An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy
Opera in Two Acts
Libretto by Gene Scheer, based on the Theodore Dreiser novel
Commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera
The commission and production were made possible by generous and deeply appreciated gifts from the Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation
World Premiere: 2 December 2005, The Metropolitan Opera
Conductor: James Conlon
Production: Francesca Zambello
Set Design: Adrianne Lobel
Costume Design: Dunya Ramicova
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Choreography: Doug Varone
2(pic)2(ca)2(bcl)2/4221/timp.1perc/pf.hp/org(in pit);small portable onstage organ;
str SATB Chorus; boy soprano; three additional children's voices
Duration: Full Evening
Roberta Alden: Patricia Racette (soprano)
Sondra Finchley: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Clyde Griffiths: Nathan Gunn (baritone)
Elvira Griffiths: Dolora Zajick (mezzo-soprano)
Elizabeth Griffiths: Jennifer Larmore (mezzo-soprano)
Samuel Griffiths: Kim Begley (tenor)
Gilbert Griffiths: William Burden (tenor)
Orville Mason: Richard Bernstein (baritone)
Hortense: Anna Christy (soprano)
Late 1890s. On a street corner near a mission in the American Midwest, Elvira Griffiths, a missionary, leads her son Clyde and his siblings in a hymn. Many years later, in a smart Chicago hotel, the adult Clyde, now a bellboy, flirts with the chambermaid Hortense. She rebuffs him, then delivers the news that his rich uncle, Samuel, a factory owner from New York, is staying at the hotel. In the hotel ballroom, business associates toast Samuel's success. When the party breaks up, Clyde introduces himself, and Samuel offers him a job at his shirt factory in Lycurgus, New York. When Hortense returns to make a date with him, Clyde tells her he has other plans.
At the shirt factory, Clyde, newly promoted to supervisor, learns the ropes from Samuel's son, Gilbert, who advises him to keep his hands off the ladies. At the closing bell, Clyde's eye is caught by Roberta, one of the workers, who arranges a rendezvous with a friend loudly enough for him to overhear. As Gilbert drives away, Clyde watches enviously, reflecting on his disappointments past and his hopes for the future.
In front of the music hall, Clyde chats up Roberta, telling her of his missionary background and recalling his mother's lectures on temptation, until her friend arrives. Later that evening, Roberta encounters Clyde by the riverbank. When she describes the magician at the music hall, Clyde wishes he had the magic power to make her dreams come true. They arrange to meet again the following night.
Elizabeth Griffiths, Samuel's wife, chastises him for taking a chance on his inexperienced nephew. Their daughter, Bella, arrives with her friend Sondra, newly returned from New York City. When Samuel announces that Clyde is coming to lunch, Gilbert sneers at his father's "discovery," piquing Sondra's interest. After the others exit, Sondra tells Bella how New York has changed her. Entering unseen, Clyde is captivated. When Samuel returns to introduce his nephew, Elizabeth is condescending, but Sondra flirts with him, confiding to Bella that she thinks he would make "a nice project."
In front of Roberta's apartment, Clyde presses her to let him come in. Inside, she describes the place where she grew up, and Clyde dances with her. That night, on the Griffiths' patio, Gilbert flirts arrogantly with Sondra. When he leaves, she and Bella plot to invite Clyde to Bella's birthday party. As Sondra starts to compose an invitation, the scene shifts back to the apartment, where Roberta pours out her feelings to Clyde. He slowly leads her to the bed.
At a supper club, Clyde dances with Sondra, as Gilbert, drunk and sarcastic, disparages his cousin to a group of friends. Sondra leads Clyde outside. When he describes his bellboy days, she senses the power of his dreams. She suggests that he visit her at her parents' summerhouse. He kisses her passionately, then takes her back to the party and rushes out.
Late that night, Clyde makes excuses for keeping Roberta waiting, but she cuts him short. When he asks what is wrong, she tells him she is pregnant. At first, he balks at her demand that they marry, saying he's just getting started in life, but when she burst into tears, he gives her his promise, sending her home to her parents to wait until he has saved enough money to come for her.
On the front porch of her parents' house, Roberta reads through a letter she has written to Clyde, begging him to come soon. Meanwhile, dallying by a lake at Sondra's summerhouse, Clyde and Sondra declare their love. He exhorts her to run away with him, but she counsels patience. As the two revel in their dream of romance, Roberta senses that hers is shattered and closes her letter with an ultimatum, threatening to reveal her secret if Clyde does not keep his promise.
At church in Lycurgus, Clyde sits with Sondra's family. Roberta approaches Sondra at the close of the service; when she is momentarily distracted, Clyde draws Roberta apart and implores her not to expose him. Assuring her that his attentions to Sondra are all about furthering his career, he promises to meet Roberta at the Utica Station that night. Rejoining Sondra, Clyde tells her he will be busy at the factory for several days. Alone, he hatches a scheme to murder Roberta.
