“Good People of Leadville”

From a localized opera theme this morning, this following is from American Opera: The Sublimation of Ordinariness by Derek Mills, concerned primarily with Douglas Moore’s “The Ballad of Baby Doe.”

“What, then, is the American, this new man?”, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur

asked over two centuries ago. It is with the response to this familiar defining

question that American national opera–just as American national painting or

American national fiction–must necessarily be concerned.

Certainly the quip that “American national opera is an oxymoron” is not

without justification. The repertoire has a long enough history, but its enduring

successes have been comparatively few. Nevertheless, an interesting body of

such work has emerged that treats American themes and American

experience, that wrestles with the essential question of the meaning of being

American. And on any short list of those operas would be Douglas Moore’s

The Ballad of Baby Doe.

The leitmotif of Moore’s operatic output, from the singspiel Devil and Daniel

Webster that he wrote with playwright Stephen Vincent Benet in 1939 to his

final opera about the prohibitionist Carry Nation in 1966, was Americana. In a

sense, Moore is the Vaughan Williams of America music, or, to change the

figure, a musical stylist much as Graham Greene or Anne Tyler are literary

ones. His work is comparatively simple and accessible, with familiar melodic

ideas and a ready theatrical sense. Indeed, Moore’s music, while neither

complex nor cerebral, has an “authenticity” that, as the composer Yehudi

Wyner comments, causes a listener “mysteriously, to grow increasingly fond

of it.”

One of Baby Doe’s greatest strengths is John Latouche’s inspired libretto.

Latouche, who had a remarkable ear for the American idiom, assembled here

our vernacular in a manner at once poetic and natural. Whole scenes are

written using collections of cleverly captured clichés and oral rhythms woven

together musically; they have an ease which makes them seem more a part of

a play than of an opera. It is recitative that ripples with reality.

The story is quintessentially American as well. It chronicles an actual incident

in nineteenth century history that involved common folk-ordinary Americans

trying to survive, succeed, find love and fortune and meaning in a world of

rapidly shifting values and mores. It’s a love triangle involving Colorado’s

silver king, Horace Tabor, his puritanical wife Augusta, and Elizabeth “Baby”

Doe, the “miners’ sweetheart” who would become the classic “other woman.”

It’s a story with political, social, and fiscal implications redolent of daily life

even now–indeed, with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair prominent in the press,

one of the lines, “another administration scandal,” broke up the Boston

audience during a recent matinee!

Baby Doe has acquired an orthodox performance canon over the years,

shaped to a large degree by the recording with Beverly Sills in the title role and

Emerson Buckley conducting. But recent productions–in Hartford,

Washington, D.C. and Kansas City–have shown some experimentation in

both staging and directing, and January’s Boston mounting offered powerful

new insights that may contribute to a revised performance tradition.

Boston brought together the rare combination of a woman as director and a

woman as conductor, rendered even rarer by the fact that both are former

sopranos (and one, director Sharon Daniels, have been a well-regarded Baby

Doe). Daniels seems to sense the essence of this opera to be relationship, and

thus emphasized not only the usual political and social aspects of its use of

Americana, but also its preoccupation with “moving west” as a personal

journey, and with the reinvention urge that seems to overcome so many of us

at mid-life.

This is an epic tale, to be sure, but it’s an epic of dailiness. The Tabor were

real people, and their quest was homely rather than heroic–or heroic because

it was homely. It’s an epic for the America of Studs Terkel, not for the Greece

of Homer. And it is precisely this dailiness, this ordinariness, this “folks like

us” quality that suffuses American opera as a genre. This is what we see, for

instance, in Porgy’s enduring optimism, in the unintended tragedy of the

Maurrants in Weill’s Street Scene, in John Proctor’s all-too-human nobility in

Ward’s Crucible, in Susan B. Anthony’s pensive reflection on the meaning of

her own “long life” which concludes Thomson’s Mother of Us All.

And perhaps that finally is what makes American national opera significant–its

ability to capture the essence of how we live, of the relationships we choose

and the frontiers we conquer and the messes we make, of how our lives have

become an enduring historical answer to de Crevecoeur’s question. This “new

man, this American”–flawed, fumbling and free–is at the center of America’s

national operas, and is quintessentially depicted in The Ballad of Baby Doe.