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The American Opera Boom of the 1950s and 1960s: History and Stylistic Analysis

L’Essor de l’opéra américain des années 1950 et 1960 : historique et analyse stylistique
Rachel Hutchins-Viroux
p. 145-163


Les années 1950 et 1960 ont connu un véritable « boom », comme l’a qualifié la presse de l’époque, de l’opéra aux États-Unis. Auparavant, l’opéra n’attirait guère, en Amérique, qu’un public restreint, et il n’existait pas de véritable répertoire d’ouvrages américains. Des compositeurs, des directeurs de théâtre, des producteurs, des critiques, des mécènes et des professeurs œuvrant pour le développement de l’opéra américain ont constitué un véritable mouvement qui donna naissance à de nouvelles structures permettant à la fois de toucher un plus large public et de former les compositeurs, les chanteurs, etc. grâce aux ateliers lyriques mis en place dans les universités, aux théâtres d’amateurs, aux retransmissions télévisées, aux partenariats des entreprises avec des théâtres locaux, etc. Leurs efforts ont porté leurs fruits sur plusieurs points : le nombre des spectateurs s’est accru de façon significative pendant et depuis cette période ; de nombreux compositeurs américains ont écrit à cette époque des opéras, parmi lesquels comptent quelques chefs-d’œuvre (Susannah de Carlisle Floyd, Vanessa de Samuel Barber, The Consul de Gian Carlo Menotti…), une tradition qui se poursuit de nos jours. Enfin, cet essor a contribué entre les années 1950 et 1960 à la création d’un style reconnu comme américain, objectif majeur qui préoccupait tant de compositeurs depuis des décennies.
Les compositeurs de cette époque ont développé un style assez uniforme, basé sur un langage harmonique tout à fait tonal et lié au texte, une musique « accessible » reposant sur un livret réaliste, mis en musique de façon à imiter l’anglais américain parlé, et dont la trame était susceptible de séduire le public américain accoutumé au cinéma et aux théâtres de Broadway. De plus, la majorité de ces compositeurs ont cherché à inclure des éléments issus de la culture américaine dans leurs ouvrages, soit dans le livret, soit dans la musique elle-même. À travers lestrois ouvrages les plus populaires de cette époque (à savoir, The Ballad of Baby Doe de Douglas Moore, Susannah de Carlisle Floyd et Amahl and The Night Visitors de Gian Carlo Menotti), on distingue ces caractéristiques, dominées par le désir de plaire à un vaste public par une musique mélodieuse et par l’efficacité théâtrale de ces ouvrages.

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20th century / XXe siècle
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1Significant American-born opera is a relatively new phenomenon. In sharp contrast to their European counterparts, the few American operas that attract public interest were all composed after the second World War (with the exception of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). Indeed, American opera was not established as a genre until the 1950s, although composers of previous generations had made a number of attempts to write a quintessential “American” work. Their compositions failed to win lasting public or critical support, thereby raising questions as to what constitutes American opera. That is, beyond the mere nationality of the composer, what determines an opera’s “nationality”? Is it the subject matter? The libretto? The style? A group of composers in the 1950s and 1960s sought to answer these questions both in words, as many of them wrote journal articles putting forth their views on the topic, and in actions in the form of operas aimed at establishing a unique national repertoire.

2This paper will begin by taking a very brief look at the obstacles opera faced in America and the solutions put into place by the composers and producers of the 1950s and 1960s. Above all, we will attempt to define the characteristics of the works of this decisive period via a stylistic analysis of three of its most successful and representative works, looking first at the librettos, then at the music, and finally at the relationship between text and music.

The Growth of American Opera

3Despite scattered efforts by Americans to compose opera in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the American public and composers were slow to take to opera. Musical performances were rare in early America, and the few American composers (generally amateurs) who tried their hand at this art form attained at best minimal success, their works earning the reputation of pale imitations of European models. Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans increased in musical competence, and by century’s end, training in Europe had become the norm. The presence of professionally trained composers along with a desire, motivated by national pride, to show Europe that the United States was not culturally inferior, led to the search by the 1920s and 1930s for a unique American operatic idiom. This period produced a series of unremarkable works which have not lasted in the repertoire. However, it is generally acknowledged that the first two truly unique American operas were premiered in 1934: Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Both represented effective, new ways of setting text in English, and both incorporated uniquely American stylistic elements (hymn tunes for the former, and jazz for the latter), not to mention the local flavor given by the South Carolina setting of Gershwin’s opera. Despite their success, the genre had not taken off by the beginning of the second World War. Opera had neither captured the interest of the American public, nor was there a repertoire of works by American composers. Nevertheless, by war’s end, there was a feeling among critics and composers that the U.S. was poised for the creation of its operatic masterpieces, so they made a concerted effort to create the most favorable conditions possible.

  • 1  Deems Taylor, “The Vanishing American Opera,” Opera News 25 March 1946: 5.
  • 2  Ezra Laderman, “U.S. Opera and the Composer,” ASCAP Today 2 (1968): 16.

4The primary obstacle facing American opera was the lack of public interest in the medium. The majority of the general public saw it as elitist, unrealistic, and irrelevant. The second major obstacle was the financial difficulty of producing opera, particularly as the arts were not at all subsidized in the U.S. In order to cut down costly rehearsal time and avoid risking the public’s displeasure, the few existing opera companies produced only the most traditionally successful repertoire. This meant that there were no venues for aspiring composers, so many chose not to spend years writing works that had little to no chance of being produced.1 Those who were interested in the operatic medium found that they had no access to the theatrical experience needed to learn the trade properly and therefore interest impresarios.2

5To overcome these obstacles and break the vicious cycle, opera’s advocates created new performance structures aimed at training composers, singers, etc., and at reaching a new, wider public. The new structures they developed included opera workshops in universities, opera on Broadway and television, new, more modest opera companies without the pretensions and budget of the Metropolitan, and corporate grants. Notably, beginning in 1958 (after the creation of these other solutions and the growth of American opera) the Ford Foundation began giving a yearly grant to the New York City Opera to produce a season of American opera.

