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Bruce Archibald

Opera for television in one act by Gian Carlo Menotti to his own libretto; NBC, New York, 24 December 1951.

The stage is in two parts. One is the stark interior of a shepherd’s hut; surrounding it is the exterior showing distant hills, a road winding offstage to the left and reappearing among the hills, and a starry sky with the star of Bethlehem shining brightly. After a very short prelude of soft, tender music Amahl (boy soprano, about 12 years old), who is crippled, is seen and heard (oboe) playing his shepherd’s pipe. It is a cheerful C major tune, totally diatonic, over a drone C–G bass 5th. He is seated outside the hut wearing an oversized cloak. His mother (soprano) calls him to go to bed. He delays as long as possible but finally takes his crutch and hobbles into the hut. He tells her of the large bright star and she replies that he is a chronic liar and complains of their poverty. Amahl begins a short duet – comforting his mother – which closes with ‘Good night’. While they sleep, he on a bed of straw and she on a bench, the voices of the Three Kings are heard in the distance: Kaspar (tenor), Melchior (baritone) and Balthazar (bass). Amahl wakes up and hobbles to the window. He tells his mother that he sees three kings and, of course, she does not believe him. The kings and a page (baritone) are allowed in by the bewildered mother. They settle in, the kings seated on the bench and the page on a stool, to a stately but sprightly march from the orchestra. During the following conversation there is a humorous song by Kaspar – ‘This is my box’. He shows off the precious gems in his box, but most important is the liquorice. He gives some to Amahl. In staged performances this song is often sung with Kaspar walking among the audience tossing out sweets....

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America  

Charles Garrett

Article

Barbara B. Heyman

Opera in three acts, op.40, by Samuel Barber to a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli after William Shakespeare ’s play; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 16 September 1966.

Commissioned for the opening of the new opera house at Lincoln Center, the original version of Antony and Cleopatra consisted entirely of Shakespeare’s words ( see also Cleopatra ), which Franco Zeffirelli condensed to 16 scenes set in Rome and Egypt, plus one scene aboard a Roman galley omitted in the revised version. Antony (bass-baritone) leaves Egypt and his mistress, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (soprano). Returning to Rome, he is pressed to marry Octavia, sister of Octavius Caesar (tenor). When he goes to Cleopatra instead, Caesar declares war and defeats him. Antony kills himself and Cleopatra commits suicide soon after.

The alternating geographical settings are mirrored in the character of the music: sinuous melodies, luminescent harmonies and exotic orchestral timbres in the Egyptian scenes and for Cleopatra contrast with the angular declamations and driving, irregular rhythms of the brash ‘Roman’ music. Conventional forms support the dramatic action: a fugato and ominous passacaglia, for example, dominate the tense meeting of Antony and Caesar in the Roman Senate (Act 1 scene ii). Recurring motives reinforce dramatic associations through transformation or expansion, giving audible unity to the opera: the Prologue’s brass fanfare opens the Roman scenes in Acts 1 and 2; Cleopatra’s serpentine phrase ‘If this be love indeed’ returns in the orchestral accompaniment to her suicide; her spine- chilling ‘my man of men’ (Act 1 scene iii) returns as the climax of her death scene in Act 3; the haunting choral evocation ‘Cleopatra’ accompanies the vision of her barge on the Nile and pervades the orchestral texture as well. Unusual instrumental combinations are strikingly effective: an electronic instrument and double bass provide an eerie background to the ‘Music i’ the air’ episode, and a solo flute and timpani are chilling accompaniment to the suicides of Antony and Enobarbus. Some of the most sensuous and soaring lyrical passages were composed especially for Leontyne Price, who created the role of Cleopatra. Two arias – ‘Give me some music’ (from Act 1) and the suicide monologue ‘Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me’ (from Act 3) – were expanded in ...

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Charles Garrett

Article

Virginia Saya

Opera buffa in one act by Dominick Argento to a libretto by John Olon (pseudonym of John Scrymgeour) after Anton Pavlovich Chekhov ’s play The Bear; Rochester, New York, Eastman School of Music, 6 May 1957.

A young Widow (soprano) has been mourning the death of her husband for exactly one year. A neighbour, the Boor (bass-baritone), arrives to collect a debt owed by the deceased, only to be rebuked for his indelicacy at making such a request on this anniversary. A lengthy argument ensues and a duel is proposed. In the heat of the moment, it comes out that the widow harboured no real fondness for her faithless, neglectful husband, and in the wake of these revelations, a new passion is kindled.

