Gatsby is back! F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel continues to haunt us with its portrait of glitter, frivolity and bad behavior. There have been TV, radio, theatrical, literary, even computer-game adaptations. The fifth major Gatsby movie is playing in theaters; and on May 12th at Jordan Hall, Emmanuel Music will present in concert form, the New England premiere of John Harbison’s brilliant Grand Opera The Great Gatsby. We are doing a revival of the opera because I believe it is a major American work that cries out to be heard in its final, mature form.
Harbison has remarked that all operas are always under revision. He has effected many changes in his Gatsby since its official premiere—which we Bostonians might enjoy thinking of as its first out-of-town tryout—at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1999. It is a persistent, appalling, and mercifully fading operatic tradition that new operas undergo, to use Harbison’s words, a “cold-bath opening night.” Thrown onstage before the paying public with no workshopping, no preview performances and no out-of-town tryouts, they can be as new in the ears of the composer as in the audience’s. Opening night at the Met was the first complete run through of Gatsby. Show-doctoring came later, including creation of a reduced-orchestra version for Ensemble Parallele’s 2012 San Francisco production. Years of the composer’s rethinking and adjusting the work culminate in our forthcoming performance. Now Emmanuel Music has the privilege of presenting for the first time ever, the original full-orchestral version of this brilliant, evocative, pungently imaginative work, in its [possibly] final shape.
Not only do operas often suffer from white-knuckle premieres, many don’t ever make it back onstage after their first runs. The lesser or the merely unluckier ones of any era can fade into oblivion before performers or listeners get a handle. By contrast, Harbison’s Gatsby seems destined for a place in the canon. It is a true Grand Opera, with an authentic American vernacular flavor: its pop-tango-bluesy-waltzy strains interweave with a brooding musical subtext that underscores that ’20s tinsel and tinkle with a sense of darkness, despair and emptiness.
A bit of performance history of Gatsby: The full opera has never been performed in New England. After its premiere, in 1999, it stayed in the Met’s repertory until 2002. It was produced, with Harbison’s first set of revisions, by the Chicago Lyric Opera in 2001. It was performed by Ensemble Parallele in 2012 and in Aspen last summer with further adjustments—both in Harbison’s reduced-orchestra version. The composer says, “The productions in San Francisco and Aspen convinced me that the opera’s survival in this form is far better than its not being seen at all.” Our Boston and Tanglewood performances incorporate the revisions but use the original lush orchestral score.
Bits of Gatsby came back in the form of “snapshots of the opera that could be passed from hand to hand,” as ways of keeping the Gatsby music in the public ear. These pieces include the Gatsby Songs (13 witty ’20s -style tunes for voice and piano, with equally witty lyrics by Murray Horwitz); Gatsby Etudes for piano (adapted from the vocal score and dedicated to Judith Gordon); “A Gatsby Suite” (at the suggestion of conductor David Zinman); and Remembering Gatsby (commissioned in 1985 by the Atlanta Symphony, it became the opera’s overture).
Emmanuel Music’s relationship with Harbison dates back to the days when the ensemble was still just an idea of the late Craig Smith. Both John and Rose Mary Harbison played in the Emmanuel’s first Bach cantata, and in 1970, helped Craig officially found the group. Over the years, Harbison has written wonderful pieces for us, and has been our Principal Guest Conductor since 2007. He has been a steadfast friend and mentor both to Craig Smith and to me. His altruistic and generous spirit is present in his music as well — always in search of, and in service to, the most meaningful expressions of the human spirit.
My first introduction to Harbison’s music was as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University in 1993, through my singing in his choral piece The Flower-Fed Buffaloes, which, as Harbison has written, deals with “the American paradox — the dualistic nature of the country, its capacity for generosity and selfishness.” Little did I know at the time that some 20 years later I would be returning to this compelling theme in The Great Gatsby.
Emmanuel Music’s involvement with Gatsby has also been a longterm thing. In 1997, two years before the premiere, and at Harbison’s request (and expense), Emmanuel Music assembled the biggest orchestra in its history into MIT’s Kresge Auditorium to play the first two scenes of Gatsby under Craig Smith’s direction, with a cast drawn from the Emmanuel chorus. That reading allowed Harbison to hear his score for the first time. Ten players from that reading will reprise their parts in the May 12th performance with eight soloists from Emmanuel Music.
John Harbison has given his talent, creativity, knowledge and soul to Emmanuel Music. He has been my mentor and teacher; I have had the privilege of working with him as both singer and conductor. Now I am overjoyed to collaborate with him and my colleagues to present the New England Premiere of his masterwork, The Great Gatsby. May it come back to haunt us time and again.
THE GREAT GATSBY
The Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music
Conducted by Artistic Director Ryan Turner
Artistic Advisor, John Harbison
May 12th at Jordan Hall, reprising at Tanglewood on July 11th
Information and ticketing here.