6Thanks to the establishment of new performance venues and the general momentum of the opera movement, a great many composers, both older and younger, were drawn to the medium for the first time. These novice composers of opera included Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926), Lukas Foss (b. Fuchs, 1922), William Schuman (1910-1992), and Robert Ward (b. 1917). The majority of their operas bear witness to a desire to create uniquely American works. Most of these composers chose American themes for their librettos (for instance Copland’s The Tender Land, Foss’ The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Ward’s The Crucible, and Schuman’s Mighty Casey), and many included elements of American music, especially jazz. The most prolific and successful opera composer of this group is Carlisle Floyd, whom we shall discuss in greater detail below.

  • 3  See article by Walter Zidaric in these proceedings.

7These neophyte composers thus joined the ranks of their more established colleagues who had played significant roles in advocating and launching the opera boom. This group includes Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), composer of seven operas, best known for Regina (1949) and his translation of Kurt Weill’s Three-Penny Opera. Douglas Moore (1893-1969) emerged as an operatic composer in the 1930s, and wrote a long series of works, all but one of which are set in America. Owing to his use of American literary and historical themes and the integration of folk elements into many of his works, Moore is often considered to be the leader of the “folk opera” genre. The most successful of these pioneering composers is Gian Carlo Menotti (b. 1911). Although he was born in Italy, he trained in the U.S., so Americans consider Menotti to be one of their own. He is the most prolific composer of American opera, having written over twenty operas, many of which have received prestigious awards and are still in the repertoire3. Perhaps even more importantly for the purposes of this paper is the key role Menotti played in launching the opera movement: the success of his early works, The Medium and The Telephone (1946) caught the attention of many in America, and is often seen as the catalyst for the boom that was to follow.

  • 4  Based on both number of performances over the past five seasons and CD sales. Data compiled from “ (...)

8Floyd, Moore and Menotti are all noteworthy for their activism in the movement of the 1950s and 60s. Moreover, their works are without question the most successful of that time period, and are among the most popular of all American operas (along with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess).4 Therefore, they provide the ideal examples for a brief analysis of American style of the 1950s and 1960s. We will look at their three most popular works: Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, Floyd’s Susannah (1955), and Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). The very origins of these three works bear mentioning, as they are representative of the changing logistics of the opera movement. Moore’s work was commissioned by a foundation of the Library of Congress for the bicentennial of Columbia University, where Moore was a professor. Appropriately, it received its premiere at the Central City, Colorado opera house, which is where part of the story is set. Its success, however, seems to be largely due to it being included in the New York City Opera’s seasons of American works sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Floyd’s Susannah was also bolstered by the Ford Foundation grants, and its first performance was given by the opera workshop at Florida State University, where Floyd was a professor. Menotti’s Amahl, on the other hand, has an even more unique story: it was the first opera to be commissioned for television. In 1951, NBC hired the composer to write a Christmas opera to be aired on the national network, where it reached a very large audience, and quickly became the most beloved American opera, as evidenced by the fact that it continues to receive more professional performances annually and to sell a great many more recordings than any other American work. Perhaps even more tellingly, it is also the most widely performed opera by amateur groups (another outgrowth of the 1950s movement). Amahl, unlike the other two works, was intended to appeal to the whole family. Indeed, the main character is a child (whom, Menotti has specified, should absolutely be played by a boy, and not by an adult woman), and the story is told from his perspective. Later in his career, Menotti would write many more operas aimed specifically at children, and it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that in so doing, he may have hoped to create a future audience for his art form.

Analysis of the Works

9Before we begin analyzing these works, it would be helpful to review briefly their story lines. The Ballad of Baby Doe’s libretto was written by John Latouche, and is based on the real historical figures of Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, Horace and Augusta Tabor. Horace Tabor was a nineteenth-century silver magnate who made his fortune in Colorado. He left his first wife, Augusta, for the younger “Baby” Doe. The opera recounts Augusta and Horace Tabor’s divorce, which follows Horace and Baby’s meeting, their subsequent remarriage, their later involvement in William Jennings Bryan’s campaign to maintain a silver standard, and the loss of their fortune when Bryan was defeated and the nation shifted to a gold standard. It is, above all, a character study of the three main roles, as we shall see.

  • 5  The parallels between Floyd’s story and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1952, made into an opera in (...)

10Floyd wrote his own libretto for Susannah, which is an adaptation of an Apocryphal Biblical story to an impoverished fundamentalist Christian community isolated in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee in the “recent past” (first half of the twentieth century). Against the backdrop of the visit of a revivalist preacher, this work tells the tale of a pretty young woman of eighteen whose beauty sparks feelings of jealousy and lust among the Elders of her community. This spiteful group convinces the rest of the community to ostracize Susannah, claiming falsely that she is a seductress. The visiting preacher, Olin Blitch, tries in vain to procure a public confession, which Susannah refuses to make, as she is innocent. Blitch’s frustration at this failure leads him to seduce the young woman, who, hopeless and vulnerable, gives in. Blitch realizes too late that Susannah was telling the truth and tries futilely to convince the Elders of their mistake. When Susannah’s protective brother, Sam, learns of what has transpired, he murders the preacher in plain sight of the other members of the community, and is forced to flee. The opera ends with Susannah standing alone, armed with a rifle, having refused to be driven from her home, broken and an outcast.5

