More than a century after its publication Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about growing up female in Civil War-era New England still resonates, and North Texas audiences were delighted when Mark Adamo's popular adaptation came to Bass Performance Hall.
"It reads better than I expected.”
That was the understated reaction Louisa May Alcott recorded in her journal after reading the publisher's proof of her novel Little Women - a book that would make her rich and famous beyond anything she might have expected.
Her surprise at her book's readability was born of low expectations of the work based on early drafts.
"Sent twelve chapters of 'L.W.’ to Mr. N [her publisher]. He thought it dull, so do I.,” she wrote, adding that she pressed on with the chore only because "lively, simple books are very much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need.”
Alcott proved to be right about the need and her ability to fill it. But even this farsighted American novelist of the Victorian era could not have imagined how long and in how many ways Little Women would find its way to young girls. While the book itself remains a staple of American literature, it has also inspired numerous adaptations on the stage and screen.
And now, thanks to American composer Mark Adamo, Alcott can claim to yet another impressive posthumous achievement; her "dull" novel has been turned into a new stage work that is the first major operatic hit of the 21st century. Indeed, less than five years after Little Women's first full performances at Houston Grand Opera, it already shows the potential to become one of the most popular operas ever created by an American composer.
Louisa May Alcott
"I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,” Alcott once told her family - a bold statement in an era when most American women thought marriage was the defining goal of their lives.
And paddle her own canoe she did, venturing down some daunting tributaries but never straying from the strong current of her dream of writing. The lines and shades that emerge from her writings paint a portrait of a women every bit as free-willed, headstrong, driven and cleverly funny as Jo March, the fictional sister in Little Women who mirrors the spirit of her creator.
Born in 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, Louisa became part of a closely-knit family that always struggled financially but never lacked for intellectual riches. Her father, Bronson, was a farmer, educator and writer who was a stranger to success. His farm failed, the school he founded went under (probably because of his avant-garde ideas regarding education) and his writings fared no better.
While Louisa was still an infant, the Alcotts relocated to Massachusetts, living first in Boston and later in Concord, where their circle included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau – men who shared Bronson's enthusiasm for the philosophy of transcendentalism. So as Louisa grew up, she was surrounded by some of the most important writers and thinkers of her times – an environment that apparently taught her a lot about paddling her own canoe.
Despite a heavy load of family chores, Louisa began writing at an early age and never let up. Her first publication, a poem, came in 1851. Three years later she published her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of stories she had written to entertain Emerson's daughter. She continued to publish with regularity thereafter but, as is usually the case with writing, with modest financial benefit.
During the Civil War, Louisa felt the need to back her strong abolitionist views with action. In December 1862, she enlisted as a nurse and was assigned to a Union Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. The conditions were horrific – “a more perfect pestilence-box than this house I have never saw – cold, clamp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, washrooms, and stables,” she observed. She wrote of spending her clays surrounded by "three or four hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease, and death;' and being "homesick, heartsick, and worn out.”
But, in those same letters and journal entries, she also noted "the constant excitement of this
great house.” And despite the rigors of her job, she took great satisfaction in what she was doing. "I like it, find real pleasure in comforting, tending, and cheering these poor souls who seem to love me, to feel my sympathy though unspoken, and acknowledge my hearty good-will, in spite of the ignorance, awkwardness, and bashfulness I cannot help showing in so new and trying a situation.”
Her career as an Army nurse, however, turned out to be a short one. She fell ill with typhoid pneumonia less than two months into her service and had to return home. While this was a brief episode in Louisa’s life, it defines this author in many ways, demonstrating her courage, her commitment to her ideals and a nurturing, motherly side of her personality that was often overshadowed by a tendency to view the world around her with a bemused, intellectual, detachment.
Following her recovery, she continued her writing career, publishing her first novel, Moods, in 1864. Her blockbuster, Little Women, was issued in two parts in September 1868 and April 1869.
This novel, which chronicles the lives and loves of the March sisters, is based very directly on Louisa's own life. In addition to the numerous character traits shared by the author and the fictional Jo March, Louisa also too grew up in a house full of sisters. One of the three was her sister Beth, who died at a tragically young age, as does Beth March. The father of the book's little women, Gideon March, is as wise and kind as Bronson Alcott was known to be and Jo is as devoted to him as Louisa was to Bronson. Some of the events in the novel were based on Louisa's life, while others were taken from previous stories she had written.
