Opera in a Yankee Key

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as an opera? A moralizing story about four New England sisters who face life with obedient attitudes, hard work, respect for religious and parental authority, and a cheerful determination to make the best of the problems they face? How did it occur to composer and librettist Mark Adamo that this would make an opera? Well…let’s start with a look at the world inhabited by the novel’s beloved heroines, the four March sisters.

They are attractive and accomplished young women, living in genteel poverty but within sight of wealth and ease, and they know that there is only way across the divide: marriage to a rich man. This stark reality, reinforced every day by seeing the daughters of wealthier parents move through the social milieu in silks and fine carriages, is more poignant for the older girls. They remember life before their well intentioned but naïve father lost his family’s fortune, and the occasional and arbitrary generosity of their aunt makes the loss more poignant. Disease and illness stalk their world. Every cough or fever resonates with menace and the appearance of a kindly doctor on the scene evokes hope but also memories of long confinements and mortality.  Their father is away, serving in the army, and then he too falls ill.

These tropes of nineteenth-century opera plotting are definitely not the first thing we think of when our thoughts turn to Little Women, but they serve as this novel’s leitmotifs. Alcott’s frank discussion of these issues separate this great work from the puerile and sensational fiction of the era, the works that Alcott’s surrogate Jo March, whose struggle to find an authorial voice is one of the books central themes, dabbles in and ultimately rejects. (Adamo’s libretto addresses Jo’s attempts at fiction of a low moral character – you will hear an excerpt of an actual Alcott potboiler early in the second act!) Little Women is contemporary with many of the high-society melodramas avidly mined by operatic librettists, but it never feels like a Yankee version of La Vie de Bohème. Alcott’s commitment to her family’s idealism and New England moral integrity assure that her characters will always take the high and stony road and decide against worldly pleasure, but she makes it clear what this commitment costs.  Her characters are by no means immune to the appeal of pleasure – another theme of the book that resonates with operatic themes is the extent to which several of the characters must weigh their own commitments to the arts against duty and family responsibilities. Jo is a born writer, and begins selling stories as a teenager, Amy is a gifted artist and illustrator, and their neighbor and surrogate brother Laurie aspires to be a musician. But Alcott’s characters don’t behave like typical operatic protagonists – no Vissi d’arte for this crowd. As the story ends, Laurie takes up his family duties in the counting house, Amy is a devoted wife and Jo takes on a school full of young boys.

Happily, though the characters turn aside from the arts to the work of the world, the artistic milieu in which they grow up provides an entrée to Adamo’s operatic treatment of this story. Music is central to the lives of the four sisters – not only do they all sing and play the piano, homemade musical theater is a family tradition. In the book’s opening scene the girls are celebrating Christmas and the centerpiece of the festivities is a thoroughly secular operatic romp, complete with witches, magic potions, duels, and mistaken identities, written and performed by the girls. And the neighbor boy is not the only gentleman in the story with a musical bent. When an older and rather eccentric German professor appears and catches the attention of Jo, he establishes his moral bona fides by singing “well and true, like a true German.” By using the music organic to the story as an organizing theme for his operatic adaptation, Adamo illuminates a story that turns out to be quite capable of finding a place in the contemporary operatic repertoire.

Jo and Frederik Bhaer