The handful of “frontier operas” we’ll consider therefore propose an unusual dialectic of both aesthetics and ideology. What might occur when male Western heroes – traditionally stoic and pragmatic – are thrust into stage conventions that demand emotionalistic effusion? Complementarily, how do frontierswomen, so often demoted to window dressing in Hollywood westerns, become vocally empowered through opera’s centering of feminine heroism? I suggest that when the frontiersman’s unbounded masculinity is remanded to the cramped conventions of neoromantic American opera, the Hollywoodized myths of the West begin to unravel, and the pioneer’s manifestly destined teleology is revealed as inherently myopic and regressive.
* * *
Introduction: Frederick Jackson Turner Intrudes on the Stage
Although operas such as Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe have tried to transplant the ethos of the American frontier onto the operatic stage, the notion of a “Western opera” remains an improbable proposition. The rugged individualism and stoic masculinity we stereotypically associate with the American West make an unlikely foundation for opera, an emotionalistic genre historically invested in tragic, hysteric, and coquettish incarnations of femininity. The inherent anti-realism of operatic form and expression (i.e., singing one’s thoughts) likewise seems incompatible with the straight-shooting naturalism we associate with rustic pioneers of centuries past. The handful of “frontier operas” we’ll consider therefore propose an unusual dialectic of both aesthetics and ideology. What might occur when male Western heroes – traditionally stoic and pragmatic – are thrust into stage conventions that demand emotionalistic effusion? Complementarily, how do frontierswomen, so often demoted to window dressing in Hollywood westerns, become vocally empowered through opera’s centering of feminine heroism? I suggest that when the frontiersman’s unbounded masculinity is remanded to the cramped conventions of neoromantic American opera, the Hollywoodized myths of the West begin to unravel, and the pioneer’s manifestly destined teleology is revealed as inherently myopic and regressive.
Though invariably echoing the sounds of folk music in their scores, composers of the “Western” operas we’ll examine rarely reiterate the stalwart gender roles found in Hollywood westerns, instead undermining the macho stoicism that ideologically informs the genre. But issues of musical idiom might actually pose greater obstacles to composers than issues of gender and ideology. Composers attempting a (successful) “Western opera” cannot (or should not) crudely insert folksongs into a prefabricated operatic framework. To simply inject unreconstructed cowboy dialects into grand symphonic soundscapes would seem ludicrous (or at least Brechtian). Rather, a composer would have to find a musical idiom that dialectically balances a “high” operatic form with “low” proletarian culture. Opera is an urban, elitist art, requiring tremendous resources and specialized, lifelong technical training, while folk music is largely (if not exclusively) an amateur phenomenon rooted in utilitarian traditions, such as hymns, political anthems, and work songs.1 Composers would need to fashion a musical style that weds folkish content to epic form. By the same token, ambitious composers should have to avoid the prairie clichés standardized by Hollywood Westerns and Broadway hokum (e.g., Oklahoma  or Annie Get Your Gun ).
Despite these obstacles, the folksy sounds we associate with the American West have long haunted American art music. Most turn-of-the-century attempts to integrate pioneering themes into music have been understandably forgotten, sabotaged as they were by composers’ own paternalistic ideologies or second-rate talents. Few remember Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s cantata Hiawatha (1900), a dully Victorian treatment of Omawhaw mythology, or Charles Wakefield Cadman’s Indianist operas, such as The Land of the Misty Waters, or Da O Ma (1912).2 Arguably, the triteness of such works reflected an unease then common among American composers, who were striving to invent the very notion of “American opera” from the ground up, much as Glinka had pioneered Russian nationalism with Ivan Susanin (1836). Historically, the moment was inopportune. Despite the nationalist desire to invent, none of the era’s composers could imagine a non-European idiom not born of nativist banalities. As Lydia Goehr observes, from “roughly 1700 to 1930, the explicit concept of American opera was often not [even] employed,” and when it was, it lumped together “oratorios, ballad operas, comic operas, and pantomimes,” in addition to European operas sung in English.3
If we turn to operas specifically about the frontier, rather than operas that are vaguely “Americanist,” the problems of ideology come to the fore. From James Fenimore Cooper to Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontiersman clearly embodies an imperialist ideological project that composers (at least conscientious ones) should have to ironize rather than heroize. Embedded in the frontier myth is a paradox of belonging, for the frontiersman – and Turner’s frontier thesis implies a male pioneer – prepares an entrepreneurial future whose bureaucratic conclusions he neither envisions nor desires. As he moved from the hermetic wilderness to semicivilized frontier towns, the frontiersman lost his Rousseauean innocence and became a charismatic, decisive, goal-oriented man of action, apotheosized by the eponymous hero of Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian.4 No longer a ragged if autonomous outdoorsman, the Western hero was now a secular Siegfried, a nearly invulnerable hero with one foot planted in the wilderness and the other tentatively straddling human affairs. When Californian territory became exhausted, this “tentative” moment gave way to imperialist expansion, at which point imperialism itself, rather than hermetic frontier myths, became ideologically dominant. The foundation of the Westerner’s mythos is thus temporal as well as spatial: he lacks both the forethought to understand imperialist teleology and the hindsight to see that, like Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, he is himself a relic of preindustrial history.
