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American Dreamers: Making Proving Up into an Opera

Ask any American—whether a descendant of first peoples or, like most of us, part of nearly four centuries of immigration—what his or her concept of “The American Dream” might be and you will get a response that evokes hard work and aspiration to a better life.

No matter where we were born and what our circumstances, each one of us has an American Dream. It might include the ideals of freedom, equality, and opportunity and the pursuit of personal happiness and material comfort. Great sacrifices and suffering have been endured in this pursuit. It is often forgotten that, for millions of people in America and abroad, this is a dream that is never realized.

In fact, we know how and when the term was coined. In 1933, when the nation was in the grip of a severe economic depression, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) published a book called The Epic of America in which he attempted to put the nation’s history and philosophy in the context of the challenges it was facing at that dark moment. [Scholars will be interested to know that Adams’s papers are stored at Columbia University’s Butler Library.]

Adams wrote, “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

The values, and precariousness, of  “The American Dream” are baked into much of the best artistic output in literature, theater, and film. To cite but a few examples: The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Miss Saigon, and Dreamgirls. These works, in all of their glorious complexity, reveal to us how privation and damage can attach themselves to the pursuit of this dream. There are winners, yes, but also big losers who cause a wider tragedy in that their own failure brings down the people who depend upon them.

This dream is also a natural subject for opera. Madama Butterfly is a prime example, even though she is seldom cited because the story is set entirely in Japan. The opera is usually described in terms of American imperialism but, at its heart, is the story of a young woman with her own American Dream. She marries a lieutenant named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and, at great cost to herself, attempts to renounce her culture, traditions and religion in pursuit of a new life. Pinkerton and Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, sing “America forever” to music from “The Star Spangled Banner.”  La Fanciulla del West is the story of miners, outlaws, a sturdy frontierswoman and, peripherally and somewhat stereotypically, two Native Americans in the High Sierra mountains. All the characters are, in one form or another, seeking wealth but also a balm for their loneliness.

The American Dream is to be found in new opera too. As part of its celebration of its 30th anniversary season, Miller Theatre at Columbia University co-commissioned (with Washington National Opera and Opera Omaha) composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek to write Proving Up. Mazzoli and Vavrek created their opera as an adaptation from the 2013 short story Proving Up by Karen Russell [an author who, incidentally, is a 2006 alumna of Columbia’s School of the Arts]. It is set in Nebraska in the 1860s but should prove to be both resonant and relevant to audiences today. Christopher Rountree conducts the International Contemporary Ensemble and a gifted cast. Nathan Troup directs James Darrah’s production, which was hugely successful in Omaha, in its New York premiere.

Mazzoli and Vavrek found, in Russell’s story, a lot that spoke to them about our nation today. Mazzoli said, “I began to think about the American Dream as a potential opera topic during the 2008 foreclosure crisis, but it wasn’t until I found Karen Russell’s Proving Up that I felt like I had found, through Karen, the right language for the story. Proving Up is about the harsh realities of the American Dream, about the role of fate in our destinies, and also about people who are erased from history.  Thousands of Americans throughout the last three hundred years did everything ‘right’ and still failed, were still cut down by fate and undermined by circumstance just like the Zegner family in this story, but Americans don’t like to talk about them.”

“Certainly the national conversation about the American Dream has evolved over the last ten years,” Mazzoli added, “and it has intensified,” since Donald Trump became president. “The idea that someone like Pa Zegner could work honestly and tirelessly and still fail goes against the ‘rags to riches’ mentality at the core of the American Dream. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the 2016 presidential election brought these themes into focus for me, as people began talking in a more nuanced way about the realities of wealth, poverty, and economic mobility (or lack thereof) in America. I also wanted to address the particularly American take on ‘hope.’ Karen has described the sodbuster character in Proving Up as a ‘hope zombie,’ someone who clings to hope of upward mobility. It’s a hope that outlasts all reason, all outward signs of proof, all reality, and he eventually resorts to violence and manipulation to ‘prove up.’ This felt particularly American to me, the way that we often cling to hope, to an imagined fantasy of the future, so much that we can ignore the realities of our lives.  The sodbuster needs the dream to continue, and in a way, so do we, even in a brutal, eviscerated, corrupted state.”

Vavrek, in writing his libretto, found guidance in Karen Russell’s text. “The prose is so dynamic and rich and strange, and it really inspired me to think beyond the ways in which I normally approach language.  I used a lot of her ideas and extrapolated on them, allowing the magic of her words to inform the lyrical directions that the opera grew in. Her work really created an entire world that felt very specific and familiar to me. The landscape felt very much like the farms I imagine my ancestors settled in northern Alberta, Canada.”

The composer and librettist went to Nebraska to absorb sensations to enrich their work. Vavrek said, “We spent quite a bit of time there, and I have always loved the cinema of Alexander Payne, so I feel like I was definitely influenced by Omaha and the whole state.” Mazzoli used Nebraska to infuse local color into her music. “There are several fiddle tunes written during the western migration of the 1840s–1870s that inspired me; I didn’t quote any directly, but came up with my own unique version inspired by the general feel of the pieces. There are also several moments influenced by the prairies, skies, and landscape in and around Omaha. There’s an expansive quality to the opening of the opera, for example, influenced by the Nebraskan topography.”

According to Mazzoli, “I always knew I wanted to immerse the audience in the landscape of the work, to make it feel like they were in the sod house with the Zegner family, that they were out on the prairie with this doomed family.  I always imagined doing this in an actual barn, or on a real homestead, but the idea of getting 400 people a night out to an unheated dirt shack to see opera seemed just a bit impractical.”

Miller Theatre, thanks to the power of stagecraft and music in Proving Up, will transport audiences to another time and place while offering them resonance to their lives today. Melissa Smey, who became Executive Director of Miller Theatre in 2009, has made commissioning new works by daring composers for adventurous audiences central to her tenure. She has commissioned twenty-six composers, six visual artists, and a puppet theater artist.

This opera is one of a series of commissions and premieres in the 2018–19 season (including concerts with compositions by George Lewis, David T. Little, Wang Lu, Nico Muhly, Tyshawn Sorey, and John Zorn) that celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the reopening of Miller Theatre, whose origins date back to 1924. It was originally called McMillin Academic Theatre and was a leader in presenting groundbreaking performances, including premieres of works by Aaron Copland, Martha Graham, and Charles Ives. Following extensive renovations, Miller Theatre was established as Columbia University’s performing arts producer in 1988.

Proving Up launches Miller Theatre’s new Chamber Opera Commissioning Initiative. According to Melissa Smey, “For 30 years, Miller Theatre has been a nexus of creativity and experimentation. Chamber opera has a long and storied history at Miller Theatre and Columbia University. With our Chamber Opera Commissioning Initiative, we will contribute meaningfully to the American opera landscape, provide composers with an opportunity to create significant new work, and increase audience engagement with contemporary opera. I am so proud to celebrate our rededication to this pioneering legacy.”

-Notes by Fred Plotkin

Fred Plotkin is the author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera and writes about the world of opera for wqxr.org.