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ClassicsOnline Home » THOMAS: Desire Under the Elms
By John Allison
BBC Music Magazine
By Rob Barnett
By Victor Carr Jr.
Edward Thomas (b. 1924) Desire Under the Elms
Towards the end of 1970 and into early 1971 the notion of writing a pop/folk opera based on the Eugene ONeill play came about as a result of having read the play several times. In order to elicit interest from a first class librettist, I decided to write the first scene libretto myself, set it to music and then show it to potential collaborators. Not long after, I called Joe Masteroff, who had written the books for Cabaret and She Loves Me. After listening to my progress, Joe agreed to write the libretto -- but on condition I dismiss my pop/folk notions and compose a more serious piece. Thus began a long and arduous journey which became a meaningful collaboration over time.
In 1975 we gave a reading for various individuals and friends, among whom was Sheldon Harnick. Sometime in the spring of 1978 I received a call from Sheldon who offered to recommend the opera to Paulette Haupt who at the time was -- and still is -- Artistic Director of the Eugene ONeill Theater Centers Music Theater Conference. We submitted the opera to the conference, and some weeks later I received a call from Paulette who said it had been accepted, much to the joy and satisfaction of the writers. During the workshop I had the good fortune to have Robert Ward and Ezra Laderman as my dramaturgs. They both made invaluable suggestions which, along with Paulette and Sheldons comments, helped to shape the opera into a more cohesive entity. During the summer of l978, the opera Desire Under the Elms was performed in the first annual Music Theater Conference at the ONeill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.
A series of workshop readings followed, the first directed by Robert Darling at Colorados Central City Opera in 1980, followed in 1982 by an invitation to the Lake George Opera Festival (of which Paulette was also Artistic Director, and where George Manahan first conducted it), and, finally, at the Opera America Conference in Toronto.
In 1987, Tim Jerome of The National Musical Theatre Network accepted Desire for readings. Leigh Gore and Nancy Rhodes, then of the New York Opera Repertory Theatre, came forward afterwards and said they wanted to produce the opera. After further readings at Abraham Goodman House, a world premiere at New Yorks City Center was planned for January of 1989. Meanwhile, Patrick Smith, then Director of the Opera/Musical Theater Program at the National Endowment for the Arts -- and later editor of Opera News -- recommended Desire for consideration to the Chicago Opera Theatre. However, by now Desire was already committed to a world premiere at City Center, thereby precluding a world premiere offer made by Alan Stone, then Artistic Director of Chicago Opera Theatre.
Later, several more possibilities of productions came about but for various reasons, they were never realized. On one occasion a well-known opera company suggested the possibility of a production in the spring. Enthusiastically, I called my collaborator Joe Masteroff with the news. There was a momentary silence on the other end of the phone after which Mr. Masteroff was heard to have said, "In the spring -- (pause) -- of what year?" (This is a very easy business!)
The above paragraph brings to mind a Robert Ward anecdote making the rounds at the ONeill Theater Center Desire workshop. Some years before, after his opera Abelard and Heloise was done in Minneapolis, a lady came forward and complimented Mr. Ward on the piece. She inquired, "How long did it take you to write this opera?" He answered, "Oh, maybe about five years or so." "My," she responded, "they must pay you an awful lot of money to do that." His response: "Why no, its not like that at all." And then with a somewhat perplexed look she asked, "Then why do you do it?" No further comment.
In closing, the present recording of Desire was first discussed with Tom Shepard towards the end of 1999. Its completion came about during the summer of 2002. The journey has been long, but in the end very gratifying. It has been a great pleasure working with such wonderful artists and production staff. Thank you all.
A Brief Critique of Desire Under the Elms
Today we are given, in the realm of new opera, a large and varied set of styles, from minimalism to serialism, and a large musical range, encompassing a variety of popular genres, and an expanded conception of how the story can and should be told, moving away from a straightforward narrative to a variety of non-linear approaches. If one includes the new operatic work from the fringes as well as from the established opera companies, there is a bewildering variety of ways to tell the operatic story.
That said, whatever "American opera" is (and this is increasingly difficult to define) will continue to be seen in terms of the folk ethos of its people. If tapping the folk aquifer will not guarantee immortality, it will nonetheless open a direct conduit to a public. There is little doubt that, up to now, the folk strain (broadly defined) has produced the majority of important American operas, including Gershwins Porgy and Bess, Thomsons The Mother of Us All, Blitzsteins Regina, and Floyds Susannah among others.
The other important influence has been, in general, a reliance on American sources for the story and text. This can be evidenced in terms of stories from American history (past or contemporary), and librettos derived from classic American novels, short stories and plays.
And that said, one can easily see how Edward Thomass and Joe Masteroffs operatic retelling of Eugene ONeills Desire Under the Elms fits into the mainstream operatic tradition. It is termed by the composer a "folk opera," and its music conforms to that description, and it is derived from a distinguished ONeill play (produced in 1924). ONeill as a dramatist wrote what could be termed operas without music, with their outsized, often defiant emotionality, and it is not surprising that his work has formed the basis for several operas. Yet none of his plays is more emotionally charged than this Old Testament story of rage and lust in the stony implacable precincts of hardscrabble New England. Opera thrives on just such passions, and the bleak setting only magnifies them.
American opera today can be termed out of its adolescence and into its maturity, and works like Desire Under the Elms have contributed to this growth and this distinction.
Patrick J. Smith is a critic and editor. He was Director of the Opera/Musical Theatre program at the National Endowment for the Arts from 1985-89, and Editor of OPERA NEWS from 1989-2000.
