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America in the Eyes of Opera

Posted on: June 27, 2024

Opera is typically thought of as a European art form. After all, Italy was the birthplace of opera. But it was only a matter of time before American composers began to try their hands in creating a decidedly American take on opera. With the Fourth of July coming up, we wanted to take a moment to highlight some classic American operas that are still widely performed and include portrayals of the Land of the Free. 


Composed by Carlisle Floyd in 1955, Susannah is one of the most frequently performed of all mid-century American operas. The story follows the plights of Susannah Polk, an 18-year-old girl who is unjustly labeled by her church as a sinner, kicking off a stream of events that ultimately leads to her severing all ties with her community. Based on the Old Testament story of "Susanna and the Elders", the opera may also have been inspired by the Red Scare of the early 1950s, particularly in Hollywood where many figures were persecuted for their alleged alignment with communism. Susannah also portrays feminist themes that weren’t common in pop culture at the time, not only making it progressive for opera but for its era. The opera won many awards and was chosen to represent America in the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. Still popular today (LAO young artist alumna Janai Brugger headlined a major revival last summer at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis), this opera is both an interesting pillar of the repertoire and a fascinating reflection of American history.  

Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Let’s bring up a modern opera that we believe will become a classic, Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones premiered only five years ago in 2019. The opera, which was adapted from Charles M. Blow’s memoir of the same name, was the first opera by a Black composer to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera follows Blow’s story of growing up in poverty and processing the trauma of being sexually abused by his cousin. The opera portrays all the rage and damage that comes from the trauma while also showing the inner strength it takes for healing. The opera saw major critical praise for Blanchard’s score and the story adaptation, and it even won the 2023 Grammy for Best Opera Recording. While the opera may still be in its early years, we expect it’ll be performed for years to come. 

The Consul

Let’s go back in time to 1950 for the premiere of The Consul, perhaps the finest of composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s numerous operas. The opera follows Magda, the wife of a political dissident trying to escape an unnamed totalitarian nation. For days on end, she comes to the consulate in a frustrating effort to obtain a visa, while taking care of her sick child. It’s a tragic opera that delivers political critiques and shows the injustice of the immigration system. This is especially evident in a scene towards the end. After waiting all day, Magda still hasn’t received a visa, but a rich woman comes in and immediately gets one. The opera was a huge hit and ran for nearly eight months on Broadway. It had its European premiere at Milan’s historic La Scala in 1951. The opera won the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Drama Circle Critic’s Award. 

Porgy and Bess

We couldn’t talk about American operas and not mention George Gershwin’s 1939 masterpiece Porgy and Bess. The earliest opera on this list and the most performed as well, it’s probably the first opera that came to your mind when thinking of classic American operas. And for good reason. It was composed by Geroge Gershwin, one of the greatest of all American composers, and notably features a cast of African American characters, which was daring at the time. The opera is based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, who wrote the opera’s libretto, and the composer’s brother, Ira Gershwin, wrote some of the song lyrics too. Set in South Carolina, the opera follows Porgy, a disabled beggar, as he attempts to save Bess from her abusive lover Crown and from her drug dealer Sportin’ Life. It's a heartfelt and enthralling story unlike anything else in opera. It also featured some of Gershwin’s finest compositions, particularly the aria/song “Summertime,” which became a true standard with artists like Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald doing covers of it. It was sung on our stage most recently by Audra McDonald in her 2023 concert with the LA Opera Orchestra. It’s safe to say Porgy and Bess’s legacy is secure and that this musical masterpiece will go down as one of America’s most important contributions to the operatic repertoire. 


To end this list, let’s talk about the most recent opera on the list, one that graced our stage in 2022: Omar, by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. A passion project by Giddens, a Grammy-winning folk artist, she wrote the libretto and collaborated on the score with Michael Abels, who composed the soundtracks for three of Jordan Peele’s feature films. The opera is based on the life of Omar ibn Said, as detailed in his autobiography A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar ibn Said. The opera starts with Omar living a peaceful life in an Islamic state in West Africa and follows as he’s captured and enslaved in North America. Through his eyes, we see the horrors of slavery as well as his commitment to stay true to his faith when enslavers try to force him to convert to Christianity. Omar is a beautiful and spiritual opera that shook Los Angeles audiences when it made its west coast premiere here. It also saw major success at the Spoleto Festival USA, Carolina Performing Arts and Boston Lyric Opera. Its success resulted in the opera winning a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2023. Omar shows that America’s opera history is still being written and, if Omar is anything to go by, its looking bright.