11Menotti, like Floyd, has always written his own librettos. Though he worked actively to help opera develop in the United States and to found a national repertoire, Menotti saw no need to have his stories take place on American soil in order to appeal to national audiences. Amahl and the Night Visitors is the story of a poor, crippled shepherd boy and his mother living somewhere in the Middle East at the time of Jesus’s birth. They receive the visit of the Three Kings on their way to the Child. When the Magi retire for the night, the Mother resolves to steal some of the gold that the Kings are bringing to the Child in order to help her own, ailing son, but the Page catches her in the act. Melchior pardons her, saying that she can keep the gold, as the King for whom it is destined does not need it. Upon hearing his touching description of the Child whose kingdom will be built “on love alone,” the Mother returns the gold, adding that she wishes she had something to offer such a king herself. Amahl spontaneously offers his crutch, saying that he made it himself and that the Child might need it. In so doing, he is instantly cured of his lameness, and is able to walk. The Magi and the Mother proclaim the wonder of this miracle. Amahl and the Kings then convince the Mother to let him accompany them to bring thanks to the Child. He promises to return quickly, and the opera ends with Mother and son bidding each other a cheerful goodbye.

A – The Librettos

  • 6  All references to the text and music of Susannah rely on the vocal and piano score, 4th ed. 1954 ( (...)
  • 7  All references to the text and music of The Ballad of Baby Doe rely on the vocal and piano score, (...)
  • 8  All references to the text and music of Amahl and the Night Visitors rely on the vocal and piano s (...)

12At first glance, it may seem difficult to identify an overarching American style among these works, but there are unifying factors. The librettos all contain typically American language. Floyd’s and Moore’s works are stylized to reflect the regional dialects and idiomatic expressions of their settings. Floyd, a native of the American South, realistically captures the accents of Appalachia. The first line of his libretto, which begins at a summer hoe-down, sets the tone for the rest of the work: “It’s a hot night for dancin’, ain’t no breeze a-stirrin’. Them trees ain’t moved all day” (Act I, scene 1, page 5).6 Similarly, Latouche includes such typical colloquialisms as his opening line: “Wazza matter, Fogarty, ain’t my money good enough?” (I, 1, 7) or “when the chips are down,” (I, 1, 21) and “we’re livin’ high off the hog” (I, 3, 64).7 Menotti’s foreign setting, on the other hand, obviously precludes any use of regional American dialects, however he does include a few idiomatic expressions, such as Amahl’s “cross my heart and hope to die” (8), his “I’ll bash in your head!” (55), or his mother’s comment, “What are you afraid of? They won’t eat you” (36).8

  • 9  Ethan Mordden, Opera in the Twentieth Century: Sacred, Profane, Godot (New York: Oxford UP, 1978) (...)
  • 10 Gian Carlo Menotti, “Production Notes,” Amahl and the Night Visitors vi.

13One other typical characteristic of these three librettos is the casual way in which the characters often conduct themselves, if one subscribes to Ethan Mordden’s contention that a distinctive trait of American opera is the informality of its heroes, who speak to the audience without pomp or ceremony.9 While the informality of Moore’s and Floyd’s characters goes hand in hand with their settings, Menotti says that this familiarity, particularly as concerns the Three Kings, results from the fact that the opera is told from Amahl’s point of view.10

  • 11  For example, Deems Taylor, “What is American Opera?” Opera News, 17 December 1960, 9-10. Virgil Th (...)
  • 12  Carlisle Floyd, ”On the Librettist’s Art,” American Music Teacher April-May 1967, 37.

14Many critics felt that, aside from the superficial elements of plot and setting, the manner in which the text is set to music also determines whether or not it feels genuinely “American.”11 Both Floyd and Moore wrote numerous articles explaining to composers how text should be set for maximum clarity and effectiveness. Floyd sets the text in a style that approximates spoken American English as much as possible, without sacrificing the music. He felt that text which is important to the plot or is banal in nature should be set to resemble speech as closely as possible.12 An example of his setting of everyday speech occurs when Susannah’s brother, Sam, asks her “How was the square dance, little robin?” “[L]ittle robin” is all sung on sixteenth notes, and the first syllable of “robin” falls on the third beat (a strong beat in 4/4 time), thus giving the phrase a natural rhythm and emphasizing the word as it would be if spoken (I, 2, 30).

Similarly, in the pivotal scene in which Susannah explains to Sam why she allowed herself to be seduced by Blitch, Floyd sets these phrases very quickly in realistic rhythms of speech, creating a fairly natural effect of a shouted tirade (II, 5, 115; for excerpt two, click here).

  • 13  Virgil Thomson, Music with Words 13.

15According to Virgil Thomson, who wrote extensively on the subject, the most characteristic element of American music is an abundant use of syncopation, which is far more prevalent in English than in French or Italian, for example, because of the stress patterns of spoken English.13 Floyd’s naturalistic prosody would seem to support this contention. For instance, in Blitch’s entrance scene, the choral piece, “I am the Reverend Olin Blitch,” Floyd places naturally stressed words on the beat (“Reverend,” “New,” “Valley,” “devils,” etc.) and frequently uses syncopation to recreate the stresses and lengths of the spoken syllables. (Appendix A, Floyd, Susannah [I, 1, 14]) More generally, there are numerous syncopated rhythms (either eighth-note, quarter, eighth-note or sixteenth, eighth, sixteenth) in the vocal lines of each character throughout the work.

Appendix A - Moore

Appendix A - Moore

16Moore also strives, at times, to imitate American speech patterns. For instance, in the passage in which Tabor, the most plain-spoken of the three main characters, expresses his satisfaction with his new opera house, the rhythm contains two syncopated phrases (“say it as” and “imported”) to show the character’s inflections. However, his rhythms do not imitate those of speech as closely as do Floyd’s, as the overall pacing is more drawn out, more vocal.

