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Subject: The Fate of Most American Operas ("Amarantha")
From: "G. Paul Padillo" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:G. Paul Padillo
Date:Tue, 12 Jun 2018 15:30:56 -0400

text/plain (80 lines)

Seventeen years ago (wow!) I posted to the list requesting any information 
about an opera I’d seen in a workshop presented by (now defunct) National 
Opera Institute at the Kennedy Center, back in 1983.  I received a number 
of messages from folk interested in learning more about the work, but not 
a single person was able to provide any information making me feel almost 
as though I had dreamed the entire episode.  The work intrigued me 
enough at the premiere that I attended each of the performances 
presented (I think six, over two weekends).

The opera, “Amarantha” subtitled “A Play for Singing Actors,” was by 
American composer Roger Ames who co-authored the libretto with 
baritone, Timothy Nolan, based upon the short story “How Beautiful With 
Shoes” by Wilbur Daniel Steele.  Thirty-five years later it still sits vividly in 
my mind, my desire to experience it again increasing over the ensuing 
decades.  Being a workshop, there were no actual sets, only “suggestions,” 
though it was costumed and had props, a “reduced orchestra’ (two pianos 
and a percussion ensemble), but none of this lessened the dramatic, at 
times harrowing impact it had on those audiences, seated on the 
uncomfortable, hard bleachers in the KenCen Theatre Lab.  

Since the time of my initial query, the internet has exploded and a recent 
search has yielded, if not much, considerably more about this work and its 
composer than I was able to find back in 2001.  For starters, I’d was 
unaware he had studied with Samuel Barber, and John Kander, who 
attended at least one of the performances, as did Harold Prince (the then 
director of the institute) as well as, if I recall, Sheldon Harnick
Harnick.  “Amarantha” was eventually given several stagings, at Lake 
George Opera, The University of Maryland Opera Theatre, and New London, 
Connecticut, but since the 80’s, nada, that I can find.

Steele’s original tale, first appearing in Harper’s magazine in 1932, made 
for a libretto that bordered on southern gothic elegance and outright 
ribaldry and Ames’ score matched every bit of the heat of its text.  (Note, I 
just discovered Steele crafted it into a play that had a limited run on 
Broadway in 1935, starring Myron McCormick.)

Set in post-civil war southern Virginia, the story revolves around a young 
woman, Amarantha is unhappily betrothed, and soon meet Humble Jewett, 
a handsome, teacher of English literature who we learn is being hunted 
down, having just escaped from the insane asylum where after being 
charged with murder.  Hearing Amarantha’s name, Humble is instantly 
smitten, and she, feeling strangely safe and pitying him, leads him into the 
woods where the madman begins his “courtship” of the unhappy girl, 
quoting 17th century poets and waxing insanely about her beauty.  The 
pair end up making love, but Amarantha tells him her name is 
really “Mary,”  whereupon Humble takes her for the mother of Jesus as his 
reason recedes even further.  Eventually he’s caught, and Amarantha, now 
transformed, decides to remain alone.  

With Mr. Prince at the helm, “Amarantha” was the first opera by the 
Institute to receive performances both in DC and New York, and I was able 
to find promotions for it in both The New York Times and The Christian 
Science Monitor.  The NY performances were held at the long gone TOMI 
Theatre in the Park Royal Hotel on W. 73rd Street.  

The only review I've ever seen, for the 1989 performances at U. of Md., by 
Joseph McLellan for The Washington Post was very positive.  Around the 
time of my original Opera-L query, I heard from the composer who was t
trying to find a video copy of the Maryland performances.  I had the b
briefest of exchanges with him before I lost touch.  

Reception at each of the performances ranged from enthusiastic to ecstatic 
and, I’m certain, all who attended, like me, thought this powerful opera 
had legs and would make it.  More’s the pity, it did not.  Never too late for 
a revival though, is it?


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