Opera Beyond the Usual: Little Women Edition
There is a universe of outstanding opera beyond the most popular two dozen that you may know well. Island City Opera is making a habit of finding those brilliant though seldom performed works. In 2018, we produced the North American premiere of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey the Immortal. Before that, in 2017 we produced Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte. And even before that, in 2015 we produced Gioachino Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino.
For our 2019 season, we’re staging, not an forgotten masterpiece from the archives, but a truly modern work inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s timeless American classic; Mark Adamo’s Little Women. At one time, Little Women was part of the American educational canon. Not so much now. And, such an expansive novel is difficult to wrestle into an opera format. So, to help navigate the opera plot, below is a synopsis as well as a scene-by-scene description.
The March sisters are as close as sisters can be, but as they grow up, their relationships begin to change. Jo, the second child, is very reluctant to this change as she wants them all to remain as close as possible all their lives. When Meg, the eldest sister, beings to be courted by a local man, John Brooke, Jo is very upset that Meg would betray her by leaving the family for a husband. Even though Meg assures Jo that she will always love her, Jo is deeply hurt by Meg’s falling in love. Laurie, the March’s neighbor, and Jo’s closest friend, has always been Jo’s confidant, however as he grows older it is clear that his feelings for her have grown romantically. Laurie confesses his love to Jo and asks her to marry him. Jo cannot even comprehend the idea of marrying someone and leaving her family behind, and she rejects his proposal. Laurie, dejected, leaves her and Jo thinks that, in time, he will forget his feelings for her and their friendship will return to the way it was. As she grows up, her ideas of love and life slowly change and we wonder if she ever accept the love of someone outside her family? This wonderful tale of family love, growing older, and being an independent woman has been a classic from its inception in 1868. Mark Adamo’s luscious arias brings a musical poignancy to Louisa May Alcott’s story that is touching, and his unsettling music brings Jo’s struggles with the changing world to life and keeps the audience wondering if she will ever change her mind.
The opera begins in the Marsh family attic in the 1870s. The 21-year-old Jo is alone, writing, when Laurie, a young man now married to Jo’s sister Amy, arrives. They make awkward conversation, as they reflect on their own past relationship. When Laurie tells Jo that he is glad that things are going back to the way they used to be, Jo becomes upset, and begins the flashbacks that make up the rest of the opera. (“Couldn’t I unbake the breads”).
Three years earlier, in the same attic, the four Marsh sisters and Laurie are holding a meeting of the Barristers’ Club, with much mock ceremony. Jo is protective of Beth, who has been ill. After a game, they ask each other questions in a game of “Truth or Fabrication”.
After the others have left, Laurie. stays behind to talk to Jo, telling her that the glove sister Meg says she has lost has actually been given to Laurie’s tutor, Brooke. Jo is annoyed at the thought of marriage breaking up their family; after Laurie leaves, it distracts her from the story she is writing. (“Perfect as we are.”)
A few weeks later, Jo and Laurie are out walking when they see Meg and Brooke together; Brooke is telling Meg a story hinting at his love (“There was a knight, once”), which Jo interrupts. Before they leave, however, Brooke aksk permission to speak with Meg’s father.
Back at home, Beth sings a hymn she has composed as Jo teases Meg, who says that she will refuse Brooke if he proposes, since her father thinks she is too young to marry. But when he appears, she hesitates, but with Jo prompting her from behind the curtains, she refuses him.
The girls’ wealthy Aunt Cecilia arrives, and as Brooke talks to Meg’s parents, Cecilia warns Meg not to throw herself away on a poor man and hints that Brooke is only interested in Meg because of Cecilia’s money. When Meg responds that she will only marry for love, Cecilia storms off, telling Meg she will be written out of her will. Meg accepts Brooke, then tries in vain to get Jo to accept her decision (“Things change, Jo”).
On Meg and Brooke’s wedding morning, the March parents repeat their own wedding vows, which Meg has asked to use, for the family. Meanwhile, Laurie takes Jo aside, and though she tries to forestall him, he proposes. Jo refuses, telling him that they could never be happy together. Laurie runs off, crushed. Amy, who has feelings for Laurie herself, has overheard; she upbraids Jo for her cruelty to Laurie. As they argue, Beth, who has been ill, collapses and the entire family rushes to help her as the act ends.
A year later, Jo has come to New York City, to stay in the hopes that Laurie will forget her and things will go back to the way they were. She sells a story to a magazine; through the letters she writes and receives, we learn that Laurie is now a sophomore at Oxford; that Brooke and Meg are the parents of twins; that Amy is on a tour of England, at Cecilia’s expense; and that Beth is not improving.
Friedrich Bhaer, another resident of Jo’s boarding house, arrives to take her to the opera, but Jo tells her parents not to worry, as he is thirty-nine.
At the boarding house that night, Jo and Bhaer discuss the opera, art, and love; at the same time, in England, Amy and Laurie talk about Jo, and Beth tries to compose a finale for a chorale. To convince Jo that there is more to art than the sensation stories she has been writing, Bhaer sings a setting of Goethe, first in German, then in English (“Kennst du das Land”/”Do You Know the Land”). They are interrupted by a telegram from Meg’s mother, telling Jo that Beth is worse and asking Jo to come at once.
Beth is asleep in her bedroom, ill with scarlet fever, but she wakes up when Jo arrives. Jo is frantic, but Beth is calm and resigned, and tries to teach her sister to be the same (“Have peace, Jo”). Beth asks if she can sleep for a minute, and as the chorus sings her chorale, she dies peacefully. Jo turns to Meg for comfort, but Brooke is comforting her; Jo exclaims, “I’ve lost you all.”
The following spring, Jo and Cecilia discuss Amy’s latest letter; she and Laurie are finally in love. Jo also admits that Bhaer has not written to her. Cecilia praises Jo’s strength and tells Jo that she has left her fortune to her, since only she, with her solitary, unchanging ways, will appreciate them, isolated as she is from fickle lovers or friends (duet: “You, alone”). Jo, faced with this vision of her future, finally realizes that change is a necessary part of life.
Back in the attic, as in the Prologue, Jo wonders, with all of this change, what endures? Laurie arrives, and the scene from the Prologue is repeated, but this time, Jo tells Laurie that things can never be as they were, but that they can remain friends despite the changes. Meg remembers her sisters together, and says her goodbyes to those days (quartet: “Let me look at you”).
As the memory of her childhood fades, Bhaer arrives. He asks her if now is a good moment, and she replies, “Now is all there is.”