Appendix B, Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe [I, 1, 12]

Appendix B, Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe [I, 1, 12]

17Menotti, too, approximates speech patterns. While he rarely uses syncopation, he finds other methods of setting his text in a convincingly natural-sounding way. His technique is to employ complicated rhythms and a sort of parlando style for passages where there is much text. He frequently accompanies such passages with the indication “liberamente,” thus indicating that he wishes the singers to declare their text as naturally as possible. One of the best examples of this technique is near the end of the opera when the Kings and Page ask Amahl if they may touch him, as he has been blessed by the Child, and Amahl responds to the page, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to let you touch me” (60). Menotti has set the bulk of this sentence to nonetuplets – that is, these words are sung very quickly and not in a traditional meter – and Menotti accentuates “you” as it would be in the spoken sentence by writing it as an eighth note, which is a considerably longer rhythmic value than the preceding words. Plus, it is higher in pitch, and for good measure, Menotti puts an accent above the note.

B – The Music

18In addition to similar styles of text and prosody, these works also share musical traits. Generally speaking, the American composers of this period used the tonal system and were concerned with counterpoint and conventionally proper part-writing. Their rejection of the expressionism and dodecaphonism of the 1920s’ Second Viennese School, as well as of experimental techniques, such as concrete music, popular among the musical intelligentsia of the time, was conscious and deliberate. Menotti sums up the rationale for this choice:

  • 14  Gian Carlo Menotti, “Notes on Opera as ‘Basic Theater’,” The New York Times Magazine 2 January 195 (...)

One of the reasons for the failure of so much contemporary opera is that its music lacks immediacy of communication. Theatre music must make its point and communicate its emotion at the same moment the action develops. It cannot wait to be understood until after the curtain comes down. […] Many contemporary composers seem to fear clarity and directness, perhaps because they are afraid of becoming obvious. To quote Goethe: “We must not disdain what is immediately visible and sensuous. Otherwise we shall be sailing without ballast.”14

  • 15  Elie Siegmeister, “Oh, for a Tune!,” The New York Times 6 May 1956: B7.
  • 16  George R[ichard] Marek, “Musical Comedy Isn’t Yet Opera,” TheNew York Times 13 November 1960: B25.

19In other words, the composers of the opera movement felt that experimental music was not compatible with the emotional expression necessary for convincing theater. Writing appealing, accessible music came to be seen as one of the conditions for the success of American opera. Many music critics and composers felt that much of the reason for opera’s marginal status in America lay with the music itself. Composer and critic Elie Siegmeister wrote that aside from Porgy and Bess and some works by Weill, Bernstein, and Menotti, American opera lacked memorable melodies because composers seemed to feel that it was “shameful” to write tunes that the public could easily retain. He stated: “In the theatre a clear-cut singable melodic line […] is an essential means of communication between composer and audience.”15 Producer George Marek shared this opinion: “Opera composers should learn something from theater men about the charm of vocal melody and how to use the voice. […] The American operas I have heard are too precious or too intellectual or too arid—in short too ‘unvocal’—to live a secure life onstage.”16 The composers of the opera boom clearly shared these opinions, as their works contain attractive, retainable melodies. Not coincidentally, the three works of this study all feature several tunes that the audience could walk away humming (for instance Susannah’s aria, “The Trees on the Mountains” [II, 3, 93-96], the quartet of the Three Kings and the Mother from Amahl [28-32], and nearly everything Baby Doe sings).

  • 17  Robert Evett, “How right is right?,” The Score and I.M.A. Magazine June 1955: 33.
  • 18  “Opera Boom,” Time 23 May 1955: 62.
  • 19  Burrill Phillips, “Our Young Opera Composers,” Music Journal 19 (April 1961): 47.
  • 20  Henry Cowell, “The Flavour of American music,” The Score and I.M.A. Magazine June 1955: 5-6.

20American composers of the 1950s and 1960s also tended to use classical forms and relatively simple orchestration (perhaps partly to accommodate the musicians of the opera workshops and the amateur groups), and they often built their work on “expansive melodic materials.”17Time magazine explains that the typical American opera of the 1950s was more likely to follow the Germanic tradition of continuous, expressive singing, rather than the Italian formula with “separate, show-stopping arias.”18 This does not mean, however, that the Italian style had no influence on American opera of this period. On the contrary, the soaring vocal lines and melodramatic plots concerning average citizens common in American works of the 1950s clearly had their origins in verismo. Composer and critic Burrill Phillips stated that the successful American operas have “a lyric and truly vocal style, flexibility of staging, and a heightened awareness of dramatic demands and techniques.”19 American style was, perhaps, best summarized by critic and composer Henry Cowell, who said that in addition to some genuinely “characteristic flavours,” American music is unique because it integrates elements from different European nations which remain separate in European music.20

21The works of this study support this last assertion. Moore, for example, freely borrows from numerous disparate traditions. Each of the many scenes in The Ballad of Baby Doe is separated from the others by a break in the music, change in scenery, characters, and, often, time, thus evoking the “number operas” common in the pre-Wagnerian Italian style (for example, those of Mozart). Yet, the interior structure of the scenes is not Italianate, but Germanic. Particularly in the case of Augusta, the austere first wife of Horace Tabor, through-composed recitative dominates the vocal expression, a practice clearly inherited from Wagner’s continuous melody. Moore also frequently uses waltzes in the Viennese tradition, which were popular at the time of the story’s setting.

22Menotti gives an occasional Oriental flavor to his work, for example, by the use of parallel fifths and fourths in the Three Kings trio, a technique generally avoided in Western harmony (12).

However, his dominant idioms are European, and, like Moore’s, they create a hybrid. Menotti’s sense of melody is clearly Italian (indeed, he has often been compared to Puccini), however his score bears the mark of the Wagnerian tradition of continuous melody, so much so that Amahl is not even divided into scenes. Like Wagner, Menotti wrote few arias which can be extracted from the whole of the work.

