Judging by the thousands of girls who beat a path to Louisa May Alcott’s childhood home in Concord Massachusetts every year as if it going on a pilgrimage, her book, Little Women, inspires intense feelings. Why do girls in particular love this story? Little Women centers the experiences, emotions, and aspirations of girls. For a century after its writing in 1869, it was rare to find a book so full of praise for sisterhood, and to discover with Jo, that there is more than one way to for a woman to find fulfillment. Even with the progress we have made toward gender equity, the dilemmas Jo faces still ring true today.
It took guts for contemporary composer Mark Adamo to write an opera (both the words and the music) based on Little Women, given that many love the book, have seen the movie(s), and that it is hard to boil the long and complex story down into an opera of reasonable length. What piece of the story should be chosen?
His choice of focus works well: Jo is the only character he develops fully, and she faces two related conflicts. One is with change. She has been so happy as a child, as the ringleader and inventor of games with her three beloved sisters – they call themselves a sorority, and Beth asides slyly, “sopranos!” – and with the boy Laurie whose gender makes no difference when they are children. She wants to force time to stand still, and for her family to remain “perfect as we are.” Related to her resistance to the passage of time is her resistance to recognize a different kind of love. “Things change,” and much of that change has to do with the onset of adulthood. Seemingly out of the blue, to her horror, Laurie wants to marry her, and also horrible, her sister Meg wants to marry as well! In a heartfelt aria, Meg pleads with Jo to understand that while she still loves her sisters, “my John!” stirs an overwhelming love within her so different from sisterly love. Jo doesn’t buy it. Still a self-centered teenager, she can be cruel, and taunts Meg mercilessly for even considering leaving the sisterhood. But by the end, as Jo herself is finally ready for marriage to a freethinking professor, she is reconciled to change: in fact, because nothing is static, “now is the time,” now is always the time.
Adamo’s libretto is in couplets, but in a conversational, not poetic, style. Because the words are so much like actual things people might say – the rhymes not the least bit forced – the performers must express emotion as they would in a natural conversation even in the difficult musical passages. Their singing must convey the impatience, sorrow, sarcasm, humor, playfulness, or joy behind the sentences in each scene, and in this performance, they largely succeeded. Their interpretations may have been helped by the coaching of Adamo himself, who participated in HPAF as composer-in-residence. It is rare, as Executive Director Justin John Moniz remarked, to get to perform an opera by a composer who is not dead – and even more unique to have the composer with you in the flesh!
The music is constantly surprising, since it combines both modernist, dissonant sections (I heard echoes of John Cage behind Beth’s deathbed aria), along with tonal sections with lovely melodies; the song using the words of a Goethe poem sung by Prof. Bhaer is an especially beautiful example of the latter. Especially in the more modernist sections, the harmonies and disharmonies supplied by the orchestra were essential; the emphasis on percussion elevated the drama on the stage. This is an opera where words and music are equally important.
Last week, HPAF brought us Handel’s Alcina, where almost the entire opera consists of long, solo arias. By contrast, Little Women is mostly sung in ensembles. One effective piece set up three tableaux, one with Laurie and Jo’s sister Amy in England, falling in love; one with Beth on her sick-bed with her parents at her bedside in New England, and one with Jo and Prof. Bhaer in New York, just getting to know each other after a night at the opera. There is an intertwining of the singing with the same words having different meanings as they are tossed back and forth between the characters.
I was not sure of the purpose of the Quartet of Female Voices; like angels, the four sopranos appeared only at a few moments with ethereal song; lovely, but I did not see how they added to the story. The pictures projected against the back wall created an effective set; the small window bathed in light behind Beth’s deathbed made the scene all the more moving.
As Jo, Elizabeth Barnes was a marvel; she was a Jo herself, leading the rest of the cast, singing and acting with assurance, liveliness and wit. She brought Jo to life and won our hearts. While the other characters had less to work with, they fulfilled their roles with competence. Whitney Campbell’s voice had a depth perfect for a middle-aged mother who’ been through a lot; Henry Hubbard’s tenor voice dipped and soared as the playful, passionate Laurie.
Carleen Graham directed this wonderful production, and we are grateful to have a 21st century opera performed right here on Big Island. Mark Adamo shed new light on a beloved old story, figuratively and literally elevating women’s (mostly soprano!) voices. Sisterhood is indeed powerful!
Please visit HPAF’s website for more info and tickets for their 2018 season: http://www.hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org/events/
Photos: Steve Roby