Thornton Wilder’s classic American play Our Town got new life as an opera when it premiered in 2006 in New York. Now Central City Opera is performing it as part of its summer season. Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the original play in 1938.
From the same stage that gave us the lovely, lyrical La Boheme and colorful rousing chorus of Oklahoma! last year, Our Town is a huge departure from traditional opera. The chasm is so large that regular patrons may be disappointed in this progressive piece by award-winning composer Ned Rorem and librettist J.D. McClatchy.
Our Town the opera is faithful to the play’s vision. It’s performed with minimal staging—only a table and chair or two—limited props, and the acting consists mostly of pantomime. Devoid of arias or a central melody, the singing is literally words put to music. When Emily (Anna Christy) marries George (William Ferguson), the moment seems a missed opportunity for a love aria. But this is not that kind opera. Nor does it have any of the silliness of misidentification and masquerading of some classic operas.
This production is serious stuff. Its simplistic presentation underscores the uneventful story of families living in a quintessential small town in New Hampshire in the early 1900s. They work hard, they raise kids, the kids fall in love, the kids get married (“Most everybody in the world climbs into their grave married”), and everybody dies, some before their time. The audience is privileged to hear about these lives as though it were eavesdropping on a telephone party line in the first half of the last century.
Central City’s Our Town can best be appreciated by listening carefully to McClatchy’s dialogue that’s sung in English and also written across the top of the stage in the translation box (for emphasis, perhaps?) Forget waiting for toe-tapping rhythm or haunting melody—it’s not going to happen.
The words are poignant and worth remembering. In the third and last act, Emily comes back from the grave to relive her 13th birthday. When she sees how unaffected her loved ones are in the moment, she sings “Does anybody realize life when they live it?” then goes back to her friends in the afterlife who understand.
Every voice in this production is stellar, costumes give it a sense of place, and lighting sets the somber mood. Still, if it’s traditional opera you like, steady yourself and appreciate it as something different.
Our Town has five more performances: July 18, 20, 26 at 8 p.m. and July 24, 28 at 2:30 p.m. CCO is also staging The Barber of Seville and Show Boat in its summer series. For information on tickets and other programming, visit www.centralcityopera.org.