23Floyd seems to have been less influenced by Italian opera, his work clearly being much more in the tradition of Germanic post-Romanticism. Susannah is through-composed and consists largely of recitative which does not contain easily retainable melodies and is highly expressive. Floyd also uses the orchestra in a post-Wagnerian manner. That is, the orchestra plays a vital role in communicating the characters’ emotions and setting the dramatic tone. This effect is heightened by Floyd’s use of leitmotivs, also in the Wagnerian tradition. For example, there is a disturbing four-measure theme which apparently represents Susannah’s fate. It appears in three similar variations, first in the overture, then when Susannah decides to attend the revival meeting (II, 1, 72), and when she laughs an empty, cynical laugh as the Elders walk out of the church after Blitch has failed to convince them to believe in her innocence (II, 4, 110). A version identical to this last one appears when Sam resolves to kill Blitch (II, 5, 117). The trills and heavy use of chromaticism in this theme help to create a sense of impending doom.

24Despite this major Germanic influence, Floyd’s work also contains a uniquely American sound, as he often incorporates elements of Appalachian hymns and popular music. This music is often characterized by its pentatonic or plaintive modal qualities, though it can also be upbeat. For example, the lively fiddle tune which opens the first act unmistakably tells the listener where the action takes place, as does the square dance which follows. Similarly, Sam’s aria, “It Must Make the Good Lord Sad” (I, 5, 59-61) has the melancholy modal quality of an Appalachian ballad, as it is in C-natural minor. The natural minor has the same intervallic pattern as the Aeolian mode, therefore it strikes modern ears as belonging to the distant past.

25Most notably, Floyd uses two invented folk songs in the opera which serve multiple purposes. Both are recurring and act dramatically as leitmotivs. One communicates Susannah’s loneliness and desperation through the use of the natural minor (or Aeolian mode). The other, the “Jaybird” song, is in a major key, but Floyd avoids the use of the seventh scale degree in the vocal line, a feature typical of American folk music. One should not, however, confuse the use of popular idioms with simplicity: Floyd combines folk elements and advanced compositional techniques in an original and expressive manner. For example, this song, first sung by Sam to Susannah in a moment of lightness and amusement, represents the siblings’ shared innocence and joy. In subsequent variations it is twisted to show the destruction of that happiness. For instance, when Susannah bathes in the creek, thus unwittingly sparking the Elders’ lust which will lead to their marring her reputation, she hums this tune in C-major above a bitonal orchestral accompaniment in C-major and Bb-minor. This dissonance effectively creates a jarring and ominous atmosphere.

Appendix C, Floyd, Susannah [I, 3, 35]

Appendix C, Floyd, Susannah [I, 3, 35]

Through these and many other instances of similar music, Floyd creates a unique blend of American and post-Romantic sounds.

26As previously mentioned, Douglas Moore’s work, and particularly The Ballad of Baby Doe, is known for its use of folk-style music. He thus creates, like Floyd, an original idiom. For example, in Tabor’s first number, he sings with his cronies in a strict verse and refrain form which resembles a popular song much more closely than an aria with chorus (I, 1, 16-19). The song, like most of the opera, is only minimally orchestrated (more like musical theater than grand opera). The chord progression for the first three verses is as simple as a folk song (I-IV-I or I-IV-V-I), and these verses are written in B-flat major without the slightest chromatic alteration. Like Floyd’s opening scene, this song culminates in a popular dance whose music is also simple, designed to evoke folk song. In three measures of the refrain (on the words “Dig away to save your souls”) the vocal line becomes pentatonic, thereby evoking the sound of cowboy ballads, which are typically pentatonic, and thus not technically in a key.

  • 21  Although the use of the pentatonic scale in much modern Western classical music can be traced to D (...)

27Similarly, Moore also uses the pentatonic scale in Baby’s first aria, “Willow Song” (with a nod to Verdi). The aria is written in classical A-B-A form, and though the aria is in B-flat major, in the A sections, Moore scrupulously avoids As and E-flats in the vocal line, therefore lending the pentatonic sound of the American West to the aria.21

28Moore’s music gains an American flavor not only from his use of folk music elements, but also from his frequent use of such components from jazz music as flatted sevenths and thirds (the “blue notes”) and syncopation. For example, in the opening scene, the drunken miner, saloon girls, and the bouncer sing flatted thirds and sevenths (I, 1, 7).

Moore also includes a full jazz song, complete with stylistic syncopation and blue notes, sung in a hallucinatory vision as Tabor dies by his adult daughter, who has been reduced to singing in seedy nightclubs. Like Floyd, Moore uses popular elements not just superficially, but to communicate. Indeed, his use of various idioms seems to be as much symbolic as it is stylistic. One realizes as Tabor is instructed to “look across the years and see [his true girl, his memory made flesh] as she will be,” that Latouche was not only talking about Tabor’s daughter (who truly led a tragic, sordid life), but also about America. Moore and Latouche follow America’s story from the optimistic period of nineteenth-century Westward expansion to the poverty and disillusionment of the 1930s. Throughout the opera, one can observe the changes of the style and pace of life (from the miners’ cheerful dance of the first scene, to the Viennese waltzes of the beginning of the second act, to the commercial jazz of the 1920s in the final scene). Tellingly, the daughter’s song ends with the lyrics: “So keep on moving faster, faster, faster,” etc.).

Appendix D, Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe [II, 5, 241].

Appendix D, Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe [II, 5, 241].

Furthermore, as Moore uses jazz elements only in the saloon of the first scene or the nightmarish vision of the last, one could speculate that he intends for jazz to represent deprivation.

29Despite these popular elements, Moore’s music is by no means simple. These accessible moments contrast with the frequent recitative, which is often dissonant and rarely melodic. Moore, despite his reputation as a musical conservative, employs, like Floyd and Menotti, post-Romantic techniques of chromaticism, ambiguous tonality, and dissonance. All three of these composers use these techniques sparingly, and only at moments when the story requires increased tension.

