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Living the American Dream: How opera has embraced and attacked a national ethos

From cheerful go-getting lumberjacks to a city of hedonism in the desert, lyric theatre has long confronted the ideals of the USA.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

1 September 2014 at 4.29pm | Comment on this article

‘American Dream, American Dream’, sings Anna Nicole in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera, ‘I’m gonna rape that goddamn American dream, I’m gonna tear it open and lap up the cream’. It's one of many operas that question the American Dream, in which anyone with ambition, talent and a strong work ethic can achieve fame and fortune – and ask how desirable or attainable that dream really is:

Giacomo Puccini's La fanciulla del West examines American ways of life both good and bad. The corrupt sheriff Jack Rance and the homesick miners trapped in California by their desire to make a quick fortune demonstrate the dangers of a society that places great value on money and social status. But Puccini's heroine Minnie has typically ‘American’ virtues: bravery, honesty and a sense of adventure. Ultimately, Minnie’s integrity gives her the courage to reject conventional dreams of financial and social success and leave California for a new life with her lover Dick Johnson.

Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden created an optimistic vision of American society in Paul Bunyan, which celebrates the same pioneering spirit that makes Puccini’s Minnie so likeable. The gentle giant Paul Bunyan brings together a community of lumberjacks to tame the ‘virgin forest’ of America, and later helps them to find work as farmers, manual labourers and businessmen. In this cheerful operetta, America is seen as a land of exciting opportunities (one or two satirical snipes from Auden aside).

Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht on the other hand, took a far darker view, making America a byword for greed and corruption. In 1931's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, three criminals found a city in the American desert devoted to hedonism and financial profit. The consumerist paradise soon becomes a hotbed of corruption and inhumanity. The hero Jimmy is condemned to death for being unable to pay a bar bill. When he appeals to God the people tell him that God cannot punish them – they are already in Hell.

Other operas show how America’s opportunities are not available to everyone. Rose Maurrant, the blue-collar heroine of Weill’s Street Scene, knows that her boss’s promises to help her ‘sing on Broadway’ will come to nothing. She and her poet boyfriend Sam Kaplan nourish ambitions to escape their humdrum existence, but even this dream is denied when Rose's father murders her mother. In George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bessthe African-American community of Catfish Row is condemned to perpetual poverty due to racial prejudice. Love can flourish (like the tender passion between Porgy and Bess), but the only character to profit financially in this ghetto is the drug-dealer Sportin’ Life, who eventually lures Bess away with the promise of a glamorous life in New York.

Later in the 20th century, composers questioned whether the American Dream is desirable even if achieved. Leonard Bernstein portrayed the boredom of comfortable American suburbia and the claustrophobia of the prosperous middle-class family in Trouble in Tahiti and A Quiet Place– having explored racial prejudice and gang warfare in his hit Romeo and Juliet-inspired musical West Side StoryStewart Wallace's Harvey Milk tells the true story of a politician who longs for ‘an American Dream without prejudice’ but is assassinated for his beliefs. And the title character of Nixon in China and J. Robert Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic, at one point seen as icons of the American success story, are depicted by John Adams as tormented souls plagued with self-doubt.

Even the ambitious Anna Nicole realizes that the American Dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Hounded by the press, she finally turns on her country: ‘O America, you dirty whore, I gave you everything but you wanted more. I wanted more’. For some, the American Dream can turn out to be more like a nightmare.

Anna Nicole runs from 11–24 September 2014. Tickets are still available.The first performance is open to students only, with tickets priced £1–£25. Find out more about ROH Students. ROH Students is generously made possible by the Bunting Family and Simon Robey.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny runs 10 March–4 April 2015. Tickets will go on general sale 27 January 2015.The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Richard and Ginny Salter, The Kurt Foundation for Music in New York, NY and The Royal Opera Circle.

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