William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Two One Act Operas:-
The Mighty Casey (1951)
A Question of Taste (1987-89)
soloists (listed at end of
Juilliard Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec Juilliard Opera Center, December 1990.
DELOS DE1030 [CD1
75.32; CD2 54.11]
Schuman stands as a headline symphonist of the last century. In his Third
Symphony he stands shoulder to shoulder with Roy Harris, his beloved teacher.
Schuman is not renowned for his operatic output nor, even more broadly, for
his vocal music although there are recordings of his songs and choral music.
Music theatre and Tin Pan Alley were the centre of his youthful life. During
his high school period he formed and played in a jazz ensemble. He wrote
more than forty popular songs with Broadway lyricist Frank Loesser. His apt
talent for the catchy and canny song shows through these two works.
The recordings derive from live performances given as a double bill at the
Juilliard Opera Centre on 12, 14 and 16 December 1990. These were to mark
Schuman's eightieth birthday. Schuman heard tapes of Schwarz's Delos anthology
(DE3115, Variations on 'America', New England, Symphony No.
5 and Judith). In a letter dated 16 January 1992, and excerpted in
the booklet, Schuman lavishes high praise on Schwarz's direction of the
orchestral music and of these two operas.
The orchestral role in A Question of Taste has all the Schuman
hallmarks. The slowly sidling French horn underpinning the lovers' duet in
'I'm not a man to your father's taste' is but one tell-tale. Another is the
melodramatic sphinx-like snarling howl when the cheating Pratt declares the
wine-tasting wager is for the hand of the host's daughter. The voices of
the singers are well suited and fresh with the only demerits being Elizabeth's
Grohowski's Mrs Hudson (whose observant alertness saves the day) and Scott
Wilde's Phillisto Pratt. Their fleshy operatic treatment strikes a slightly
The grand dream waltz seems to be something of a US speciality witness
Rodger's and Hart, Sondheim and Samuel Barber. Schuman contributes to that
heritage at 3.14 in Track 6. The story, by the way, is by Roald Dahl. The
libretto by J D McLatchy who also contributes the notes for his opera. Mention
of Barber (a reference to his superb Souvenirs) also recalls his similar
operatic brevity - the succinct A Hand of Bridge. The story of the
rash and doomed wager works very well as an opera and there is all the tension
you could want. The Bergian shine and shimmer of the strings at 8.20, after
the bet is declared, speaks of the daughter's touching innocence and her
misplaced faith. Schuman's language is traced and chased by atonality but
it is in no sense arduous work. The exuberance of the waltz rakes and shakes
the closing pages in a quintet buoyed up by joy and love in dazzling tinsel
Baseball's position in the American psyche is not perhaps what it was. In
the 1950s, which is the era of The Might Casey, both Ernest Lawrence
Thayer's poem (the libretto was adapted by Jeremy Gury) and William Schuman's
opera, baseball stood in relation to American popular culture as Football
stands in relation to British society. Myths and heroisms, shames and victories
are reflected into it.
I have known this work since the early 1980s when friends in the USA sent
me a broadcast tape in which the work was presented as a cantata with soloists
Robert Merrill and Rosalind Rees. The National SO were conducted by Antal
Dorati on 6 April 1976 in Washington DC. The operatic premiere took place
in Hartford, Connecticut on 4 May 1953.
Schuman writing nearly forty years before A Question of Taste is two
rotations less astringent. Think of Copland's The Tender Land as a
reference. Certainly Broadway is at work softening, at times, Schuman's usual
challenging edge. He would not have found it difficult to tap into the idiom
given his years with Frank Loesser. Once again the hallmarks proclaim Schuman
time after time (try the pattering instrumentation on Track 3 at 3.03 - this
is very familiar from the symphonies).
The opera is in three scenes and twenty-three tableaux and is termed 'A Baseball
Opera'. If some of the doggerel veers frighteningly towards
Maconagallese there are only a few moments where listeners will flinch
(try track 15, for example).
'Weather's great for baseball' pulses with muscly energy and new morning
confidence. The woodwind writing at track 5 is half Hummel cassation and
half nervy rush-hour. It was always said by Sondheim that he had certain
composers he turned to but as far as I know he never disclosed which. Sondheim
and Gemigniani (his orchestrator-collaborator) were surely indebted to Ravel
and Stravinsky but it would not surprise me at all if he knew his Schuman
and this work in particular alongside the Menotti operas, Britten's Paul
Bunyan, Barber's A Hand of Bridge (surely a strong pattern given
its psychological strata) and Copland's Second Hurricane and The
Tender Land. So far as the latter is concerned listen to Merry's Prayer
and to the great yearning song by Laurie in the Copland work.
The singers for the Casey opera are spot on. These are healthy
unpretentious voices - a joy to hear. How often these days are we saddled
with operatic celebrities crossing over to Broadway 'slumming it' but importing
portentousness where there should be lightness, vibrato where there should
be steady unclouded tone, subcutaneous fat where there ought to be lean.
Such conventions flatten music theatre except where they reflect parody roles
- there are a few in places like Sondheim's Sweeney Todd e.g. the
Italian barber Todd competes with at the fair.
Is it just me or is the sound better, more immediate, in Casey. In
any event it is a truly pleasurable experience to hear the Juilliard Orchestra.
Their string section is not fully the equal in luxuriance of tone to some
of the swooning passages but there is little in it. The brass, woodwind and
percussion flash, flicker, blast, skirl and rasp to perfection.
Casey uses a narrator who sometimes sings and sometimes orates. He is called
The Watchman. His role is to move the plot along and provide commentary.
It is done very effectively and a similar technique is used with even greater
sophistication in Sondheim's Into the Woods. Franco Pomponi, as the
Watchman, gives us a few skin-tingling moments as in track 14
The harrying chattering abuse (tracks 18 and 19) of the referee will ring
familiarly with those who know their Mark-Anthony Turnage. Turnage's football
opera featured a similar, though fouler-mouthed, reproach. The Umpire's reproof
must surely have been known to Sondheim and was in mind when writing Merrily
We Roll Along.
The plain-jane booklet gives the full sung texts and links direct to track
read-outs. There are a handful of photos of the productions.
It is typical of Gerard Schwarz that he should lend his name and utter dedication
to two such obscure works. Schwarz's discography bespeaks a man with an eye
to the far horizon rather than the obvious quick sale market. Surely one
of the saddest tales is the one which Delos, Seattle and Schwarz began and
took far down the road towards a complete Diamond, Piston, Mennin and Schuman.
It was not to be consummated though their Hanson is complete (minus the full
Merry Mount opera) and what is left of the projects is no mere pedestal.
Watchman - Franco Pomponi
Merry - Catherine Thorpe
Buttenheiser - Carlos Conde
Charlie - Derek Dreyer
Casey - Stacey Robinson
A Question of Taste
Louise - Angela Norton
Mrs Hudson - Elizabeth Grohowvski
Tom - Travis Paul Groves
Mrs Schofield - Elizabeth Bishop
Mr Schofield - David Corman
Phillisto Pratt - Scott Wilde