C – The Relationship between Text and Music

  • 22  John Dizikes, Opera in America: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993) 486. Gian Carlo Meno (...)

30This observation leads us to identify the major unifying characteristic of the operas of this period. More striking than the musical eclecticism or generalized adherence to tonal idioms is the relationship between the text and the music. In all three of these works, the music serves the drama. Floyd, Moore, Menotti, as well as many other composers of their time, all stressed the importance of the Wagnerian concept of an integrated music drama in which the theatrical elements of the work take precedence over musical concerns. This premise is not only the most important quality of the works of this period, it is also fundamental to the success of the opera movement itself. While new performance venues brought more opera to the people, they would not, in themselves, have been enough to change the public’s perception of this art form. There was a consensus among composers, critics, and producers of the opera movement that their medium’s growth had been stunted because it had interested only a very limited group of élite Americans, who frequented (and monopolized) opera houses not out of a genuine interest in theater, but more often for the social opportunity to see and be seen.22 The advocates of the 1950s and 1960s felt that in order to revitalize opera and appeal to the vast potential audience who attended the cinema and theaters, opera would have to strive for the same dramatic realism and the music would have to be pleasing to the ear. Julius Rudel, director of the New York City Opera and significant advocate of American opera, expressed this opinion:

  • 23  Julius Rudel, “Opera’s Development in America,” Music Journal 19 (Februry 1961): 28.

Europeans grow up with music as an integral part of their lives, and as such it is popular, intended to be entertaining and fulfilling, not simply “art” that is to be endured. For Americans the movies have served in this way while serious music, especially opera, has had social and intellectual associations and pretensions. If ever this “snob” barrier is to be broken down, opera must be brought to the people in a form that has both artistic integrity and appeal. It must come to life for the audience of today and not reek of the museum. Credibility is important. […] For a nation accustomed to the naturalism of the movies, opera must pay attention to dramatic values and be performed in a language understood by its audience.23

  • 24  Douglas Moore, “Opera as Theatre,” The New York Times 12 April 1959: B9.
  • 25  Taylor, “What is American Opera?” 30.

31Many composers shared this conviction and put it into practice. Douglas Moore stated simply: “opera, to succeed, must be good theatre.”24 Likewise, Deems Taylor emphasized the importance of the theatrical values of opera, defining American opera as music drama written “with the conviction that it has to be and will be understood. And now that at least some composers are writing with the conviction that opera is not primarily a musical form, not primarily a literary form, but a dramatic experience, we can hope to see more and more American operas that will succeed.”25 Carlisle Floyd also addressed the issue:

  • 26  Carlisle Floyd, “The Composer as Librettist,” Opera News 10 November 1962: 10.

We talk a great deal […] of extending the audience for opera, of making opera commercially more viable in this country. In my experience, the potential new audience (and it is there) demands much more for its pleasure than mere vocalism or even beautiful music. This audience is steeped in a realistic tradition through its exposure to films, the stage and even television; when it goes to the opera, it wants to understand words, demanding that they make sense in terms of realistic criteria. It responds to opera’s dramatic values as it might to a play’s. Therefore, if a librettist and composer are interested in appealing to this audience, as I am, they must realize that the rudiments of good dramaturgy for both libretto and play are fundamentally the same.26

32Menotti expressed similar sentiments and explained his creative process and reasoning:

  • 27  Gian Carlo Menotti, “Opera isn’t Dead,” Etude 68 (1950): 14-15.

[S]acrifices must be made in the hope of forming an ideal marriage between the words and the music. […] Just as a drop of water is created by an exact proportion of hydrogen and oxygen, so in creating a lyrical phrase you must have an equally exact proportion between words and music. As water is not merely hydrogen and oxygen, so must the composer of opera strive to create something which is neither a play with added music, nor a symphony with words, but a new, indissoluble organism. […] I always conceive my libretti at the same time as I conceive the music […] A phrase such as “Mother, Mother, are you there?” in The Medium, has no meaning to me unless it is sung. Nor does “Isn’t the weather awful?” in The Old Maid and the Thief.27

33The music of this period works in tandem with the text to convey a sense of character and drama, and at times, the beauty of the music is sacrificed in the interest of storytelling. For instance, to imitate the spoken and emotional crescendo of a fundamentalist preacher, Floyd instructs that the Reverend Blitch’s sermon should begin “half spoken, half sung, gradually using more vibrato, working into full singing voice.” (80) Similarly, at the peak of his misery and consternation (II, 4, 108), Blitch implores the Elders to recognize their error in a dramatic sprechstimme.

34Floyd also uses music in other ways to convey elements of characterization. For instance, his musical structure communicates the leadership role of the spiteful couple of Elders, Mr. and Mrs. McLean, who manipulate their peers into ostracizing Susannah. The two quartets, the four Elders and their wives, often sing in unison, showing that they are of one mind, and often they repeat in chorus what Mr. or Mrs. McLean has said first in a solo. Similarly, while Floyd shows repeatedly through text, music, and stage notes the kind, gentle nature of Sam, he carefully prepares the violent tendency which will lead the character to commit murder. For example, when Susannah says that men have been harassing her since the Elders started the rumors about her, Sam says, “I’d kill ‘em all, if it’d do any good. I’d kill ‘em all, I would” (II, 2, 67), with the final note of this exclamation on a high A, thus reinforcing the violence inherent in the words.

35Susannah’s emotional development is the focal point of the opera, and the music is used in conjunction with the text to expert effect to convey this evolution. For instance, the audience’s first glimpse of Susannah comes in the second scene, where Floyd describes her as being still “radiant with excitement” after the party. Even without this indication in the stage directions, Susannah’s exuberance comes across as she speaks quickly and enthusiastically of the evening’s entertainment. Furthermore, her vocal line here contains many large intervals (fifths, octaves, and ninths), which also emphasize her ebullience (I, 2, 22).

