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Little Victories

Composer Mark Adamo tackles Louisa May Alcott's "tidy morality tale"



Mark Adamo's name is about to be known across the land. On August 29, PBS' Great Performances will broadcast his two-act opera Little Women, an adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel. And the week before, the 2-CD Houston Grand Opera recording of the work (Ondine ODE CD 988) will appear in stores.

One listen to Little Women explains why, at a time when classical music is experiencing a host of challenges, the 39-year-old composer is having such extraordinary success. After studying all available musical and screen adaptations of the novel, he has managed to distill into his engaging libretto and score the actions and psychological undercurrents that unify what he terms "the plethora of events that Alcott piles into her tidy morality tale for young readers."

Moreover, by setting an easily accessible tonal line against a complex non-tonal background, Adamo has created a score whose delightful arias, duets, quartets and octets successfully illuminate the emotions that have touched the many millions who love Alcott's masterpiece.

"If you have ever heard or uttered the words 'I think I've outgrown this relationship,' then Little Women is about your life," explained Adamo in an exclusive interview.

"All the movement in the work is psychological. It's entirely about people changing their perspectives. Even though there are a fair number of incidents, the real plot is psychological -- it's about a woman who is learning to let go.

"Jo is constantly being confronted with the music of change and resisting with musical stasis. In trying to sketch out a way this would sound, I placed all of the intertwining incidents in a kind of tonal foreground against a non-tonal background. This enabled me to have the best of a number of worlds. The non-tonal materials allow me to inflect the words absolutely to the last degree, so that every harmonic change, every change of register, every leap or repeated note is completely following the conversation."

Adamo is quite fortunate that the original 1998 Houston Grand Opera cast, five members of which are heard on the recording, boasted young, fine-voiced singers who could also act. The virtuoso arias "Un-bake the Breads" and "Perfect as We Are" were written specifically for lead mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek, while "Things Change, Jo" was composed with mezzo Joyce DiDonato in mind.

Just a few years ago, Adamo expected his life to take him more into the theater than the opera house. "If I was going to follow anyone's footsteps, I thought it would be Stephen Sondheim rather than Samuel Barber." Yet even as he worked as a music critic for the Washington Post, commissions began coming from the National Symphony, choral organizations and other singers.

"I wrote those pieces and they rather liked them, but I somehow didn't think of myself as a composer. I was puzzled that I was being asked because I thought, 'Surely these people know that, while I'm trying to do as best as I can, it's not Mahler.'"

In 1994, however, when many people he knew began to die of AIDS, Adamo discovered himself writing a 40-minute AIDS memorial for voice and orchestra. After its 1995 premiere by D.C.'s Eclipse Orchestra, he realized "there were too many people who believed in what I did for them all to be delusional." After covering the Houston Opera premiere of Harvey Milk for the Washington Post, he decided he would like to compose for the company. Little Women was the result, with Houston's production followed by ones by Opera Pacific, Central City Opera, Minnesota Opera, and soon New York City Opera and Glimmerglass. Currently hard at work on his next opera, Lysistrata, Adamo has recently been appointed composer-in-residence for NYCO.

Notably, the composer is also half of the second best-known American husband-husband team of successful opera composers (the other being Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti). Adamo first met John Corigliano, 63, composer of the nationally televised The Ghosts of Versailles and his moving AIDS Symphony No. 1, in November 1995. "When I read John's interviews and saw his photos, I said, 'Well, here's a man who wants you to know how beautiful and intelligent he is, and he'll probably be a great big piece of work if I ever meet him.' So I never had any desire to meet the man. But I loved the music." Despite Adamo's resistance, the two were eventually introduced by Sylvia Alimena, conductor of Eclipse. "He's a fabulous man, very warm and extremely approachable. That whole image I had of him just shattered completely. Two months later, we were living together. It's pretty magical."

Adamo finds the relationship quite wonderful. "We're not at all competitive in our careers. We don't sound particularly alike, but we tend to think of the compositional process very much the same, in terms of thinking of the big shape, and trying to imagine the piece in its gestures and its proportions before you think of what materials belong in it.

"I remember seeing Ghosts and turning to a friend and saying that there was only one man out there who knows where we are musically and how to solve the problems. There does not need to be a conflict between entertainment and fresh art. Art is a degree of entertainment; it's not a separate category."

Little Women is proof aplenty that more than one man knows how to make classical music entertaining.

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