Desire Under the Elms, a Personal Odyssey
More than ten years ago, my friend and colleague, Sheldon Harnick, invited me to attend the New York City Center première of a contemporary opera that he knew and that he liked enormously. I was prepared at the least to enjoy it -- after all, a Harnick endorsement is something one pays attention to -- but I was not prepared to be so deeply moved in just a single hearing by the power of Joe Masteroffs libretto and the remarkable beauty of Ed Thomass score.
This was not my first awareness of Eds talents. Those of us in the music business could not help but be aware of Eds high visibility as a writer and producer in the commercial field. But until that night at City Center, I had no idea of the depth and richness of Thomass serious music.
Why should I have been surprised? Most likely because one does not expect others to have such multiple abilities. In our world of specialization, doctors concentrate on a particular field of medicine and area of the body, journalists write about the news, pianists play piano, tunesmiths grind out pop hits, classical composers focus on serious compositions, executives manage companies, poets consult their muse, etc., etc. Everybody is comfortably pigeon-holed by everybody else.
Yet Charles Ives ran an insurance company while he astonished the twentieth century with his musical compositions, Borodin was a chemist, and musicians Leopold Godowsky and Leopold Mannes invented Kodachrome, Charles Strouse writes Broadway shows and classical compositions, and Edward Thomas writes pop tunes, commercials, chamber music, orchestral compositions and opera, and has been a major executive in the music business for most of his life. With all of this, he chose to devote five years of his life to writing Desire Under the Elms, a project he undertook without any formal foundation commission or opera company performance guaranteed to him at the end of this very long labor of love.
A few years ago, Ed asked me if I would assist him in making the best possible recording of Desire, employing the people who would be most appropriate to the task. I readily agreed, and together we decided to ask George Manahan, who had conducted this work previously, to be our musical director. We then engaged the London Symphony Orchestra as well as this rather staggering cast that includes Victoria Livengood, Jerry Hadley and James Morris, along with Mel Ulrich and Jeffrey Lentz.
To the best of our abilities, we have not cut a single corner in our efforts to get the best out of our cast and crew. It has been a long pull: all the planning, negotiating, coaching (thanks to Paulette Haupt), recording, editing, and mixing. Frankly, it has not been a piece of cake. But when has writing or recording a project of this magnitude been easy? It is not supposed to be easy. It takes time and TLC to accomplish what I believe we have accomplished. And it has been well worth it, every step of the way.
I am enormously proud to have been a participant in giving birth to a recording of this exceptionally beautiful American opera.
Desire Under the Elms Synopsis
Scene 1: Eben Cabot calls his half-brothers Simeon and Peter to supper from their work in the barn. The two brothers stop to remark on the beauty of the sunset and dream of an easy life looking for gold in California. They complain to each other about the hard life of working the farm for their father Ephraim Cabot, who has been gone now for months without a word.
Scene 2: After supper Eben tells his brothers that he has overheard their conversation about California. He belittles their plan and claims they will never leave as long as they have a chance to inherit the farm. As Eben is preparing to go into town to visit Minnie, a local prostitute, the boys taunt him.
Scene 3: The next morning Eben returns, rousing Simeon and Peter to tell them that their Pa has married again. The brothers realize that the farm will now go to the new wife. Eben offers them money for the journey to California -- money stolen from his father -- on the condition that they relinquish any claim to the farm. Simeon and Peter agree, and Eben is jubilant. Cabot arrives with Abbie, his new bride, and goes in search of his sons. Abbie comes upon Eben and tries to befriend him, but he rejects her. Cabot returns still looking for Ebens brothers. When Eben tells him they have left for California, Cabot prays to the Lord to smite his sons. Eben and Cabot start the morning chores as Abbie goes in to look at her new home.
Scene 1: Two months later on a hot Sunday afternoon, Abbie catches Eben sneaking away to see Minnie. She makes advances towards him, but they argue and Eben leaves. Abbie, stung from the fight, asks Cabot if he will leave the farm to Eben. Cabot bristles. He would rather burn the farm to the ground before he dies than leave it to anyone. When Abbie asks about her right to inherit the farm, Cabot rejects the idea because the farm needs a man to work it. Abbie declares that she will have a son. Cabot is overcome with emotion, and they pray to God to bless them as Abbie plots her future.
Scene 2: That night, following an unsuccessful attempt at the creation of a son, Abbie loses herself in thoughts of Eben, while Cabot rambles on about his farm. Eben, alone in his room, thinks of the oppression created by the stone walls and senses Abbies closeness. Cabot, feeling cold and lonely, goes off to the barn. Abbie appears at Ebens door and declares her love for him. Though confused at first, he plans revenge on his father through Abbie. They passionately express their love for each other.
Scene 1: The following spring Abbie bears a child amid local gossip that Eben is really the father. Neighbors gather for a celebration and Abbie sings a lullaby to her baby. Eben arrives and together they look at their son. Cabot calls for Eben and tells him that now he will not inherit the farm. He describes Abbies plot to secure the farm for herself and her child. Eben attacks Cabot, who overpowers him. Abbie, finding Eben beaten, admits that when she first arrived she had conspired against him, but that now she loves him. Eben calls her a liar, wishes their son had never been born, and vows to follow his brothers to California. Abbie, confused and alone, sings again to her baby as she tries to think how to prove her love to Eben.
Scene 2: A few hours later, while Eben prepares to leave, Abbie tells him that she has killed their child. Horrified, Eben rushes away to summon the Sheriff.
Scene 3: Abbie waits for Eben to return with the Sheriff. Cabot appears. When she reveals what she has done, and that the baby was Ebens, Cabot tries to strangle her. Eben arrives and tells Abbie that while he was telling the Sheriff, he realized how much he loves her and now hopes they can escape together. Abbie insists that she must pay for her sin. When the Sheriff arrives, Eben tells him that he helped plan the killing, and the lovers are led away, leaving Cabot to work the farm alone.
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THOMAS: Desire Under the Elms