In her aria which follows, Floyd clearly depicts her as full of wonder and innocent, childlike hope as she contemplates the night sky in a melodic adagio:

Ain’t it a pretty night!
The sky’s so heavy with stars tonight
that it could fall right down out of heaven
and cover us up in one big blanket
of velvet and diamonds (I, 2, 28-29).

36In addition, she tells in high, thus emotionally charged, notes of her desire to go “beyond them mountains,” to explore the outside world, but she determines that she would return to the valley once her curiosity has been satisfied, for she would surely become homesick (I, 2, 27-28). Thus, Floyd creates an image of beauty, kindness, and naïveté.

37This innocent joy contrasts sharply with the mood of the second act, by which point Susannah has been an outcast for a week. As the curtain opens, Susannah is sitting on her front porch with Sam standing behind her. Floyd writes: “She is staring abstractedly as if she might have been in the same position for days. Sam watches her sadly […]. There is a long silence in which an atmosphere of static helplessness must be established” (II, 1, 63). When Susannah finally does sing, the tessitura is low and the melody repetitive, thus showing her depression and lethargy.

Appendix E, Floyd, Susannah [II, 1, 63-64]

Appendix E, Floyd, Susannah [II, 1, 63-64]

This melding of libretto and music continues throughout at the opera, showing each of the main characters’ development.

38Moore likewise uses a variety of musical devices to convey the personalities and moods of his characters. Baby Doe, for example, is presented as the ideal nineteenth-century wife. In her text, she unquestioningly supports and idolizes her husband, and in music, she is melodious and sings in major keys. She has far less recitative than the other principal characters and expresses herself almost exclusively in song. Tellingly, Baby mostly sings in 3/4 time, thus creating a sense of romance and joy about her, which is associated with the waltz. In addition, her songs are not through-composed, but are made up of verses and a refrain (with the exception of the “Silver Aria”). She also has several coloratura passages which seem to convey through vocal elegance the physical charm and gentle spirit which characterize her. In short, Baby Doe’s music is easily accessible to the public and conveys the beauty, simplicity, and straightforwardness of her character. Baby’s first entrance is with a waltz in C-major, which contrasts with the preceding recitative of the other characters’.

Appendix F, Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe [I, 1, 28],

Appendix F, Moore, The Ballad of Baby Doe [I, 1, 28],

Her music is nearly always melodic, thereby rendering it accessible. The rare alterations which occur in it are only to intensify dramatic effect, usually giving it a romantic tone through modulations.

39Only in the final scene does Baby’s music show another dimension. As the scene itself is a departure from the very straightforward action of the rest of the opera, with its symbolic journey from Tabor’s beginnings to his death, followed by Baby’s death thirty-six years after his, Baby’s music also distinguishes itself from her facile, cheerful waltz idiom that characterized most of her previous scenes. Likewise, in this scene, Moore makes much greater use of the orchestra. Most of the work is sparsely orchestrated. Often as the characters sing, the orchestra hardly does more than mark the beats or double the vocal line. Frequently, it merely sustains a chord or does not play at all, particularly during ensemble or recitative passages. Yet, in the final scene, the orchestra is considerably more present. Moore makes extensive use of tremolos, thus creating a sense of foreboding and tension, and he uses dissonant chords, which not only create great moments of discord, bordering on bitonality within the musical accompaniment, but the orchestra, for the only time in the opera, is in dissonance with the singers, thus highlighting the tension and sadness of the scene. In addition, the orchestra has a few moments of post-Romantic élan in which the rhythms are different from those of the singers, and there are frequent modulations, thus adding to the intensity of the emotions present in this scene. However, despite these somewhat cliché effects (which reflect influence by Richard Strauss), Moore avoids melodrama in this scene, and the result is touching and genuine theater. In reserving such a treatment of the orchestra until the end, Moore creates a contrast with the rest of the work which catches the audience’s attention. While Baby’s vocal line remains melodic, it contains a great many more modulations and alterations than previously, and, for the first time, she is accompanied by brass and tremolos, thus accentuating the dramatic contents of her words. Nevertheless, this intense texture does not last long, and Baby segues into a very tonal lullaby, as she sings Tabor, and then herself, to their final rest.

  • 28  Quoted in John Gruen, Menotti: A Biography (New York: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1978) (...)

40Naturally, Menotti, who was deeply concerned with creating a unified music drama which subscribed to the same theatrical standards as a straight play, strove to create believable characters whom he illustrated in music. He specified that Amahl is to be played by a regular-looking boy; he is no angel, as he is representative of Menotti himself as a child. Menotti said, “I like my Amahl to be a naughty little boy – a little devil. The character should be impish. He tells lies, he is disobedient.”28 This characterization comes across in the libretto as well as in the music. For example, the audience immediately learns that Amahl, like the boy who cried “wolf,” has told so many fibs that his mother no longer believes him when he tells her of the Star of Bethlehem which is hanging over their roof. As she tells him it is bedtime, he pleads to stay up longer. With a different argument each time, he repeats the phrase “But, Mother, let me stay a little longer” three and a half times, each time with the same melody, though the pitch rises, thus effectively communicating the urgency and repetitiveness of a child’s nagging.