Boating on a lake, Clyde tells Roberta they will be married in the morning. When she leans over the side, he raises his paddle but cannot bring himself to strike. Roberta tries to embrace him, but he swings his arms up to stop her, inadvertently knocking her off the boat. Ignoring her cries for help, he watches her drown.
The following Saturday, at the Griffiths' summer house, Samuel tells Clyde he is proud of him, saying Sondra is "quite a catch." Orville Mason, the district attorney, interrupts, asking Samuel to leave him alone with Clyde. Roberta's letters have been found in Clyde's trunk, and the sheriff is waiting to arrest him. Clyde protests that he has done nothing wrong, as Mason leads him away.
At the Griffiths' home in Lycurgus, Elizabeth bemoans Sondra's ruined reputation; Bella and Gilbert urge their friend to forget Clyde, while the chorus is heard reading Roberta's letter in the newspaper. Elvira arrives and asks to see Samuel in private. She begs him to come to the courthouse and show his faith in Clyde. Samuel replies that in paying for nephew's defense, he has done all he can.
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times
"the opening night audience greeted the work as if it were a masterpiece...[Picker's] fourth opera, which the Met commissioned in 1997, is expertly made. His singable vocal lines are gathered in the kind of set pieces operagoers know and love arias, ensembles and choruses...The orchestra writhes with dissonant agitation, and the vocal lines take on saving urgency. Similarly, the scene later in the opera when Roberta and Sondra each expresses her longing for Clyde in the same lines of text is engrossing music theater...Graham savored everything that's seductive and opulent in Sondra's music while moving the audience through her character's plight."
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
"The music is tonal and accessible, with lots of big arias to show off its principal characters, choral numbers for contrast, even dance music. ...Mr. Picker's deft musical scene changes gave the piece a cinematic flow."
Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal
"[Picker] is a natural opera composer, who is supremely comfortable writing for voice and who also mirabile dictu! knows how to write for orchestra so that it rarely drowns out the words."
Patrick Smith, Musical America
"Tobias Picker is very much a man of the theater. ...An American Tragedy deserves to find a comfortable place in the permanent repertory. From the opening sweep of the orchestra it has a grandeur that is cinematic; a scene in which the wealthy Samuel Griffiths is introduced with his rich cronies is a passacaglia begun by tuba and carries with it just the right gravity and pomposity....the score is attractive and picturesque...A quartet with chorus after Clyde has been accused of murder is reminiscent of moments in Britten's Peter Grimes...opera lovers, I suspect, will be more than pleased with Mr Picker's well-crafted, well-scored opera...a very potent show...It's well worth seeing."
Robert Levine, Classics Today
A glittering cast led by Patricia Racette, Susan Graham, and Nathan Gunn revels in this rich, voice-friendly score, which is redolent of antecedents yet no less cleverly spun."
Steve Smith, Time Out New York
"Picker knows his way about the lyric stage...An American Tragedy may be the perfect modern opera for people who hate modern opera."
Martin Bernheimer, The Financial Times
"An American Tragedy is a compelling mix of sex, religion and status...Picker's music has power."
Liz Smith, New York Post
"a marvelous duet for Roberta and Sondra (both in their separated worlds) singing of their love for Clyde provided one of those moments that only the lyric theater (music or dance) can offer, with two things going on at the same time but not the same place."
Clive Barnes, New York Post
"[O]pera companies will want An American Tragedy."
Jay Nordlinger, The New York Sun
"There's a moment early in Act II of Tobias Picker's new opera, An American Tragedy, when the elements of music, drama and stagecraft unite to create a scene of rare emotional power. Roberta Alden, the pregnant factory girl, sings an aria whose soaring melodic line evokes her longing and loneliness as she waits on the porch of her parents' home for her lover, Clyde Griffiths, to keep his promise and marry her. Meanwhile, the scene above shows him dallying with his socialite girlfriend, Sondra Finchley, on the dock of her summer house. As the two women's voices blend in a duet, they repeat the same words ("I feel like I've been waiting. A whole life waiting to be desired by someone like you S") with such starkly different meaning that the effect is wrenching. Such, at its best, is the impact of Picker's ambitious work, which had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night with a splendid cast and lavish production worthy of a project eight years in the making...a work of considerable merit."
Mike Silverman, Associated Press
American Opera: Dreiser's Tragedy Transformed
Review of An American Tragedy by Bruce MacIntyre in the Newsletter of the Brooklyn College Institute for Studies in American Music, Spring 2006.
The Eternal Triangle, Dreiser Style
Review of An American Tragedy by Michael Dellaira in New Music Connoisseur, Summer/Fall 2006, Vol. 14, #1.
Based on a true story, Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy is one of American literature's great, universal subjects. The central character Clyde Griffiths is Everyman, and his dilemma is at the heart of the American experience, a dilemma as timely today as it was when the work was written.
