"You guys are crazy," said the maker of words and music for many Broadway shows, punctuating a casual conversation a couple of weeks before the first performance of The Great Gatsby at the Met. "Like jumping off a cliff," added his friend, an eminent playwright. Both of these brilliant theater veterans were marveling at the persistent operatic tradition of the cold-bath opening night, so distant from their world of out-of-town tryouts and preview performances.
Opening night of The Great Gatsby was the first complete run-through of the piece. I accepted, with some misgivings, the old opera tradition: first night is first night. But I understood why workshopping, the long-time music theater practice, was taking hold in the opera world.
In 1985 the Atlanta Symphony and its conductor, Robert Shaw, commissioned a short piece, Remembering Gatsby, which eventually became the opera’s overture. This piece was part of a first pass at the opera. Literary rights had not been securable, but a scenario had been drafted, a couple of period tunes written (one of which anchors the overture), and part of Gatsby’s semi-fictional autobiographic narrative composed: "Came from wealthy people in the Middle West."
Present at the first performance in Atlanta was the novelist’s daughter, Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald Lanahan, who was enthusiastic and offered to help the opera project along. Sadly, she died only a few months after the Atlanta performance, but the memory of her favorable view was energizing when I resumed work on the piece some years later.
When James Levine approached me about an opera for the Met for his twenty-fifth anniversary there, I revived the Gatsby project, and began a very interesting search for a librettist. Sarah Billinghurst, the Met’s vivid Artistic Administrator announced, "It is my job to prevent you from becoming the librettist of this opera." But my musical ideas for the piece ran ahead of my librettist interviews until I had made, by 1995, a complete, temporary draft which eventually, with help from a wealth of advisors – especially Susan Feder, Michael Fried, and Michael Nott – became the libretto.
It was clear from my experience with the overture that something like 1920s pop songs would play an influential musical role. I found I could write tunes in an early '20s style, but I couldn’t write effective words for them. I needed both the songs and their words in advance of most of the score so I could plot where they should fall in the course of the opera. Enter Murray Horwitz, who received all the songs in a large batch, and who uncannily sensed their individual characters. With the songs completed I could spot where they fitted the scenes – so, for example, as Gatsby’s prospects began to collapse: “And if they ask you, say I’m doin’ fine…."
We decided that all the songs, even those that are purely instrumental, and those that are only fragments, should be completed and published in a little souvenir volume, Gatsby Songs. They could serve to keep some of the piece sounding after the first performances.
In 1996, anticipating the premiere, the Met requested a study-recording of the entire piece. It proved to be a six-week process. Judith Gordon learned to play the entire vocal score. To differentiate the sound of the voices on the recording I borrowed my electric piano from MIT and played the voice parts on it. Tom Stephenson was the engineer, and Rose Mary Harbison was producer and editor. The result was a very accurate guide to the pacing and language of the piece. In gratitude for Judy Gordon’s work I prepared an extract of the sections that had cost her the most time. This became Gatsby Etudes for piano, another snapshot of the opera that could be passed from hand to hand.
Soon thereafter in 1997, in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, the largest orchestra Emmanuel Music had ever assembled gathered to play the first two scenes of the opera. Craig Smith conducted a very fine cast of Emmanuel singers, coached by Michael Beattie: Daisy - Kendra Colton; Jordan - Pamela Dellal; Tom - Frank Kelley; Nick - Mark McSweeney; Myrtle - Gloria Raymond; Wilson - Paul Guttry. The session produced an amazing standard of performance, representing a well-spent $12,000 of the composer’s savings! Ten players who participated in that event are taking part in this performance.
Similar benefits, in terms of road-testing the musical issues in this opera, came from a recording of Act I, scenes 3 and 4, in the summers of 1998 and 1999 at the Aspen Festival, conducted by David Zinman. Especially beneficial was the chance to try the sonorities of the stage band and to find out if my study of the early '20s rhythm section – banjo, tuba, piano, trap set – had paid off. Two fine casts and orchestras were assembled during those two summers, and I felt prepared for the Met rehearsals in 1999.
However, hearing the piece end to end in its first performance (December 1999) was new. Listening amid an audience is different; the perspective shifts. I noticed some places I needed to compress or suppress. I was not ready yet to address every instance, coming as I do from the world of the string quartet and the symphony. It was ten years before I tackled two very substantial problems mentioned to me in early rehearsals by the stage director, Mark Lamos. But already, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago performances the next year, adjustments began.
Opera audiences are not wrong to believe in such changes. "It will be fine when they have done the cuts," I overheard during intermission the first night. But I feel the issue is not clock-time but the confidence and necessity of the music. And this can be hard to identify without the presence of an audience.
