Love of literature is often a source of inspiration for Broadway and opera composers, but it’s a challenging marriage.
And, if turning a play into a libretto is hard — words need more time when sung than when spoken — the problem is multiplied when the source is a lengthy novel.
Yet, composer Mark Adamo made a triumphal entry into the world of opera in 1998, when he was 36, with “Little Women,” based on the iconic novel by Louisa May Alcott about four sisters growing up in Civil War New England.
Adamo’s “Little Women,” which was declared “a masterpiece” by John Rockwell in the New York Times, has been performed more than 80 times since its premiere. In 2001, PBS “Great Performances” televised Houston Grand Opera’s production, and a two-CD commercial recording was released on the Ondine label.
Pittsburgh Opera will present Adamo’s “Little Women” at performances from Jan. 23 to 31 at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school, Downtown.
Adamo wrote the libretto as well as the music, and he went beyond the usual simplifications of Alcott’s story about “a free-spirited young writer torn between the boy next door and a man of the world,” as he describes it in his preface to the score.
“Closer reading of Louisa May Alcott’s novel suggested to me a deeper theme: that even those we love will, in all innocence, wound and abandon us until we learn that their destinies are not ours to control,” he wrote. “So, I shaped a libretto in which Jo’s love for her sisters regained the power it wielded in the original novel, and (I) imagined a finale in which Jo at last accepts that even sincerest love and strongest will cannot stave off change and loss.”
Second-year resident artist Corrie Stallings will star as Jo, whose relationship with her sisters Amy, Beth and Meg is the center of her world. A mezzo-soprano, Stallings has previously performed the aria “Things change, Jo,” which is sung by Meg.
“I read the novel quite a few times, four or five times when I was a kid,” Stallings says. “I was a big reader. I really enjoyed reading it in elementary school and read it throughout middle school and into my high-school years. I found out I would be doing the show about a year ago and read it this summer again. It’s a really beautiful story, although I don’t love the book now as I did when I was a kid.”
Stallings related to the book so strongly because her own life as a child had many parallels with Alcott’s novel, she says.
“When I was a kid, I was performing musical theater and running around in the garage as though I was a figure skater,” she says. “My dad built a stage for me out of two-by-fours and plywood, with a proscenium, in our garage. I would put on my own productions as a kid, get other kids involved and make up my recitals. So that’s what I liked about the book. It reminded me so much of my whole environment.”
Stallings also related to the texture of Alcott’s portrayal of the bonds between the sisters.
“I have one sister, so the relationship between the sisters always spoke to me personally because my sister is one of my best friends and always has been, and she’s completely different from me in almost every way,” Stallings says. “That’s also something I like about the sisters in the book. They have their own unique personalities.”
Stallings began working on the music over the summer while singing at the Glimmerglass Festival in Jamestown, N.Y. But it wasn’t until October that she began intensive preparations with Glenn Lewis, who will conduct the performances.
“It’s a very challenging score in general, and Jo in particular, because there’s so much music and it’s all difficult music,” Stallings says. “It’s taken a lot of careful time, a lot of mental work.”
Stallings likes most of all that “Little Women” is in English, a relative rarity for opera singers. She admires the language in the libretto and thinks the text settings are poignant.
“I like how expressive Jo is in her music. That’s something I like and hate about Adamo,” she says, laughing. “Because it is extremely difficult to sing and learn, but once you do and get it in your voice, it makes sense because Jo is such a dramatic person. Deep down, she feels all the emotions she’s expressing. It’s not put on.”
Adamo’s musical language may be difficult to perform, but it is well varied and includes lush beauty, according to Lewis. It has elements of traditional operas, such as arias and duets. The orchestration for an 18-piece ensemble has a chamber-music feel to it, which fits the domesticity of the story.
“The recitatives, the conversations sections of this opera, tend to be very complex harmonically, bordering on 12-tone ideas,” Lewis says. “This is where we go into extreme harmonic progressions and strong dissonance. Then, he will balance that off with a scene where two characters argue, but, once you get into the actual aria, all of a sudden, you’re in a very tonal and melodic framework.”
He says one of the composer’s challenges in creating an opera out of a book one would never read in a single evening is to show the progress of several characters. He says one of the most engaging parts of the opera comes at the beginning of Act II in the ensemble “Right Soon.”
“All the sisters tell their situations. Jo’s gone to New York. Amy is in England. Meg had her children and Beth’s health is declined. It’s like letter writing but also one of the most tonal sections, with a cheerful tone to it,” Lewis says. “It’s really quite remarkable.”
Stage director Crystal Manich admires Adamo’s opera but, says she, like the singers, faced a big challenge. The quick changes between scenes, and scenes with multiple sub-groups going on simultaneously, led her and stage designer Shengxin Jin to use four platforms to differentiate the action.
“What Adamo has done, really done, is (address) the dramatic question of the book: Will Jo grow up and learn to love and accept change? I think that really comes through in the opera,” Manich says.
“He captures the relationships very well, I think,” she says. “He has taken the part of the story about the effect Meg’s impending marriage has on Jo directly from the book but spends more time on it than the book, and that’s a great way to show how attached Jo is to her sisters. It also allows for the introduction of Friedrich Bhaer into the music, and we see Jo starting to have a change in terms of coming into womanhood.”
Mark Kanny is Tribune-Review’s classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].
‘Little Women’ on stage and screen
1918: Silent film of the classic story
1933: Katherine Hepburn as Jo and Joan Bennett as Amy
1949: June Allyson as Jo, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Janet Leigh as Meg, Mary Astor as Marmee, Peter Lawford as Laurie
1994: Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Samantha Mathis and Kirsten Dunst as older and younger Amy, Claire Danes as Beth, Christian Bale as Laurie and Susan Sarandon as Marmee
1950 and 1958: Two separate BBC TV miniseries
1970: TV miniseries in the U.S.
1978: TV miniseries with Susan Dey as Jo, Meredith Baxter as Meg, Eve Plumb as Beth, Dorothy McGuire as Marmee, Greer Garson as Aunt Kathryn and William Shatner as professor Friedrich Bhaer
1987: “Tales of Little Women,” animated Japanese series that was translated and shown in the U.S.
2015: Deadline.com reported that the CW network had put in development a grittier, modern version of “Little Women,” with writer Alexis Jolly and “NCIS” co-star Michael Weatherly as executive producers. In this story, according to Deadline, “disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined.”
2004-05: “Little Women” the musical ran for several months on Broadway with Sutton Foster as Jo, for which she was nominated for a Tony, and Maureen McGovern as Marmee.