This work is Argento’s earliest well-known opera, composed while he was completing his studies at the Eastman School. The tonal score with motivic unification employs vocally gracious lines and demonstrates exceptional sensitivity to comic and dramatic flow, features which have remained hallmarks of his operatic style. The opera’s modest theatrical requirements and small cast (the Servant, a tenor, is the only other character) have made it a popular piece for workshop presentations, and it remains the composer’s most frequently performed opera....

Article

Marilyn Fritz Shardlow

(b near Winchester, VA, Dec 7, 1873; d New York, NY, April 24, 1947). American poet, journalist, and author. Between 1892 and 1940, she produced numerous novels, three short story collections, and one volume of poetry. Born and raised in rural Virginia, Cather moved with her family to Nebraska in 1883; her writing was deeply influenced by both the lively immigrant culture of that time and the landscape of the prairie itself. She published her first short story in 1892 before graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (BA 1894). Working as a journalist in Lincoln, then Pittsburgh, and later in New York, she honed her skills as a writer and nurtured a fierce sense of ambition that was strikingly modern for a woman of her time. Her novel One of Ours brought her the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 and launched her career as a literary celebrity. Although not a musical expert or a performer herself, Cather was a passionate supporter of the arts, and she maintained close relationships with many of the notable musicians of her day, such as Yehudi Menuhin and the British pianist Myra Hess. Her proximity to the opera scene in New York fed an interest in Wagnerian opera in particular, and her notion of the “diva” is emblematic of female power and independence in both ...

Article

Judith A. Sebesta

(b New York, NY, Nov 24, 1934). American lyricist and director. Charnin graduated from Cooper Union in New York and began his career as an actor, appearing as a Jet in the original production of West Side Story. He first worked as a lyricist with Mary Rodgers on Hot Spot (1963), then focused on writing and directing for television, particularly variety shows, in the 1960s and 70s. In 1972, he won two primetime Emmy Awards for S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Gershwin. After his stage directorial debut in 1968, he went on to write (with Charles Strouse) and direct one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history, Annie (1977), for which he and Strouse won the Tony Award for Best Original Score. Charnin wrote the optimistic show to counteract the prevailing cynicism in the United States brought on by such events as the Vietnam War and Watergate. Its sequel, ...

Article

Norm Cohen

A collection of 305 ballads from oral tradition included by Francis James Child in his The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98). Approximately 120 have been found in American oral tradition. While many of the ballads deal with British historical events, those that survive in America generally concern universal themes such as unrequited love (“Barbara Allen” [Child No. 84]), love triangles (“Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender” [73]), infidelity (“Gypsy Davy” (200)), and adultery (“Little Matty Groves” [81]). A few treat humorous subjects, such as “Our Goodman”/“Three Nights Drunk” (274), about a drunkard cuckolded on successive nights by his sharp-tongued wife, or “The Farmer’s Curst Wife” (278), about a farmer whose pact with the devil to take his wife away goes awry.

The timelessness of such themes has kept these ballads alive, not only in oral tradition, but also in commercial genres such as country music (“Barbara Allen,” by the Everly Brothers and Dolly Parton), blues/rhythm & blues (“Wake Up Baby” [274] by Sonny Boy Williamson), classical music (Custer LaRue and the Baltimore Consort have recorded several), and pop music: “The Elfin Knight” (2) was the basis for Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”...

Article

Andrew Stiller

Folk opera in one act by Douglas S(tuart) Moore to a libretto (‘book’) by Stephen Vincent Benét after his own short story; New York, Martin Beck Theater, 18 May 1939.

Moore and Benét called this work a folk opera ‘because it is legendary in its subject matter and simple in its musical expression’. In fact, it is a musical, albeit an unorthodox one, with no overture, only one act, and much of the spoken dialogue accompanied by music. The opera may be performed either with full orchestra (wind in pairs) or a reduced ensemble with solo winds.

It is set in the home of farmer Jabez Stone (bass) of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, in the 1840s. After 12 introductory bars the curtain rises on the wedding reception of Jabez and his new wife Mary (mezzo-soprano). Jabez, we learn, has worked his way out of poverty with surprising speed and become state senator for the district. Indeed, he is such a hot political prospect that his name has been suggested for governor, and the Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (baritone), has agreed to appear at the wedding. Webster’s arrival is marred, however, by the sudden unmanageability of the violinist’s instrument. When the Fiddler (spoken role) comments that ‘the very devil’ has got into his instrument, Mr Scratch (tenor) appears, introducing himself as a Boston lawyer and claiming to be an old friend of the bridegroom. Under the pretence of fixing the fiddle, he plays a devilishly Stravinskian accompaniment to a nasty ballad of death and despair (‘Young William was a thriving boy’), which Webster interrupts in a fury....

