In preparation for the North Carolina premiere performances of Mark Adamo’s Little Women, given by the UNCG Opera Theatre in Aycock Auditorium on November 21 and 22, many academic departments at UNCG presented lectures and discussions, such as “Three Different Screen Adaptations of Little Women,” “Behind the Mask,” a look at author Alcott’s life, and “Stage Door Pass,” a continuing education course taking a behind-the-scenes look at the current production. There were even tie-ins with local Girl Scout troops and magnet schools. All helped inform the audiences for the production. The opera was given its world premiere by Houston Opera Studio for a limited audience in 1998, and it was so successful that it was revived two years later as a regular Houston Grand Opera production. Indeed its success has been resounding, and it has been presented by over twenty opera companies, nationally.

In previous stage and screen presentations, the novel has been about “the romance of a free-spirited young writer torn between the boy next door and a man of the world.” In extensive comments at the Schirmer website, the composer states that, in familial relationships, “those we love will, in all innocence, wound and abandon us until we learn that their destinies are not ours to control. The conflict of Little Women is Jo versus the passage of time…. Alone among protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caufield, Portnoy), she’s happy where she is. Adored by her family, she adores them in turn…. Jo knows that adulthood will only graduate her from her perfect home. She fights her own and her sister’s growth because she knows deep down that growing up means growing apart.” His opera takes as its conceit Jo’s desire to “stop the clock,” with most of the opera focusing on meaningful episodes of her life as she prepares what to say when Laurie (the boy next door) returns from Europe after marrying her sister Amy.

About his musical style in the opera, Adamo [inactive 9/06] writes that the “materials reflect (his) love of ‘fioratura’ vocal writing, pan-chromatic harmony and American theater song-forms. I (created) two main motives… as well as themes for all the characters and certain dramatic actions…. But the motives themselves neither narrate the story nor comment on it in (a) Wagnerian manner. (Instead) they drive in the script what the renowned acting teacher Uta Hagen calls acting ‘beats’ – specific psychological actions, closely (or barely at all) matched to the actual stage gestures, that track the progress of the characters as much if not more than do the events of the story. I wanted these mostly tonal themes to appear and intertwine as audibly as I could make them as the opera unfolded – perhaps against an orchestral background utterly distinct in texture, harmony, and line from the thematic foreground. For those scenes driven by language and story, rather than music and psychology, I concocted a variant of 18th century recitative… crisply minimal, but made from a twelve-tone melody… that not only spiked the harmonies under the non-thematic dialogue, but also gave Jo the makings of her wild storytelling… sections of the scena, ‘Perfect As We Are.'” (For more information, see [inactive 9/06].)

The four sisters of the March family are Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg. At times, and especially in the opening Prologue, soprano Nicole Elizabeth Asel (as Jo) wanted some heft in rising over the 23 musicians in the pit. Her diction was excellent, and her embodiment of the character was totally believable – she created a portrait of a controlling personality. The first sister to depart was Meg, and her aria, “Things Change Jo,” might well be added to other singers’ American repertory. This was easily projected by mezzo-soprano Rene Janette Sokol, whose voice was warm and smooth throughout its range. Amy, the visual artist of the family and secret admirer of Laurie, was portrayed by soprano Rebecca Meyers, whose even voice rose to dramatic intensity as the sister’s complex relationship with Laurie played out. After ideally liming the role of the invalid sister Beth, who presciently had never been able to envision her future, soprano Rhiannon Giddens expressed calm resignation in her deathbed aria.

Other family members were the girl’s parents, Alma and Gideon March, and the latter’s sister, the wealthy old maid, Aunt Ceclia March. The fiscally practical mother was sung by soprano Ariya Lynchee Sawadivong, who is lovingly exasperated by the idealistic father. To her tactful request to allow a publisher to reprint Gideon’s tract, “Inscriptions,” bass Jeffrey Carlson replied, “The Niles publish entertainment. They do not publish thought!” In Act II, Carlson doubled in the role of Mr. Dashwood, the lurid romance publisher of the fiction tabloid The Daily Volcano , for which Jo eventually writes. The dramatic soprano voice of Jennifer Gaspar revealed all the snobbery and self-sufficiency of the avaricious Aunt. Jo got a jarring look at her possible future in the pivotal scene with her Aunt in Act II, s.4, envisioning long, cold and lonely years with no one to love.

Baritone Dennis Jesse, the most experienced singer in the cast, easily projected the shy ardor that Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, feels for Meg; his aria, “There was a knight, once,” is an obvious charade. Laurie and Jo derived much humor from Brooke tactlessly comparing courtship to breaking a horse. Daniel C. Stein was Laurie, the eager boy next door; his high tenor voice was warm and flexible, whether being playful or revealing his emotional depths. Since his comic turn as the god Mercury in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld in his junior year, we have admired the blossoming of bass-baritone Sidney Outlaw’ voice. With quiet dignity, he brought gravity and wisdom to the role of Jo’s other suitor, Friedrich Bhaer. A highlight of the opera was his aria featuring English and German versions of Goethe’s “Do You Know the Land Where the Lemon Trees Bloom?” At times his tone and vocal texture suggested William Warfield in his prime. This aria ought to be snatched up by any aspiring low-voiced recitalist, although a piano reduction of Adamo’s magical orchestral texture would be hard to imagine. Also heard were an off-stage quartet of female voices consisting of Hannah Schlotterer, Louisa Gabriele Muller, Elena DeAngelis, and Meghann L. Vaughn.

The sturdy, multilevel set was designed by Marsha Paludan and subtly lit by Erin Doll Stevie. An innovation not seen in the PBS broadcast of the Houston Grand Opera production was a large, centrally located family portrait of the four sisters that quickly changed as each sister left the family. Special attention was not drawn to this, and at first we thought we were losing our ability to count, not being used to changing portraiture outside of Oscar Wilde! While active in theatrical productions, this was a very promising debut as an opera director for Paludan. The fine 19th-century costumes were designed by Julian Cheek. David Holley, whose work as a singer and as an opera director we have long admired, was equally effective as the conductor, maintaining tight ensemble between the pit and the stage. Many of the very able student musicians doubled or even tripled on instruments. The program book was excellent in most respects, giving background to the opera, a plot summary, and cast biographies. We critics do deplore the growing tendency of programs to not list the vocal categories of singers.