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'Show Boat', Now That It's Over

It is no secret that Francesca Zambello's decision to include Washington National Opera in her experiments with the American musical, by bringing her production of Show Boat here, struck me as a mistake. Some people think that musicals will somehow usher in a revitalizing audience boom for opera houses: Anne Midgette and Tim Smith both wrote highly about Zambello's production, praising the venture into musical theater. Nina Totenberg even chimed in on NPR. Others, especially those who write primarily about theater, balked at the racist attitudes of the show and saw the production as not really ground-breaking or theatrically interesting. Many informal reviews and comments that came my way from theater folks who saw the production agreed that the show was a huge spectacle, the dancing was generally excellent, the singing often good but not always, but that in terms of theater it was static and dull.

This gets at the heart of why I think Show Boat was such a waste of WNO's resources. Not out of some high-minded purism over "the sullying of the operatic temple," as Anne put it in her review, although I would not be upset if WNO did not stage Die Fledermaus or Daughter of the Regiment again either. The American musical was not made to be produced by a grand opera company. It is a specialized form of theater that went against the historical tendencies of opera. When Kurt Weill was writing for the American stage, he understood that, consciously seeking to conquer Broadway instead of the Metropolitan Opera. In Washington, there are lots of companies that specialize in musicals and do them much better than WNO has done, but only WNO really has the budget and history to mount grand operas. Why would the company waste part of its precious budget -- according to one estimation, Show Boat was the longest-running production ever mounted by WNO -- on something that was not really intended to be done by a company like it?

Zambello has claimed that she sees Show Boat as the first great American opera, but such a claim ignores much of the early history of actual American opera. Seeking to restore that lost part of music history could well be something that would be worthy of the "National" moniker in the company's name -- rather than making a false claim that Show Boat has something to do with the early history of American opera. We have no idea what the operas of William Henry Fry (1815-1864) sounded like, because they remain unperformed and unrecorded. He is generally recognized as America's first homegrown opera composer, and it would be helpful to know what his operas Leonora, Aurelia the Vestal, and Notre-Dame of Paris (based on the novel by Victor Hugo) are all about. The same goes for operas by George W. Chadwick (1854-1931), Harry Lawrence Freeman (1875-1954), Henry Kimball Hadley (1871-1937), G. F. Bristow (1825-1898), Reginald De Koven (1859-1920), Louis Gruenberg (1884-1964), Frederick Shepherd Converse (1871-1940), Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946), Mary Carr Moore (1873-1957), Walter Damrosch (1862-1950), John Knowles Paine (1839-1906), and even John Laurence Seymour (1893-1986) and Douglas Moore (1893-1969).

The only opera from this part of music history I have actually heard and written about is Howard Hanson's Merry Mount, from 1934, because pretty much everything else has been swept under the rug of history -- and so many of the operas by that list of composers look interesting, and most would not be any more stylistically challenging for audiences than Show Boat. We could perhaps argue about the first great American opera, when we have some early American operas on which to base our judgment.

Today from Peter Mark, At the National, a new song in the air (Washington Post, May 29):

If there’s a stairway to musical-theater heaven, it will be winding through Washington next season.

With the announcement Tuesday of a bold new four-show Broadway subscription series at the soon-to-be spruced-up National Theatre, the number of announced musicals for 2013-14 at nine theaters around the Washington area stands at a whopping 27.

And counting.
The National Theater, by the way, is where Show Boat had its local premiere, in 1927.


Page said...

Right on. I saw the Opera (Musical theater?) in the Outfield production of this show. Granted, the experience is different than in the KC, but not that much. I knew nothing about any of the singers going into the production...and the only two I enjoyed (Julie and Joe)...I discovered later were actual "opera" singers. Go figure. Overall, I was pretty unimpressed.

Anonymous said...

We saw an excellent production of showboat at signature theater 5 or so years ago. Enjoyed it, but felt no need to see it again ... So we gave our wash op tix away.
Perhaps that is a difference between opera and musicals... A good opera can be heard frequently, if the voices are worth hearing. That same opportunity for individual artistic expression is less in musicals..
The ken center should be doing americal musicals. They just should not be forced on wash op subscribers. Fortunately, that's not happening in 2013-14. Next time they do, we will probably not subscribe.