Article

Gerald Bordman

revised by Jonas Westover

(b New York, NY, Sept 8, 1896; d New York, NY, July 30, 1983). American lyricist and librettist. He studied at Columbia University, where he was a contemporary of Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, and served in the US Navy before becoming director of publicity and advertising in 1919 for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (from 1924 known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or MGM). He wrote verse in his spare time, and was asked by Jerome Kern to supply the lyrics for Dear Sir (1924). He also worked with Vernon Duke, Jimmy McHugh, and Ralph Rainger. But he is best remembered for the numerous songs he wrote in collaboration with arthur Schwartz , beginning in 1929 with the revue The Little Show (with “I guess I’ll have to change my plan”). Other collaborations with Schwartz include Three’s a Crowd (1930) and The Band Wagon (1931, containing the hit “Dancing in the Dark”). Their professional relationship extended over a period of more than 30 years to the production of the musical ...

Article

Ellen Marie Peck

(b New York, NY, Jan 28, 1880; d New York, Jan 4, 1928). American lyricist, librettist, and actress. Born into a theatrical family, she spent her entire life in the theater. A meticulous actress, Donnelly was particularly known for her ability to interpret a role with depth and sensitivity at a rather young age, as she demonstrated with title roles in Candida (1903) and Madame X (1909). However, chronic illness and years of touring took an early toll on Donnelly, forcing her to transition to a writing career in her late 30s. In 1916 Donnelly penned the libretto for an Americanized German operetta, Flora Bella. She soon teamed up with composer sigmund Romberg , with whom she wrote some of the most successful operettas of the 1920s. Donnelly and Romberg enjoyed a close friendship and a symbiotic collaborative process, which lay behind the overwhelming success of ...

Article

John Graziano

(b Dayton, OH, June 27, 1872; d Dayton, OH, Feb 9, 1906). American poet and lyricist. He was born into a family of former slaves, and although he had the opportunity to attend college through the generosity of white patrons, he decided to pursue a career as a poet and writer. After self-publishing his first collection of poems, he was invited to recite at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, where he met the composer Will Marion Cook. When he traveled to England in 1897 on a reading tour, he met the African-English composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who set eight of his poems in the song collection African Romances. In a little over a decade, Dunbar produced six collections of poems, four collections of short stories, four novels, three plays, and the lyrics and librettos for several works written in collaboration with Cook, including Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk...

Article

Kimberly Greene

(b Perth Amboy, NJ, Feb 19, 1766; d New York, NY, Sep 28, 1839). American playwright, librettist, theater manager, historian, and painter. Despite losing his sight in one eye due to an accident, Dunlap became a professional portrait painter in his youth, and he was noted for his paintings of George Washington. In 1784 he traveled to London and studied painting with Benjamin West. Upon his return to the United States in 1787, he began writing plays and became America’s first professional playwright. Over a period of 40 years he translated, adapted, or wrote more than 70 plays, many of which used music by composers such as Benjamin Carr, Alexander Reinagle, Victor Pelissier, and James Hewitt. He was influenced by the plays of German dramatist August von Kotzebue, whose works he translated and made popular in the United States.

Dunlap’s The Archers, or Mountaineers of Switzerland (1796...

Article

Paul C. Echols

revised by David Music

(b Northampton, MA, May 14, 1752; d New Haven, CT, Jan 11, 1817). American poet and author of hymn texts. He graduated from Yale College in 1769, becoming a tutor there two years later. He served as a chaplain in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and wrote the texts of several patriotic songs, one of which (“Columbia, Columbia, to Glory Arise,” 1787) became widely popular. From 1783 to 1795 he was pastor of the Congregational Church in Greenfield Hill, Connecticut, where he rose to eminence as a preacher, educator, and poet. He was elected president of Yale College in 1795. In 1798, at the request of both Congregational and Presbyterian governing bodies in Connecticut, he undertook a revised edition of Isaac Watts’s Psalms and Hymns to replace one by Joel Barlow (1785) that had previously been compiled for the Congregationalists. Issued at Hartford in ...