Not all overheard intermission comments were critical. One observer said, "If only the composer could write tunes as beautiful as those old songs he quotes."
With the last of the Met performances, in May 2002, the history of Gatsby goes dark for six years. I worked out a separation from the piece, with visitation rights but a commitment to move on. Then in 2007 there was a sudden flurry of activity. Stuck in an airport for a half-day, Murray Horwitz was moved to write verses for all thirteen Gatsby Songs. I responded, setting them all, also in one day, (but not in an airport).
David Zinman, in Boston to conduct my Canonical American Songbook, suggested – not for the first time but with exceptional conviction and detail – a Gatsby Suite. Buoyed by his enthusiasm, initially discouraged by the impracticality of his plan, and with Rose Mary Harbison’s persistent guidance, I found the right route. So twenty-five minutes of the opera returned to the Aspen Festival in 2008. I was then in a receptive mood when Jacques Desjardins and Nicole Paiement proposed a reduced orchestra version for their company, Ensemble Parallèle.
Their production in San Francisco (February 2012) and the subsequent staging in Aspen last summer convinced me that the opera’s survival in this form is far better than its not being seen at all. And I was able, for these productions, to push toward a provisional final shape for the opera. This will be heard for the first time in Emmanuel Music’s presentation of the entire score, for full orchestra, in concert.
This return of the piece to Emmanuel Music is, for me, the most surprising development yet. At a certain point I needed to reconcile myself to the disappearance of the piece, at least in its "original" form. With extraordinary support from the Boston Symphony and James Levine, commissioning from me three substantial orchestra works (while Mr. Levine conducted four other pieces with the Met Chamber Ensemble), I went back to symphonic writing, during the last decade, with great enthusiasm. But since opera was always my preferred musical vocation I never truly abandoned hope for, nor did I dare expect, a revival.
"I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart." -Nick Carraway
And so begins The Great Gatsby (1925), a national myth that has kept hold on us for over eighty-five years. At the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, The Great Gatsby was a relic of an era most wanted to forget. Divided between power and dream, optimism and failure, it has now become a defining moment of the American psyche. Its enduring appeal is partly owed to the benign misinterpretation by many readers – a surrender to the fascination with wealth, glamour and the frivolity of the Jazz Age.
However, this delusion still taunts and captivates us today due to Fitzgerald’s artful, double agent’s consciousness about the glitter of the times and privileged world of inherited wealth. While his Midwestern sensibilities, like those of Nick Carraway, ultimately disapprove, he can’t help glamorizing and admiring it. Fitzgerald keenly possesses the ability to view the characters from the inside and outside, balancing attraction and repulsion, sympathy and judgment. Likewise, Nick, as the moral conscience of the story, truly embodies the role of the outside observer who becomes emotionally involved. He doesn’t entirely approve of Gatsby, but admires the lover and dreamer.
The multi-layered, fragile, and ephemeral nature of the novel is subverted by John Harbison’s score, elevating its lurid prose and exposing the darkest aspects of human nature, while delighting us with the gaiety of the time. From the ‘20s-style pop tunes heard on the radio and at Gatsby’s parties, the blues-infested music of Myrtle and George, the charming three-quarter lilt of Daisy’s music, to the unforgettable train music, Harbison’s score captures and defines mood, character, climate, time, and status. A concert rendering of this “music-driven opera” will I hope reveal the brilliant score as an added character, boasting a broad color palette, pungent imagination, and an interweaving and layering of styles that erodes the tinsel of the 1920s with a sense of dark emptiness.
My first introduction to the music of John Harbison was as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, in 1993. The piece, The Flower-Fed Buffaloes (a 1976 commission by the New York State Bar Association), is a choral setting of a speech by the 20th century American Judge Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty. The thrust of this speech is, as Harbison writes, "the American paradox— the dualistic nature of the country, its capacity for generosity and selfishness." Little did I know at the time that some twenty years later I would return to this compelling theme in The Great Gatsby.
Since that first Bach cantata in 1970, John Harbison has given selflessly of his talent, creativity, knowledge, and soul to Emmanuel Music. John Harbison has been my mentor and teacher; I have had the privilege of working with him as both singer and conductor. Now I am humbled, grateful, and overjoyed to collaborate with my colleagues of Emmanuel Music to present the Boston and Tanglewood premieres of The Great Gatsby. John’s altruistic and generous spirit as a conductor, teacher, and mentor is present in his music as well – always in search of, and in service to, the most meaningful expression of the human spirit.