Thursday, February 28, 2008

Our Town: A Steiny Road Way Station

Question: What could be better than meeting people who share your interests and therefore might be happy to know about your book? Answer: Going to a conference that deals with your subject matter AND meeting some of the people who are in your book!

The week of February 25 through March 2, 2008, Catholic University of America hosted “Wilder and Wilder (Thornton, that is…).” The conference, or festival as the university gurus labeled this set of events, focused on Wilder’s Our Town—the drama, film, musical premieres, and, most important to me, the opera written by Ned Rorem and J. D. (Sandy) McClatchy.


Monday February 25, I heard Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s nephew, speak. I was lucky actually, I got to this panel a little late and a professor Lincoln Konkle was comparing Our Town, the play, to Our Town, the opera. Quite an in-depth paper on the subject, which I found interesting, but I suspect the 100 students sitting in the audience thought was utterly boring. Goodness, why do academics always read their papers instead of engaging the audience with bits of their paper and lots of eye contact to see who is yawning and maybe questions to shake the sequestered herd awake or at least keep their fingers off the keypads of their cell phones? Tappan, on the other hand, was a live wire. He got everyone singing “Love and Marriage.” The song was in the television musical of Our Town with Frank Sinatra. How many of those kids actually knew who Frankie was? Well, Tappan asked and there were some. He also showed some posters depicting the U.S. stamp minted in Thornton’s honor and a new book in translation from Germany. He poked some fun at both.


During the question and answer period, I got Tappan to talk a little about Gertrude Stein’s influence on his uncle. He said there were many influences but provided only this example. The minister who marries Emily and George makes these comments ending on the word interesting, which Tappan said, was a nod to Stein who used that word often. Like Stein, Tappan said, Wilder was not being ironic, just matter of fact. Shall we believe that?

“I’ve married two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know. I suppose I do. M marries N. Millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford—the first rheumatism—the grandchildren—the second rheumatism—the deathbed—the reading of the will—Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”


Also during the Q and A’s, I realized that a woman asking a question was Elise Kirk who wrote American Opera, a book I consulted in writing about what is American opera, an important chapter in my book.

After the panel discussion, she asked me how I defined American opera (of course there is no answer except the one about holding a passport from the United States) and then she turned our conversation to Lori Laitman and The Scarlet Letter, Laitman’s new opera with poet David Mason. Small world since my article on opera origins that includes an interview with Laitman will be published March on Scene4 Magazine.


I also spoke to Tappan Wilder, who turns out to be a fellow Chevy Chaser. I used the bookmark I made when I was in New York recently to introduce myself. I got a chance to ask the moderator professor Grayson Wagstaff if I could offer some of my bookmarks at various events during the week. He thought it was OK as long as I was low key about this. Of course what this meant was that I needed to make more of them.


Nothing can be as easy as the original idea. My husband Jim said I really needed an image on the bookmark and some lines to guide the eye. He wanted to help but he’s wrapped up these days with graduate studies so I asked my artist friend Janice Olson to help me. I had the concept and some public domain images but I lacked the skill to use InDesign, the software that most pros use these days for page layout projects. Here’s what Janice did. Well, I had some of the bookmarks produced in color on shiny white card stock and many more produced in black ink on colored paper. I spent my first book royalty check in making these babies. (Helas, $50 doesn’t go very far but maybe the bookmarks will have legs. Jim said I should sign the back of these bookmarks. Not until someone asks is my position on that.)


Last night, I went back to Catholic University to hear Sandy McClatchy speak with Tappan Wilder about how the Our Town opera came about.
Each had a different version, which didn’t surprise me since Ned Rorem also has his own version. Ned Rorem was suppose to be on this panel, but he called and said he wasn’t feeling up to it and besides the Julliard School of Music would be mounting a production soon. Composer Maurice Saylor, a Catholic University insider, wondered aloud to Janet Peachey (she’s a composer and part-time professor at CUA) and me why Rorem had to throw in that comment about Julliard. “He’s like that,” I said, “besides, he’s not that young though you can’t tell that by what he says.”

McClatchy got his digs in on Rorem too from the stage. Of course they were tempered by McClatchy's great praise for Rorem’s ability to set poetry and know what good poetry is. “I think composers are lazy,” said McClatchy a couple of times. Rorem wanted Our Town written in one act but agreed to make it two after McClatchy insisted. In the world premiere rehearsals, the creative team suddenly realized that the Indiana audience (Our Town premiered at Indiana University) would not be comfortable sitting through a 90-minute first act.” Luckily, McClatchy explained, breaking the first act into two parts required little of Rorem. The break was there all along.


After the panel discussion, six new musical works based on three-minute plays by Thornton Wilder and written by CUA students or staff were premiered.

Michael Oberhauser’s operatic version of Wilder’s Brother Fire was superb! Shh! Don’t tell him that. It might break his concentration—Oberhauser loves to write opera he said when I spoke with him after the performance. He thanked me for my compliments, but I assured him I was not flattering him and I gave him my bookmark so he would know I was more than a casual listener. By the way, Tappan Wilder said Brother Fire, written by Uncle Thornton in 1916 is his earliest work in print. The story involves St. Francis of Assisi getting too intimate with a campfire being tended by a young pyromaniac girl and her mother. The play is pure poetry and it also inspired incidental music from another CUA student who together with director Jason Burke produced an entirely different view of this work. Hats also off to John Diomede for the impressive tonal music that worked well with the text of Brother Fire.

My point here is that a conference like Wilder and Wilder offered me a lot of opportunity to meet people who might appreciate what I have done with The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. If a few of those I talked with buy my book, they will note I have interviewed Ned Rorem, J. D. McClatchy, and one of their prominent professors Andrew Simpson.

They will also see that I discuss the subject what is American opera and hold up Elise Kirk’s book American Opera as a seminal reference. Our Town, the opera and the play, threads through my book. The point is my book is the story they are living.

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