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Metropolitan Opera: Harbison's "The Great Gatsby"

John Harbison: The Great Gatsby

Daisy Buchanan: Dawn Upshaw, soprano
Jordan Baker: Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
Myrtle Wilson: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, soprano
Jay Gatsby: Jerry Hadley, tenor
Nick Carraway: Dwayne Croft, baritone
Tom Buchanan: Mark Baker, baritone
George Wilson: Richard Paul Fink, baritone
Meyer Wofsheim: William Powers, baritone
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
James Levine, conductor


NEW YORK -- The idea for an opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby has percolated in John Harbison's mind since the early '80s. On Monday, the Gatsby dream came to fruition with the opera's world premiere before a glittering sold-out house at the Metropolitan Opera. It was a local triumph of sorts: Harbison is well known to area audiences through the annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which he and his wife, Rose Mary, sponsor at their summer retreat near Madison.

Harbison himself fashioned the opera's libretto from Fitzgerald's novel, the classic story of American life during the Jazz Age. One of its central themes, a yearning to inhabit a created persona, to become the person one would like to be, possibly at the expense of propriety or even outside the law, is quintessentially American. Indeed the idea of becoming whoever one dreams of being is even more iconic at the end of the 20th century than it was in Fitzgerald's day.

As Harbison notes, "This theme says something about our dreams of glory -- in Elmer Gantry or in the films of Chaplin, say. We are culturally sympathetic to figures like these."

Though Harbison has substantially altered the novel's narrative framework to set the action before us on the stage, the basic story is preserved. Jay Gatsby, a wealthy young man of mysterious background, is thrown together socially with an earlier love, the rich young socialite Daisy. She has since married the overbearing, boorish but rich Tom Buchanan, who has been having a not entirely clandestine affair with Myrtle, the wife of garage mechanic George Wilson. In the course of the action, Myrtle, Gatsby and Wilson all wind up dead.

An interesting aspect of this opera is that it exists at all. Gatsby is only the third Met commission in this decade. "Opera is the one field of classical music in which the audience for standard repertory is increasing," says Harbison, who's previously been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. "The attending prosperity has made it possible to catch up with established 20th-century repertory as well. The Met intends to follow through, with new commissions to come."

Another key issue for this and other new operas is what happens after the premiere: Will the work have more than a few performances and be produced elsewhere? The typical answer is no, but Harbison is sanguine about Gatsby's fate. "Certain works are of such a scale, musically and physically, that they can be given in only a handful of houses. I can't say what future Gatsby will have, but I know that I have more than enough projects and ideas to keep me fully occupied no matter what the outcome of this one."

Harbison should be well pleased with the quality of the production his work received. Where others have failed, he succeeded in bringing the novel to life on stage. It was in every regard a sonic and visual spectacular: marvelous performances by the Met orchestra and chorus under James Levine's leadership, first-rate singing by all the principals -- Dawn Upshaw as Daisy, Jerry Hadley as Gatsby, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Myrtle Wilson, Susan Graham as Jordan Baker, Dwayne Croft as Nick Carraway, Mark Baker as Tom Buchanan, Richard Paul Fink as George Wilson and William Powers as Meyer Wolfsheim -- plus skillful stage direction and choreography, lavish period costuming, attractive minimal settings, and sumptuous lighting and projections. The musical score is very complex and completely original, indeed unlike even other works of Harbison's that I've heard. This opera's sound is modern in every sense, full of lyricism in both solos and ensembles. Harbison composed new songs and dance music to evoke the musical styles of the period, functioning as dramatic counterpoint to the opera's modernity.

I think the work too often compromises dramatic tension. At several key points the story is told rather than being enacted. While this works literarily, it dilutes the emotional intensity of the action. It's clearly the composer-librettist's conscious choice to trade off affective impact for intellectual force in this way. All that notwithstanding, however, Harbison's Gatsby is loaded with beautiful music, presented in splendid tableaux. It's certainly fair to call it an impressive first performance. The second performance will be broadcast live on New Year's Day wherever Met broadcasts are carried; in Madison, that will be at 12:30 p.m. on WERN (88.7).

Isthmus, December, 1999
Copyright 1999 Jess Anderson

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