Appendix G, Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors [3-4]

Appendix G, Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors [3-4]

41Similarly, Menotti uses the music to define the characters’ relationships and to show their changing moods. For instance, Amahl gives a dreamy, poetic account of the night sky. His wonder at this sight is conveyed by the use of small intervals to create a pleasant, fairly simple melody in an ascending melodic minor with scale alterations to create an Oriental feel. The Mother cuts in with sharply contrasting music to show her irritation at her son’s daydreaming. Her intervals are large, so the smooth melodic flow is lost, as is the gentle Oriental mystery, replaced with exasperated leaps of octaves and major sevenths. Yet, at the end of the scene, when the Mother has been touched by Amahl’s attempt to console her fears for their future (which he does in an arietta), she joins in his sweet, simple F-major melody with a counterpoint to his vocal line, creating a moment of harmonic tenderness.

Appendix H, Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors [11]

Appendix H, Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors [11]

42Thus, the composers of the 1950s and 1960s succeeded in creating an identifiable style. Their music is eclectic, yet harmonically conservative, and above all, aimed at appealing to its audience through pleasing melodic music which serves the text to create realistic theater. A fairly large body of works was written in this style during that period, which one might define as dating from 1946 with the premiere of Menotti’s Medium, and ending in 1966 with the inauguration of the new Metropolitan Opera by Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. The opera movement achieved, therefore, many of its goals: the establishment of an American repertoire, the expansion of the audience for opera, and new performance structures and sources of funding which have continued to promote the creation of new works by American composers yearly.

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1  Deems Taylor, “The Vanishing American Opera,” Opera News 25 March 1946: 5.

2  Ezra Laderman, “U.S. Opera and the Composer,” ASCAP Today 2 (1968): 16.

3  See article by Walter Zidaric in these proceedings.

4  Based on both number of performances over the past five seasons and CD sales. Data compiled from “Season Schedules,” <> (28 September 2003) and from “Sales Rankings,” <> (28 September 2003).

5  The parallels between Floyd’s story and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1952, made into an opera in 1961 by Robert Ward) are not coincidental; both authors (and composers) sought to denounce McCarthyism. See Jonathan Abarbanel, “Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah: An Introduction,” liner notes of the CD recording, Virgin Classics, 1994.

6  All references to the text and music of Susannah rely on the vocal and piano score, 4th ed. 1954 ([London]: Boosey & Hawkes, 1997).

7  All references to the text and music of The Ballad of Baby Doe rely on the vocal and piano score, 1956 ([Milwaukee]: Hal Leonard, 1958).

8  All references to the text and music of Amahl and the Night Visitors rely on the vocal and piano score, 1951 ([New York]: Schirmer, 1952).

9  Ethan Mordden, Opera in the Twentieth Century: Sacred, Profane, Godot (New York: Oxford UP, 1978) 308.

10 Gian Carlo Menotti, “Production Notes,” Amahl and the Night Visitors vi.

11  For example, Deems Taylor, “What is American Opera?” Opera News, 17 December 1960, 9-10. Virgil Thomson, Music with Words: A Composer’s View (New Haven: Yale UP, 1989) 22, 26.

12  Carlisle Floyd, ”On the Librettist’s Art,” American Music Teacher April-May 1967, 37.

13  Virgil Thomson, Music with Words 13.

14  Gian Carlo Menotti, “Notes on Opera as ‘Basic Theater’,” The New York Times Magazine 2 January 1955: 23.

15  Elie Siegmeister, “Oh, for a Tune!,” The New York Times 6 May 1956: B7.

16  George R[ichard] Marek, “Musical Comedy Isn’t Yet Opera,” TheNew York Times 13 November 1960: B25.

17  Robert Evett, “How right is right?,” The Score and I.M.A. Magazine June 1955: 33.

18  “Opera Boom,” Time 23 May 1955: 62.

19  Burrill Phillips, “Our Young Opera Composers,” Music Journal 19 (April 1961): 47.

20  Henry Cowell, “The Flavour of American music,” The Score and I.M.A. Magazine June 1955: 5-6.

21  Although the use of the pentatonic scale in much modern Western classical music can be traced to Debussy’s interest in Eastern sound qualities, the sound created here is one of the American West of the nineteenth century, not of the Orient.

22  John Dizikes, Opera in America: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993) 486. Gian Carlo Menotti, “Point of Contact,” Opera News, 27 December-3 January 1969-70: 8-9. Howard Taubman, “American Opera on the Upbeat,” The New York Times Magazine 12 January 1958: 34. Deems Taylor, “What is American Opera?,” 9-10.

23  Julius Rudel, “Opera’s Development in America,” Music Journal 19 (Februry 1961): 28.

24  Douglas Moore, “Opera as Theatre,” The New York Times 12 April 1959: B9.

25  Taylor, “What is American Opera?” 30.

26  Carlisle Floyd, “The Composer as Librettist,” Opera News 10 November 1962: 10.

27  Gian Carlo Menotti, “Opera isn’t Dead,” Etude 68 (1950): 14-15.

28  Quoted in John Gruen, Menotti: A Biography (New York: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1978) 111

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Titre Appendix G, Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors [3-4]
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Titre Appendix H, Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors [11]
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Rachel Hutchins-Viroux, « The American Opera Boom of the 1950s and 1960s: History and Stylistic Analysis »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°3 | 2004, 145-163.

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Rachel Hutchins-Viroux, « The American Opera Boom of the 1950s and 1960s: History and Stylistic Analysis »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°3 | 2004, mis en ligne le 10 novembre 2009, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Rachel Hutchins-Viroux

(Nancy II, France)
Rachel Hutchins-Viroux est maître de langues à l’Université de Nancy 2 où elle achève un doctorat sous la direction du Professeur André Kaenel. Sa thèse s’intitule « Nationalisme et identité nationale dans les manuels scolaires d’histoire américaine du Texas: 1982-1997 ». Rachel Hutchins-Viroux est en outre titulaire d’un premier prix de chant du Conservatoire Régional de Nancy. Elle a écrit avec John S. Bak, «  ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’: André Prévin’s Streetcar and the Specter of the Burlesque », paru dans le numéro de décembre 2003 de Coup de Théâtre.

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