An American Tragedy – an opera by Tobias Picker

Saturday morning I was introduced to the music of Tobias Picker in an interview on NPR. Had I not been called into work on Saturday I would have missed a pretty interesting opera experience today.

“An American Tragedy” is Tobias Picker’s fourth opera and was commissioned by the Met in 2005. It sounded interesting so I went down to the Broad Stage @ SMC to check it out. It’s not surprising but disheartening that a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and a Bearns Prize winner would only have two performances of his opera as a west coast premiere, but I guess everyone in the arts takes a hit some of the time.

The opera is based on the novel with the same name written by Theodore Drieser. It concerns one Clyde Griffiths, a poor working-class chap who begins work at his uncle’s textile business. There he meets Roberta, one of the lower-class sweatshop workers, and begins a clandestine affair with her. As he rises up in rank and becomes bigger with the company, he begins an affair with Sondra Finchley, a friend of the family. Sondra is a higher-class lady and the one whom Clyde loves more but complications arise when Roberta tells Clyde she is pregnant. When Roberta threatens to jeopardize Clyde’s relationship with Sondra by coming out with the truth, he agrees to marry Roberta. One day they go for a row on the lake and Clyde inadvertently tips the boat over and Roberta falls into the lake. He does not make an effort to save her and she drowns. Clyde is seen executed on death row at the end of the opera.

I thought the piece to be overall very good, with some stand out performances by Shana Blake Hill and John Atkins. This is the second time I have seen Ms. Hill in performance and I found her interpretation of the Roberta Alden character striking and sexy. Mr. Atkins, who plays Samuel Griffiths had an excellent voice and was one of the only characters whose lines I understood completely. He seemed to know the part very well.

There were some parts to the opera’s staging that I found distracting. Its minimalist set (a white screen on which black-and-white photographs were projected to denote the setting) was a little bit too minimalist. I never once believed we were in the locales that the pictures depicted. Also I was not a huge fan of the “Nixon in China” style of standing-in-one-spot-and-sing-to-the-audience method really conveyed the tragedy of the story. The first number, sung by a childrens’ choir seemed off-key to what the orchestra was playing. Perhaps it was intentional, but it was very grating. I thought the performance of Clyde was a bit stilted and lacked the passion of both Roberta and Sondra’s characters. The sex scene between Clyde and Roberta was very weird. I was almost uncomfortable. If I were to compare this sex scene done at Santa Monica College with the one I staged with Dan eleven years ago at Santa Clara U, I would say that we got the bedroom scene done better. Just sayin’.


(photos of the director and composer on stage)

That being said, I was happy to support an independent opera production today and I am very much interested in hearing more from Picker – his first opera Emmeline seems to have a similarly tragic story and gothic bent: A mentally disturbed girl (Emmeline) conceives a child at age 13 and when the baby is born, it is taken away by her and cared for by somebody else. Fast-forward twenty years and Emmeline meets and marries a man, only to discover that this man is her son.

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