Rorem’s Melodic Microcosm

“Our Town” premieres in Saratoga Springs, on 4th of July no less

If your idea of “Now Voyager” is a camp Bette Davis smoker about a uni-browed spinster, a fashion make-over, and not asking for the moon (when you’ve got the stars), with a lush Max Steiner soundtrack, lend me your ear and I’ll clue you in on that score. The score of the “Now,Voyager” I refer to here is one section of a monumental choral work, based on the Great White Queer Poet Walt Whitman’s epic “Goodbye, My Fancy,” set to music by Gotham’s premiere candidly queer composer and living landmark, Ned Rorem.

In fact, Whitman’s poems seem to have been waiting in anticipation for Rorem to give them expansive aural flight in his concert settings. “Goodbye, My Fancy” still awaits a landmark recording, 16 years after premiering with the Chicago Symphony. However, in the current era of the recording industry, it may not be until Rorem’s in his gay 90s that we’ll get one! In the meanwhile, Rorem, whom Time magazine calls “the world’s best composer of art songs,” has a large body of concert songs, including “The Lordly Hudson,” “Early in the Morning,” and “How Do I Love You,” already part of the American canon. Personally, if I were the plutocratic mayor, instead of Bloomberg, I’d declare “The Lordly Hudson” New York’s official anthem.

Naxos’ American Classics has just released the world premiere recording of his elegiac “Pilgrims” (1958) for string orchestra and the Flute Concerto (2002) conducted by Jose Serebrier. The first piece has nothing to do with the founding fathers, but is a fantasia inspired by Julien Green’s novel, “Pilgrim’s on the Earth.” The concerto for flute has open-hearted, dance-like segments, with names such as “Leaving-Traveling-Hoping,” “False Waltz,” and most appropriately, “Siren Song.” Any choreographer with even a semi-refined ear wouldn’t be able to resist these pieces.

Today, a youthful silver fox of 82, with a Pulitzer prize and Grammy under his belt, Rorem can execute a yoga head-stand at the drop of a hat, and is as prolific as ever, teaching composition and recently attending the professional world premiere of his opera version of the all-American play, “Our Town.”

Apart from Rorem’s musical legacy, he is famous as a spicy diarist and essayist on the music world. Rorem has been an arbiter of styles in art and life, long before the Fab Five, and years before the Stonewall revolution. His “Paris” and “New York Diaries”(1951-1961, re-issued by Da Capo Press), with their open, unapologetic tracking of mid-century culture—queer and otherwise—were an early harbinger of the gay liberation movement. The urbane frankness of Rorem’s published diaries made gay readers feel empowered and less marginalized. Edmund White admits that Rorem, “is among the handful of living writers whom I write for and love to read.”

Many of the prominent Republican bloviators who declaim “family values” or community standards in their arguments supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, would be surprised to discover that the quintessential American classic, “Our Town” was actually written by a gay playwright. Another queer, composer Aaron Copeland, wrote the haunting score for the popular 1940 film version. Over the July 4th holiday, Thornton Wilder’s existential reverie on the cycle of life, love, and loss in Grover’s Corners, translated into opera form by Ned Rorem, had its professional world premiere by the Lake George Opera. It was presented at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), in the Spa Little Theater, a small Greek temple-like venue that is ideal for this intimate and cosmic work.

When poet/librettist J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy—half of the power couple that includes bright book designer Chip Kidd—managed to get permission from the author’s nephew, Tappan Wilder, literary executor of the author’s estate, he then campaigned energetically to convince Rorem, doyen of American concert song, to sign on as composer.

“Once [Wilder] agreed to my proposal, it was obvious that Ned had to be convinced to undertake the music,” the poet explained. “As a master of vocal writing, with a passion for classic American texts, he was a natural fit. And indeed, his music, while giving the orchestra the melodic lead in the score, cannily preserves for the vocal lines a theatrical openness and spontaneity that ‘translate’ the play’s nuances and pathos.”

Of course, it’s a great open secret that the author of the classic play about family values that is such a cherished staple of school stages all across the country, was gay. As playwright Paula Vogel observes, “Wilder…is the last private writer of the twentieth century…and was the last writer not subjected to the analytic couch of theater critics.” How fascinating, that his towering works, “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth,” take place in the two locations in American life where there is neither privacy or acceptance from deviation—the small town and the suburban tract—places where “almost everybody in the world gets married.” It seems poetic justice that in a time of (another) Republican-fueled culture war, Ned Rorem, our most unapologetically queer composer should get main dibs at setting the American standard to his unique style of music—generous, searching, effusive, elegiac and open-hearted—as opposed to the current prevailing mean-spirited divisiveness defining our country now.

The fact that Wilder’s play is such a beloved staple of professional and amateur theater groups might give any composer pause over tackling it in musical form, especially for an ambitious opera production. Although Wilder’s comedy “The Matchmaker” proved a hit on Broadway transformed into “Hello Dolly” by Jerry Herman, the playwright was more protective of “Our Town;” after all, the denizens of Grover’s Corners aren’t as easily translatable to singing parts as Dolly Levi making a grand entrance on a staircase at the Harmonia Gardens. Be that as it may, Rorem’s generous, open-hearted score is so much more than background music, and actually aids in expanding on its various themes and characterizations, growing richer and more complex as the work progresses to its achingly poignant apotheosis; the composer can evoke evening and moonlight as effortlessly as Ravel.

Rorem easily weaves a traditional hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past” into the opening funeral procession, as well as quoting wittily from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the festive close of Emily and George’s wedding ceremony. As in Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” the chorus of townsfolk serves pretty much as another character, and is expertly placed in the concerted passages with the soloists. The scenes between those juvenile leads were sung by tenor Vale Rideout as a convincingly callow George Gibbs, and soprano Sarah Paige Hagstrom was a down-to-earth Emily Webb, whose farewell aria on returning to her grave, “Oh earth, you are too magical for any one to know your miracle…” resonates with the heart-felt yearning that anyone familiar with the story is entitled to hope for; even if Hagstrom’s unstinting delivery tended to rattle the plaster of the Spa Little Theater’s excellent sound chamber. The size of this auditorium is ideally suited to Nelson Sheeley’s spare, period-style production.

In the pivotal role of the Stage Manager, tenor Robert Swenson took solid command as guide and commentator, in a gracious and unobtrusive performance; bass Eric D. Johnson sang movingly as Dr. Gibbs, and tenor Kurt Allakulppi played the role of the ambiguous, melancholy alcoholic misfit, Simon Stimson with admirable quiet desperation. (Was being queer in a small town at the root of his sadness?) The conductor, Mark D. Flint did a fine job in bringing out all the subtle felicities of Rorem’s orchestration, and kept the spell of the music unbroken through all three acts.

The Lake George Opera should be proud to be the first professional company to bring Rorem’s capolavoro to the public. “Our Town,” the opera, certainly deserves to be mounted perennially in cities and on festival circuits wherever audiences flock to discover the miracles that Wilder found concealed in “the smallest events of our daily life.” It’s a wonderful, life-affirming work, which should prove a boon to opera lovers everywhere, regardless of state color or sexual orientation.

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