Utah Opera: Little Women 

A 1998 adaptation of the classic American story adds flavor to the sometimes-stodgy opera scene.

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Taking a tradition that is tried and true—read: centuries-old and deep-rooted—and reinvigorating it with a modern air is one way to keep an art form alive and relevant. Classical ballet, symphonic music, theater and opera each have their contemporary cousins, aimed at respectfully modernizing older and perceived-to-be-stodgier versions of their classic selves. The question is whether the typical audience for the established form is willing to give the new stuff a try.

Utah Opera, like most performing-arts companies, finds itself continually walking that repertoire tightrope. In a way, it’s the company’s commitment to the vitality of opera in this state that has it focused on productions and projects that inject such youthful energy into a tradition-bound art form while attempting to engage as wide a constituency as possible. Over the past several years, Utah Opera has addressed this challenge by including at least one contemporary American work—such as next year’s scheduled production of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men—into each season. This year, that effort is represented by Mark Adamo’s 1998 operatic adaptation of Little Women.

Based on the beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott, this 1998 adaptation tells the familiar story of the four March sisters as they experience all the drama that is life lived in New England during and after the Civil War. Beyond the challenges of presenting a company premiere, Christopher McBeth, Utah Opera’s artistic director, says that staging works based on classic literary texts like Little Women can help audiences new to opera get a grip on an intricate and perhaps otherwise unknown opera.

“If anything, presenting operas that may be new to the community in stage form, but familiar as a book, helps with the audience/community interest,” says McBeth. “Historically, this is how opera came to be—taking well-known stories, books and plays and setting them in the theater with music to give that very familiar text another perspective, or heighten the inherent qualities.”

Furthermore, while Utah Opera will continue to present standard works such as Madame Butterfly, Carmen and The Magic Flute as part of its season, there is, according to McBeth, significant reason performing-arts companies are charged with expanding their repertoire into staging contemporary and even specifically American works—like Metropolitan Opera’s current production of John Adams’ Nixon in China. The arts are a reflection of the human experience, and while the stories classically represented have an inherent universality, they were also created as a reflection of the human condition for people from another time, and in another cultural climate.

“America has its own stories and aesthetics, and there is so much art that exists that highlights this,” says McBeth. “It’s important that, as American audiences, we connect with our own history, stories and art. Specifically, here in Utah, the community has expressed appreciation and hunger for such works as a part of their overall artistic experiences, and this American Opera initiative is a response to this dynamic. The only challenges I see are helping the relatively few people who have only had experiences with the standard, Euro-centric repertoire take that next step of connecting with American opera, and seeing it is not quite as broad a leap as it first appears.”

Another benefit to staging contemporary works is flexibility, which allows productions to evolve. A majority of any given audience has yet to experience a contemporary performance, whereas most opera buffs have listened to any number of greats performing roles in The Marriage of Figaro or La Boheme. “With the standard repertoire,” explains McBeth, “there certainly exist a number of traditions that have been imposed over the 400-plus years that opera has been a part of the performing arts. In many cases, there has been an effort in the last 20 years to strip away some of those affectations. In the end, however, opera performances that are the most successful maintain that balance of being reverent of both music and the text.” And such established works are clearly the bread and butter of any performing-arts company—for example, see Ballet West’s bankable annual production of The Nutcracker.

Yet, contrary to what one might think, Utah Opera gets little-to-no grumbling or hesitation from traditionalists in expanding its standard season with contemporary works. “Here in Utah, we’re actually blessed with an audience that is very willing to give new ideas a try,” says McBeth. Sure, he knows that each season will invariably be anchored by the likes of Verdi’s Rigoletto, and in that way, he hopes to always embrace and serve those same loyal traditionalists. But, he notes, while the performing-arts audiences in this state remain more than willing to expand their opera palate—welcoming that more-modern cousin to the table—he’s more than happy to serve them all.

UTAH OPERA: LITTLE WOMEN
Capitol Theatre
50 W. 200 South
801-355-2787
March 12, 14, 16, 18, 20
$15-$75
ArtTix.org, UtahOpera.org

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