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Rorem's Our Town in world premiere at Indiana University

February 24 marks the world premiere of Ned Rorem’s new opera Our Town, with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy based on Thornton Wilder’s classic American drama. The Indiana University Opera Theater production, directed by Vincent Liotta, runs for four performances (February 24 and 25, March 3 and 4) at the Musical Arts Center on IU’s Bloomington campus. It’s an occasion with literary significance as well as musical importance.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town opened on February 4, 1938 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama that year.  Ever since, it has been something of an operatic Holy Grail. For decades, Wilder (and later his estate) resisted the idea of an opera based on the play – not even Aaron Copland was able to gain permission, though he later created a touching score to the 1940 film version. Ultimately, J. D. McClatchy, a noted Wilder scholar, was able to persuade Tappan Wilder, executor of the estate and the playwright’s nephew, that Ned Rorem would be the ideal choice to transform the work into an opera. “My family and I are thrilled at the prospect,” says Wilder.  

Some 400 amateur productions of the play are still performed in the United States each year, and countless others are staged around the world. Naturally, Rorem is well aware of the pressure that comes with adapting a well-loved work into a new medium. “Our Town is the ultimate American play and theatrically very successful,” says Rorem. “It is also singable, unlike some literature. The danger, of course, is that it’s terribly famous.” 

Indiana University Opera Theater, the lead commissioner of the opera, is regarded as the foremost collegiate opera program in nation, and is a fitting choice to premiere this major work by Rorem, an Indiana native (b. 1923 in Richmond). In the months following the premiere, five co-commissioners will present Our Town: Opera Boston, the Aspen Music Festival and School, North Carolina School of the Arts, Lake George Opera in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, California. 

Rorem, justly renowned for his vocal writing, has responded to the challenge of setting Our Town with some of his most poignant and memorable music to date, creating dramatic tension while maintaining the play’s elegiac atmosphere. Through Rorem’s vocal lines and orchestration, Wilder’s protagonist, Emily, comes vividly to life in all of her emotional complexity.  

With a running time of two hours, Our Town is Ned Rorem’s most ambitious opera to date. Ned Rorem’s previous seven operas range from half-hour pocket works such as Bertha, Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters, or Fables, scored for a few singers with piano or a handful of instrumentalists, to Miss Julie, his 90-minute, one-act adaptation of Strindberg’s play. Miss Julie (1965) had an unsuccessful premiere with New York City Opera, and caused the composer to become disillusioned with the medium for some time afterwards. But he later revised it for a revival at the Manhattan School of Music, to generous acclaim: Peter G. Davis of New York magazine called the new version “an absorbing, seamlessly made musical psychodrama… Rorem [has] made the piece even tauter, its lyricism more appealing, and the emotional spiral leading up to Miss Julie’s suicide that much more relentless and inevitable.” 

Now there are two recordings of Miss Julie – rare indeed for a contemporary opera. In 1998, Newport Classics released its recording of the Manhattan School of Music production (NCD 85605), and a brand-new recording of the Curtis Institute of Music’s 2003 production has just come out on the Albany label (761/2). Rounding out the latter two-disc set is Aftermath, Rorem’s moving song cycle in memory of the victims of the September 11 attacks. 

Please also read a Press Release on Our Town.

>  Further information on Work: Our Town

photo: Robert Benchley

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