Article

James Leve

(b New York, NY, c8 April 1928–33; d New York, NY, Sept 11, 2004). American lyricist. He received a BA from New York University and a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University. In the 1950s he collaborated with Phil Springer and placed several song lyrics with record companies in the Brill Building. He also collaborated with Paul Klein on three musicals, one of which, Morning Sun, appeared Off-Broadway in 1963. Ebb’s first Broadway experience was as a contributor to the 1960 revue From A to Z.

He is best known for his work with john Kander , with whom he started working in 1962. Within months they had their first hit, “My Coloring Book,” which garnered them a Grammy nomination. Their collaboration lasted more than four decades and resulted in 13 Broadway musicals, including two produced after Ebb’s death. Their first, Flora, the Red Menace (...

Article

Robert F. Nisbett

Opera in two acts, with a prologue and an interlude, by Louis Gruenberg to his own libretto after Eugene O’Neill ; New York, Metropolitan Opera, 7 January 1933.

Gruenberg’s adaptation follows the play with few alterations, the most frequent changes being either omission of dialogue or repetition for emphasis. The story is that of an ex-Pullman porter Jones (baritone), who makes himself emperor of a West Indian island by combining an appeal to superstition with a white man’s cunning. Jones cynically exploits the natives, or ‘bush-niggers’ (as he calls them), until they rebel and he is forced to flee. Gruenberg made two important changes from the original play: a chorus acts as a commentator on the events taking place, and Jones kills himself rather than being murdered by the natives.

Throughout the opera the orchestra provides a background of syncopated dissonances to the fast-moving drama. Except for one lyrical, dramatic moment when Jones sings the spiritual ‘It’s me, O’ Lord’, the singers recite and shout their words in a Sprechgesang manner. The demands of the title role are great (it was sung by Lawrence Tibbett at the first performance). The subject matter, exploitation of blacks by a black, has limited the performance of this controversial work, and the opera is rarely heard today....

Article

Julian Budden

(‘The Girl of the West’ [The Girl of the Golden West])

Opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini after David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West; New York, Metropolitan Opera House, 10 December 1910.

Early in 1907, during his first visit to New York for the Metropolitan premières of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly, Puccini saw three of Belasco’s plays performed on Broadway, among them The Girl of the Golden West. He was not enthusiastic. ‘I like the ambience of the West’, he wrote to Tito Ricordi (ii), ‘but in all the “pièces” I’ve seen I’ve found only a few scenes here and there. Never a simple thread, all muddle and at times bad taste and old hat’. However, a seed had been sown; and when at the end of May Puccini went to London, his friend Sybil Seligman urged him to consider Belasco’s drama, of which she procured him an Italian translation. By July Puccini was firmly decided. He wrote to his publisher asking him to obtain the rights as well as the author’s permission to make certain changes to the action (these would amount to transferring the bible-class from the third act to the first and amalgamating Acts 3 and 4, where the setting would be a Californian forest). Of his previous librettists, Giacosa was dead and Illica fully engaged on a libretto about Marie Antoinette (for which Puccini had contracted but which he never set). Tito Ricordi indicated Carlo Zangarini as the ideal collaborator, especially since his mother was American. In August the contracts were signed for what Puccini foretold would prove ‘a second ...

Article

Ronald J. Zank

(b Brooklyn, NY, June 6, 1954). American performer, playwright and librettist. Fierstein grew up in New York and worked as an actor; he also pursued his interest in painting and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He was both lead actor and playwright for Torch Song Trilogy, which originated off-off Broadway before transferring to off-Broadway and finally to Broadway (1982). He wrote the libretto for the musical adaptation of the French play and film La Cage Aux Folles (1983, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman), about a gay couple dealing with their son’s marriage into a conservative family. Fierstein also crafted the book for the short-lived Legs Diamond, a production that featured the songs and performance of Peter Allen as the title gangster. As a performer Fierstein originated the role of plus-sized mother Edna Turnblad in the musical ...

Article

Judith A. Sebesta

(Simon )

(b Chicago, IL, Feb 25, 1928; d Beverly Hills, CA, Sept 11, 2009). American librettist. He began his prolific and diverse career at 16 writing for radio. After moving to television in the 1950s, he collaborated with such well-known early television actors as Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks. His career in that medium peaked with M*A*S*H, for which he wrote the pilot and subsequently wrote, produced, and occasionally directed the hit series. His screenwriting credits include Tootsie (1982) and Oh, God! (1977), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. His librettos for A Funny Thing Happened on to the Way to the Forum (1962) and City of Angels (1989) both won Tony Awards. After Gelbart’s death from cancer in 2009, Jack Lemmon, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen all named him the best American comedy writer they had ever known....