Fancy a prestigious TV break for an evening? Good news: an important 20th century American opera is now available for streaming, after a rare live staging this summer. And it lasts about 50 minutes, just like an episode of “The Crown”.
The bad news: It is only available until September 30. (Tight streaming windows are far too regular a problem in a classic field that is still adapting to digital formats.)
The work is “Highway 1, USA”, which combines rapid narrative dynamics and melodic folkloric tunes with a look at the tension between community belonging and individual advancement. The brave company is Opera Theater of St. Louis, which has made its list of summer festivals available for rental on its website, until the end of this month.
With an excellent cast, Leonard Slatkin as conductor and a crisp production from Ron Himes, founder of The Black Rep company in St. Louis, this one-act act is the work of William Grant Still (1895-1978), known during his lifetime as the “dean” of black American composers.
Still was a pioneering artist, with his “Afro-American Symphony” performed widely after its premiere in 1931, but he struggled to get his operas produced. Terence Blanchard – who would become the first black composer to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera in its 138-year history when his “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” opens the company’s season on Monday – referred to the negligence of Still in a recent interview on his milestone.
“I was just in St. Louis and heard the William Grant Still play,” Blanchard said. “And I’m like, OK, there he was. I’m honored, but I’m not the first qualified person to be here, that’s for sure.
The Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Louis gave Blanchard an early impetus, staging both “Fire” and his first opera, “Champion” (2013). The company is giving its biggest competitors on the American lyric scene another chance to catch up on Still’s “Highway”, which has rarely been performed since its premiere in 1963.
The work revolves around a married couple, Bob and Mary, who run a rural gas station. The couple supported Bob’s younger brother, Nate, throughout his undergraduate studies, as the brothers’ mother requested on her deathbed. But now, as Nate prepares to graduate, Mary (soprano Nicole Cabell) is dismayed to find he is hoping to secure their sponsorship for a little longer.
In this performance, Mary thrillingly pivots between loving pleas to her husband and suspicion of growing conflict with Nate. As she rages, Slatkin and the Orchester symphonique de Saint-Louis react with hard-hitting but well-judged dynamic changes – perhaps taking into account the film and television scores that Still produced after his first operas were performed. been repelled by the Met.
The Bob in this production is Will Liverman, who stars in “Fire” at the Met and will also play Malcolm X when Anthony Davis’ “X” arrives there in 2023. Bob gets some of the finest solo music from “Highway” , which Liverman handles with touching, even calming grace. But he also enjoys the curdling moments. In the second scene, when Bob briefly returns to his brother’s more yellowish vision of Mary, Liverman seethes with the mechanical sound and churning that Slatkin gets in the orchestra.
When Nate (tenor Christian Mark Gibbs) walks in, so does the irony. This young man with a university education reads Schopenhauer. But, more precisely by the opera, he is bragging on his reading of Schopenhauer. It is ego – not scholarship – that is despised in the libretto by Verna Arvey (who was also Still’s wife).
Equally erudite, but generously, is how Still transforms an initial and ascending orchestral motif throughout the piece. Sometimes this line returns to underline an expression of ardor; at other times it may be embellished with harmonic portents of danger.
Although elegant, the music is shamelessly accessible. If performed more widely, Still’s aesthetic might attract modern opera skeptics who have rejected works from the modernist or minimalist camps that dominate the 20th century repertoire currently being performed in America.
Classical music of this lineage – linked both to European examples and to American folk forms such as blues, gospel and jazz – constitutes a response that has always been hidden from view by American institutions which remit (to the less now) publicly questioning their priorities and following protests for racial equality.
In 2019, while the Met was preparing a new production of “Porgy and Bess”, I proposed a list of eight operas by black composers, long neglected by the big companies, which could enter the repertoire. “Highway” was one of them. (The same was true of Davis’ “X.”) And there are other Still operas waiting for late premieres or covers.
Given his work in popular music – arranging for WC Handy, and also putting his twist on tunes like “The Slow Drag Blues” – it is clear that his contributions will remain important to understanding the black opera tradition. American currently extended by tastes. de Blanchard and Davis, whose jazz careers, although very different, season the two male operas.
Blanchard’s “Fire” will be recorded for posterity as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. It is appropriate for a business with its budget. And the fact that the much smaller St. Louis cannot afford to keep its commendable production of Still available in perpetuity is understandable, given the cost of deals with publishers and unions.
Still, St. Louis’s work will nonetheless help keep an issue hanging in the air – even after the sunsets on “Highway”, digitally. Which of the most solidly funded companies will take over and use it? As administrators and donors reflect on this question, audiences are advised to stream Still’s “Highway” while they can.