In celebration of Thanksgiving: American operas and ballets
We pick a selection of the top operas and ballets from the other side of the Atlantic.
With today being Thanksgiving in the United States – the day of turkey eating (aside from those pardoned), family and American Football – we thought we’d take our pick of operas and ballets from over the pond.
‘Rubies’ from Jewels – George Balanchine
That most American of dance pieces, ‘Rubies’ is one of three elements of Balanchine’s Jewels cycle alongside ‘Diamonds’ and ’Emeralds’. Soaked in razzmatazz and featuring sparkly choreography, ‘Rubies’ is set to the music of Stravinsky, the Russian composer who became a U.S. citizen in 1945. As to what inspired the work, one story claims Balanchine had the idea when purchasing a ring for his muse, ballerina Suzanne Farrell. ‘Rubies’ is often performed on its own and is a staple of The Royal Ballet‘s repertory.
Satyagraha – Philip Glass
It may be based on Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and sung in Sanskrit, but Satyagraha is arguably one of the finest American operatic achievements. A prime example of operatic minimalism, the opera makes up one part of Glass’s ‘Portrait’ trilogy, alongside Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten. The piece is divided into three acts, each related to a historical figure: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King Jr..
Dr Atomic – John Adams
With a libretto based largely upon declassified US military documents surrounding the Trinity test – the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon in 1945 – Dr Atomic focuses on the stresses and strains upon the scientists who ushered in the nuclear age. First performed in 2005 at San Francisco Opera, the original production saw Royal Opera favourite Gerald Finley singing the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called ‘father of the atomic bomb’.
Porgy and Bess – George Gershwin
The opera that spawned jazz standards ‘Summertime’ and ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin”, Porgy and Bess was a trailblazing work at the time of its premiere in 1935. The opera tells the tale of an African-American neighbourhood in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1920s – something of an operatic first in terms of focus. Originally run on Broadway, the production wasn’t seen as a legitimate opera until the 1970s when it was re-evaluated. The opera has been hugely successful since its premiere, despite controversy surrounding portrayals of African-American characters.
Rainforest – Merce Cunningham
Rainforest was inspired by Cunningham’s childhood memories of Northwest America and is set in an abstract space with the soundtrack of birds and forest chatter. The movement reflects animal behavior and Cunningham’s interest in nature – the choreographer filled sketchbooks with his drawings of animals and birds. In collaboration with Cunningham, Andy Warhol created the décor Silver Cloud – several enormous silver pillows that gently swirl and bounce off the stage and dancers as they move through the space.
Nixon in China – John Adams
John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China brings to the stage U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 state visit. With an ever-changing score, musical styles including the big band sound that was the staple of the President’s youth in the 1930s are blended together. The work allowed Adams to explore his personal experience of politics during the period, such as avoiding military service in Vietnam. Nixon in China took two years to complete, a period during which Adams claims to feel like he was ‘pregnant with the royal heir, so great was the attention focussed on it by the media and the musical community’. Still, Adams’s labour was worth it, the critical opinion since its 1987 premiere being that the piece is a significant work in American opera.
What’s your favourite American opera or ballet? Which American composer or director do you most admire and why?