George Stevens, director of A Place in the Sun, the famous film adaptation of this novel, once commented: "The greatness of An American Tragedy lies in the fact that it is all things to all people...In the main this might have been the love story of any Johnny or Mary in America...Dreiser was factual; a man of great compassion, a tremendous realist...he made his central character, Clyde Griffiths, one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in literature. You can spend weeks debating Clyde's guilt or innocence, his legal immorality over his spiritual immorality."
The real life people upon whom Dreiser's characters were based also echo throughout the pages of the entire opera. They are the haunting spirits that made the story and the writing of the music "real" for me. The heartbreaking, handwritten letters of Grace Brown, the tragic real life factory worker Dreiser brings us so painfully close to, inspired me to give them song as they are projected onto the stage in all their endless optimism and sorrow.
In this land of hope and boundless promise, how do we as Americans find the balance between the God "we trust" and our quest for wealth and the perfect love? How do we negotiate the sharp corners of this most dramatic of all emotional triangles? What is our moral duty versus our need to realize The American Dream, especially when confronted with powerful passions in a fundamentally religious society and a materialist culture? What anchors us as Americans and ultimately as human beings? How do we maintain our moral duty when we are magnetized by desire?
These questions live in the space between and choice within every note of An American Tragedy. While searching for their answers, I tried to weave them into melody and internalize the all too human frailties and longing of Dreiser's starkly real and gripping tragedy.
The challenge of composing for the Metropolitan Opera was made approachable and, quite simply, doable by the genius and steadfast friendship of my librettist, Gene Scheer. And the insightful dramaturgical counsel of the director, Francesca Zambello has enriched this opera in every way.
The unflagging support James Levine, Joseph Volpe and Sarah Billinghurst have given me has guided me throughout this long journey and helped make the daunting task of writing An American Tragedy the most fulfilling experience of my composing life.
jail cell, Elvira visits her son, who continues to protest his innocence. Elvira compares his sufferings with Christ's, saying he must bear his cross, but adds that if he tells the truth about his change of heart, the jury will understand.
In the courtroom, Mason questions Clyde about his relations with Sondra and Roberta. Clyde describes the elopement, claiming it was Roberta's idea and insisting that he tried to save her. When Mason confronts him with evidence that he planned the trip himself, the spectators cry out for justice. As the prosecution rests its case, Elvira prays, but the jury, unmoved, renders its verdict: guilty as charged.
In his cell, Clyde, awaiting execution, hears Sondra's voice reading her parting letter: though she will never understand what he has done, she wishes him freedom and happiness. When Elvira comes to pray with him, he confesses at last that he could have saved Roberta. Elvira, weeping, reminds him that the mercy of God is equal to every sin. As Clyde approaches the electric chair, his youthful self joins him in his old childhood hymn.
courtesy of Opera News
"[T]he opera is accomplished, dramatically effective and thoroughly professional. Many composers...could learn from Mr. Picker's know-how about the theater. An American Tragedy...works as an opera. The cast seemed to relish singing Mr. Picker's opera... and whole stretches of Mr. Picker's score would not be out of place in a Broadway theater...[C]ritics and opera buffs who want the Met to do its part to make opera a living art form have to be heartened that it presented this work, and that an audience on Friday gave a prolonged ovation to a living composer."
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
"on a primal, Pucciniesque level, [An American Tragedy] hits the mark...There are vernacular songs and religious hymns to establish the all-American scene, lush verismo textures for the lovemaking, suave Gershwinesque tunes to convey upper classes at play, distorted genre pieces à la Shostakovish and Britten for public confrontations, and, at moments of maximum fright, bursts of Berg. There's also much that's individual; Picker's harmony flirts with traditional tonality without falling prey to cliché, his orchestration achieves both transparency and power, and his crowd scenes skillfully set solo voices against a booming chorus and a churning orchestra. It's a pleasure to listen to him put one idea in front of another; a twelve-tone composer in his youth, he retains the serialist's habit of working obsessively with a tight array of notes...The score is full of such careful touches...it's a serious, substantial piece."
Alex Ross, The New Yorker
"...the hero here is composer Picker. He knows how to write emotionally searching arias constructed with lyrically declaimed lines and phrases that echo popular song. The orchestration is full of psychologically penetrating effects. ...The score's theatrical good sense is remarkable.... Few modern operas are paced as effectively as this."
David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Picker's score contains lush, singable, flowing music. ...Gene Scheer's libretto is, to a fault, literate and considerate of composer, singer and audience. ...The opera does a strong job of setting the scene. Picker's inexorable stream of lyric music acts like a society. It has a mind of its own and can't be stopped. [A]rias, duets, trios and ensemble numbers...seamlessly connect to a thread of arioso. Picker writes expertly for orchestra...and James Conlon had the Met orchestra sounding as excellent as ever."