The Great Gatsby: The Opera?! (Part 3 of Steven Explores Gatsby)

The Great Gatsby: The Opera?! (Part 3 of Steven Explores Gatsby)

There are few source materials as rich in drama and angst as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. That, in turn, should make it the perfect work to adapt for the largely emotion-driven operatic stage, right?

Turns out, that's not exactly the case!

John Harbison's operatic adaptation of The Great Gatsby was written to commemorate Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine's 25th anniversary with the storied operatic institution. Harbison, an American composer, had previously won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his composition The Flight into Egypt, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989.

Harbison adapted the novel into a libretto (an opera's "script") and managed to retain the major events of the novel. The main characters are well-examined and the music, in part, is sprightly, yet incredibly thick in its orchestration and harmonic language. (I think I should note here that I can't link you to any excerpts from this production, as the only recording is an out-of-print telecast and not available on YouTube or comparable sites!)

The major problem of this adaptation is, surprisingly, Gatsby himself. Laura Ann Storm, in her treatise The Great Gatsby: From Novel to Opera, lays out the problem of adapting Gatsby for an operatic voice: "Perhaps the most challenging role to translate from the literary to the operatic medium was that of Gatsby. In the novel, one of Gatsby’s most notable characteristics is that he seldom speaks. He has not read the books in his large library – they are there only for show. He apes an upper-class familiarity by his constant use of the outdated phrase “old sport,” which is symbolic of the absence of his authentic self-expression." (Storm 44)

In translating such a sheltered and reticent character to such a boisterous medium, you risk turning him into a Vegas version of Gatsby instead of the complicated and misguided soul he truly is. This is the problem with the opera as a whole

This is the problem with the opera as a whole. Gatsby's characters are, at their core, superficial and embittered, and transferring them to an operatic medium only exemplifies these morally-vexed beings. Daisy becomes a super-debutante with a high soprano's ego to match, while Nick, the omnipresent narrator, is bogged down as bass and seems to weigh down the proceedings rather than permit them to flow naturally. Jordan, as usually happens in any Gatsby adaptation, blends into the background, while Tom's "hulking" heldentenor becomes shrill almost immediately. The strangest transformation is that of Myrtle, the lowly "poor" girl of the novel who, in Harbison's hands, turns into a Piaf-like chanteuse with a torch-song, "Waiting", which rival's Garland in its cliche.

The music, oddly enough, is jazz-tinged and vivacious, with faux "popular" songs strewn in throughout the narrative. In this short piano piece, which is a suite that Harbison arranged for piano using the main melodic conceits of the opera, you see how the langauge of the music is muddied by the eternal grasping towards a pastische that is always teetering on parody:

The ingredients were all there for a successful adaptation but, sadly, there seemed to be too much seasoning and not enough flavor. About the premiere, critic Robert Croan of the Post-Gazette, opined that "the vocal writing is eminently singable but unmemorable, and there is no distinction for individual characterizations or different emotions. It's all pretty much the same, punctuated by some pop-style song and dance episodes that are perhaps the opera's most successful moments. Unfortunately, the totality is undramatic and dull. Even the penultimate scene, in which Gatsby is shot to death by the garageman[sic] George Wilson (who then shoots himself) is unprepared and unexciting."

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini tackles the work's aural contradictions: "I find the music continually rewarding. The lazy, lapping duet for the two women friends, Daisy and Jordan, is haunting. The extended ensemble scenes are intricate and richly textured. The mix of vernacular and modern musical styles is almost always seamless. Playing through the piano-vocal score at the keyboard affords musical pleasures on every page. On the stage, the opera does seem overextended and, in places, dramatically miscalculated. At roughly 2 hours and 40 minutes, the score is long, at least by modern sensibilities." (Storm 73)

Storm, who admires the opera, is reticent to look into its future as "it is impossible to determine whether Harbison’s The Great Gatsby will find a permanent place in the repertoire", while warning that "it is important to remember that critical response cannot serve as a barometer for an opera’s long-term success." (Storm 69, 76)

Is there room in the repertoire for another mind to try their hand at adapting Gatsby for the operatic stage? As we've seen from the countless movie adaptations, it sometimes takes several interpretations to put the correct stamp on a piece of lush as Gatsby.

Yet, Storm's analysis begs the question: will opera producers continue to give Gatsby "the green light?"

Works Cited:

Storm, Laura A, and Douglas Fisher. The Great Gatsby: From Novel into Opera. , 2004. Internet resource.

*Join me for every Tuesday in February to read another installment of Steven Explores Gatsby!*

Part 1 - West Egg Noir: The Great Gatsby as Pulp Crime

Part 2 - The Great Gatsby Goes to The Movies!

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