts I and II without an intermission, but otherwise we’ve been quite faithful to the score. We haven’t added back anything from the play to the opera.
JAC: Although we did change the role of Stage Manager from a male role to a female role (we got permission for that from Ned Rorem). At BOC, we need to provide roles for our singers, and we realized that the role fit well in a female voice, and we had lots of female roles to fill…Ned Rorem gave his approval and wanted a recording of that.
None of the roles in this opera are tied to a traditional fach—they go high and low, but sit in the middle a lot. We often had to wrestle during casting with who would sing things best; there are lots of places where a mezzo, say, would sing a high B-flat, or a soprano a low A. For the Stage Manager role, it has all the above—so we chose two sopranos who we felt had good middle voices, and had the dramatic skill to carry off that role.
If you were telling an opera novice about why she should see this show, what are some of the draws?
GS: They’ll see a beautiful production and a story that has a timeless value. They’ll find an operatic production that is, I think, really accessible without being overly sentimental or clichéd or too easy. Wilder refused to allow the play to be produced as a musical, even though he had a lot of offers for it. The play can tend towards sentimentality, exhorting human beings to be aware of life from moment to moment, rather than be “caught up in boxes” as one character says. That could’ve developed into a trite, clichéd musical score, but Rorem’s put together a score that’s accessible but also complicated in nice ways. It preserves the poignancy of the story without making it maudlin. He allows for the depth of the story and the ideas in Wilder’s original storytelling to come through beautifully.
Novices to opera will find a really accessible opera, but it won’t sound like something they’ve heard before. I think it’ll be a new musical experience.
JAC: I think a lot of people think about opera as fraught with extreme highs and depths and things like that. When I first encountered this show, I thought, “How can you make an opera out of a play that’s so-
JAC: Yes, ordinary. In fact, that’s kind of what’s refreshing about the opera. Rorem manages to capture the ordinary without making it fraught or boring.
GS: Opera has to reduce the original story a lot whenever there’s an adaptation of a play. The action moves along really well.
What do serious opera fans—we’ll define them here as people who might be patronizing Boston Opera Collaborative and Boston Lyric Opera shows, and going down to the Met – have to look forward to? How does this opera compare to the impressions they might have of the music of Ned Rorem, who has a few infamous nicknames in voice studios like “Bore ‘em Rorem”?
GS: (laughs) I don’t know how to answer that one.
JAC: People who are familiar with Rorem’s The Fables, which is sometimes classified as an opera or a bunch of little operas, is probably the only thing that the serious opera fans would have to compare it to. He is, after all, a song composer first and foremost…
With this opera, it’s unmistakably Rorem in terms of the tonalities and intervallic combinations, but because there’s a story it works well. An audience that is very well-versed in traditional opera will find something new and interesting. You’d normally think, “This wouldn’t make a good opera,” but it does. I think they’ll be intrigued.
GS: We also have some extremely talented young singers, and part of our mission is to provide opportunities for audiences to have extremely intimate experiences with opera. In the Modern Theater’s 160 seats, no one is more than 6 or 7 rows from the stage. They’ll have a closer opera experience, which allows them to be involved in the story in much more intensely.