The novel was an instant and enormous success – a development that Louisa quickly learned had a down side.
“Reporters sit on the wall and take notes; artists sketch me as I pick pears in the garden,” she complained in the wake of her novel’s splash. “It looks like impertinent curiosity to me; but it is called ‘fame,’ and considered a blessing to be grateful for, I find. Let ‘em try it.”
Several more books followed Little Women, but none that approached the popularity of that novel. Of course, there is no failure in that – few books before or since have rivaled the enduring success of the tales of the March sisters.
After battling ill health for years, Louisa May Alcott died on March 6, 1888 at the age of 55, perhaps from meningitis or apoplexy. Because her family felt she was too weak to bear the news, she passed from this veil of tears without knowing that her beloved father had died less than 72 hours earlier.
The composer of the opera Little Women, Mark Adamo, took a surprising route to the opera hall. Before he scored such a big hit with Alcott's novel, he was (gasp') a music critic.
The Philadelphia-born Adamo wrote primarily for the Washington Post newspaper, but also contributed to magazines such as Opera News.
Being a word processor jockey would not seem to be a very direct path to a career in opera composition, but in Adamo's case, his work put him a position to become acquainted with some of the most important figures in American opera. When he was developing Little Women, he was able to turn to no less a talent than Carlisle Floyd, the composer of Susannah, for help and guidance.
Although he was an award-winning playwright at New York University and earned a degree in music composition from Washington’s Catholic University of America in 1990, Adamo, before Little Women, saw himself as a “songwriter with orchestral skills.”
But in 1996, Adamo decided to stretch himself by seeking a commission for a work that would bring the March sisters to the opera stage. The initial effort did not come to fruition but, thanks to Floyd, Adamo's proposal was eventually seen and accepted by Houston Grand Opera, which performed a scaled down version of the opera in 1998. The same company offered a full-scale production in 2000 and, in August 2001, it was broadcast over PBS.
Few operas from the last half-century have enjoyed the immediate success of Little Women. While most new operas (from any era) take some time to work their way into the repertoire, Little Women has already been presented by more than 20 opera companies – an astonishing number for a contemporary American work. In May, Little Women will have its Asian premiere when the New York City Opera presents it in Tokyo.
The opera has been lavished with critical acclaim, and opera fans, who have been wary of contemporary works since the bad old days of 20th century atonality, have embraced the beautiful singing, accessible music and vivid characters created by Adamo, who write both the score and the libretto for Little Women.
The meteoric rise of Adamo and Little Women is nothing short of stunning. But given the source material, perhaps it should be not surprising that opera can “paddle its own canoe” so well.
Dr. Punch Shaw is a writer, teacher and lecturer on various topics related to communications and the arts. He presents the pre-performance lectures for Fort Worth Opera, teaches courses at TCU, co-hosts a monthly lecture/discussion group on classical music at Borders Books & Music and frequently contributes reviews and features to various publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
CAST AND CREW
Jo Jennifer Dudley
Laurie Benjamin Bunsold
Meg Sandra Piques Eddy
Beth Tawny Seward
Amy Coral Owdom
Alma March Virginia Dupuy
John Brooke Daniel Belcher
Gideon March Jeffrey Snider
Cecilia March Kathryn Cowdrick
Mr. Dashwood Brandon Poor
Fredrich Bhaer Daniel Okulitch
Jo/Meg Cover Kendra Herrington
Conductor Christopher Larkin
Director David Gately
Featuring The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
Scenery Designed by Robert O'Hearn
Costumes Designed by Robert O'Hearn
Lighting Designed by Nicholas Cavallaro
Wigs and Make-up Designed by Steven W. Bryant
Stage Manager Kurt Howard
Supertitles by Tony Kostecki
Principal Accompanist Jason Smith
Assistant Conductor Eric Schnobrick
Performed by arrangement with G. Schirmer, Inc., publisher and copyright owner. Costumes for this production are owned by Minnesota Opera. Scenery provided courtesy of Indiana University Opera Theatre.