Our Town Opera Packs a Punch

I went to Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music production of Ned Rorem’s Our Town last Saturday night, and I am so glad I did.  It was such an excellent performance! The singing, set, acting, everything was so good.

The opera begins in a scene from a small American town – Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire – in 1901.  The Stage Manager is a curious character who is both an ordinary stage manager and a part of the town himself, and who also speaks directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall.  The opera begins as he introduces us to the people in the town.

We soon realize we are in a period of history when things seem a lot simpler and go a lot slower than in today’s world.  Few cars, no computers, not even any television.  People were much more local-oriented without that window on the world in every living room.

George (Brenton Ryan) and Emily (Chelsea Morris) talking at night from their bedroom windows.

Emily and George have been next door neighbors all their lives. In the first act we find them beginning to be attracted to each other, and in the second act, we get to attend their wedding.  We hear the couple’s innermost fears about the future and the big step they are taking. (George: “What am I doing here?”  Emily: “I wish I were dead.”)  Their parents encourage them forward, and once the ceremony is done, they relax with each other and feel very happy.

The third act takes place in 1913 at the town cemetery where a graveside funeral service will soon take place. Emily has died during childbirth trying to bring their second child into the world. Those who are buried in the old cemetery are depicted sitting in chairs and discussing the funeral party and expressing random thoughts about their lives, and then Emily joins them.  She is happy to see her mother-in-law and others she knows. They advise her to relax into this new state and not to fight it.

Emily opts to go back and relive a favorite day of her life: her thirteenth birthday. From her new vantage point, people seem not to realize and appreciate the great gifts they have in everyday ordinary life, and that everything goes by too fast. Of course, this is the play’s message. But the original way it is delivered makes it much more poignant.

In background Tyson Miller as the Stage Manager. In foreground, Emily and George.

The Stage Manager was sung by the superb Tyson Miller who is both a flawless singer and a very impressive actor.  He projected a no nonsense attitude about the events, but with a large dollop of empathy.

Chelsea Morris was a perfect Emily: an old-fashioned wide-eyed innocent sung with a clear flowing voice. George was portrayed by Brenton Ryan whose accomplished tenor voice and sweet character carried the role.  You could not help but wish him well.  When he sobbed at his young wife’s grave, it was heartbreaking.

All the supporting players/singers were excellent. We have come to expect this high level of expertise at the Shepherd School, but this opera was exceptionally well-sung, well-acted, and polished.

This was my first introduction to Ned Rorem, and I would like to get to know him better.  The melodic, traditional music written to reflect the historical period would intermittently become dissonant when the characters had difficult moments. The opera premiered in 2006.

Of course, I had seen the Thornton Wilder play several times in the past, so I knew the story. But, this time during the iconic third act where the departed souls are sitting in chairs and talking among themselves, I was very touched and had to really fight my urge to do a little sobbing myself.

After the performance I went to eat at Poscol with three friends, and we discussed Our Town.  Someone said the opera was more effective than the play because of the evocative music and excellent acting by the Rice students. Agreed.  But maybe also because I am older now, and “know more dead people”, as the character Emily says, than I used to.  The ‘lesson’ of the play is probably even more appropriate to our time where our lives are lived at lightning speed, than to these characters at the turn of the last century.  Or maybe it applies to all humans who get caught up in the everyday busyness of their lives and fail to see the big picture and to count their blessings.

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