Wednesday , June 19 2024
American One Acts - little OPERA theatre of ny
Photo by Tina Buckman

Opera Review: ‘American One Acts’ – ‘Highway 1, USA’ by William Grant Still, ‘Down in the Valley’ by Kurt Weill

What is “American” opera? Can we even define such a thing, when – nativist rhetoric aside – the U.S. is a fundamentally composite nation?

One thing we can do is look to works written with the express intention of appealing to English-speaking audiences who may be put off by classic European opera’s foreign languages, culturally alien plots and/or sheer lengths. The little OPERA theatre of ny, in association with Harlem Opera Theater and National Black Theatre, is staging lively productions of two such operas right now: Highway 1, USA by William Grant Still and Down in the Valley by Kurt Weill.

Both composers can be considered, in one way or another, outsiders in mainstream America. In spite of that – or maybe because of it – a plausible claim can be made for each of these mini-operas as quintessentially American.

High Hopes by the Highway

Before the recent and ongoing revival of the music of 20th-century African American composers like Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still (1895–1978) was the one African American with a steady place in the classical music repertoire. In addition to his continuously popular instrumental music, he wrote a number of full-length operas in addition to Highway 1, USA, with which I’m not familiar. The music of the latter, performed with spark by an orchestra that’s fairly sizable (for the space) under the baton of Gregory Hopkins, bears a jazz influence, and in a bright production number borrows from gospel music. However, the style and colors of most of it, themes and orchestration alike, are pure 20th-century opera, muscular and complex though paired with a rather silly libretto by Verna Arvey (who was Still’s wife).

The leads at the performance I attended, Victoria A. Davis as Mary and Michael Anthony McGee as Bob, both sang with bright, sturdy tone and convincing expressivity. Vocally strong too was tenor Omar Bowey in the smaller but crucial role of Nate, Bob’s lazybones younger brother, whose misinterpretation of Mary’s sarcastic talk has violent results. Somehow a happy ending worms its way out of the weird story, as if by an invisible deus ex machina.

The ending was confusing, but I enjoyed the music and the performances overall. For me, supertitles would have helped; though the libretto is in English, sopranos’ vowel changes make comprehension difficult, and following all the words might have made the story seem a little less ridiculous. Then again, crazy plotting puts this opera right in the tradition of European grand opera, doesn’t it?

Low Blows in the Valley

The standout performance of the evening belonged to tenor Darian Anderson Worrell as Brack Weaver in Down in the Valley. Kurt Weill’s music here is expressly, almost too-forcefully embracing of certain strands of traditional American music, e.g. Appalachian folk. Yet some of it is quite dark and moody, even eerie, suitable for a tale of a murder and a doomed love.

The show includes a lot of spoken dialogue, and the arias are song-like, making it a kind of hybrid of opera and musical theater. If you’re familiar with the Brecht-Weill The Threepenny Opera you’d probably recognize this as Weill’s work. (The tight libretto is by Arnold Sundgaard.)

Opera-House Voices

But the voices at the performance I attended were worthy of a great opera house. Foremost among them was a stellar Worrell, whose shining timbre and vivid coloration elevated everything else about the production. Victoria Thomasch was also excellent as Jennie, with a beautiful silky voice, and Andrew Richardson fleshed out Brack’s unlikeable rival for Jennie’s attention with a rich basso. The one-act finishes with an ominous, almost phantasmagorical choral number seeing Brack off to the gallows.

Down in the Valley combined Weill’s long-term mission to “make opera the subject matter for an evening in the theater” – that is, to make it into something appealing to modern 20th-century audiences – with the close study of American music he made after fleeing Nazi Germany for New York in 1935. As such it makes a fitting companion to Still’s different but just as recognizable Americana.

The double-bill American One Acts continues through June 4 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in NYC. More information is available online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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