Thematically, the frontiersman of folk tales and Hollywood comports uneasily with romantic opera’s usual concerns – love, jealousy, revenge, and redemption (usually in that order). The cowboy hero may know something about sacrifice and revenge, but for him love is a passing phantom and redemption unnecessary. His fists and six-shooters provide the only redemption he needs. The quasi-anarchic cowboy certainly has a quest, but his ruggedly individualistic journey would rarely dovetail with opera’s tragic or comic modes. His journey may, of course, be glossed with tragic or comic elements, and we might see as implicitly tragic his ultimate exclusion from the lawful, organized civilization he precedes. But he is oblivious to these tragic implications himself. To the mythic frontiersman or cowboy, exclusion from lawful civility is the preordained outcome of his hermeticism and self-professed anti-intellectualism.
For Turner, the frontiersman’s hubristic individualism never becomes subsumed historically by the march of industrialism and nation-building. Rather, self-determining pioneers continually recreated themselves within an expanding frontier’s virgin terrains. Turner argued, in fact, that the vastness of the American West lent Manifest Destiny a cyclical, regenerative form:
American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, from the Appalachians to the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River, Missouri, and the Rocky Mountains. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life . . . furnish[es] the forces dominating the American character.”5
Pushing ever westward, frontiersmen revisited savagery whenever they encountered unmapped lands. Only for the modern bourgeois is the desert a negative space, signifying emptiness and death; pioneers optimistically seized on this emptiness and claimed it as their own. But the pioneer’s cyclical return to what Emerson called “aboriginal wisdom” couldn’t be eternal. Unexplored lands exist in finite supply, and the census of 1890, which finally declared California empty of virgin territory, made the frontiersman’s quest obsolete. Casting off nomadic lifestyles, American settlers had to find other crucibles of individualistic self-creation, whether agrarianism, politics, entrepreneurial capitalism, or criminality. In the American myth, the frontiersman is not a populist, and though Turner’s hero is coded as male, he is procreative only in the most reductive sense. Destined for “perennial rebirth,” he becomes a static, atemporal figure, an overgrown naïf who embodies only finitude and clings to hermeticism (or provincialism) to stave off the decadence of things to come. His worldview is not paleoconservative but pessimistic. Presciently, he understands Marx’s conclusions that industrialism will be exploitative and division of labor will be alienating, yet he prefers his hermeticism to revolutionary exertions. He is also tragically unimaginative, unable to envision a nonexploitative, Durkheimian capitalism in which organic solidarity and proper divisions of labor allow individuals to prosper in vocations far more diverse than those Nature affords.
Perhaps it took the objectivity of two Englishmen, Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden, to express poignantly in music the frontiersman’s melancholic place in nature and his isolation from civilized futures. In their folk opera Paul Bunyan (1941, partially revised 1974-75),6 the titular hero, for his sheer mythic size, cannot be represented materially – he is a booming offstage voice, instigating the action but never truly a part of it. Bunyan’s physical greatness allegorizes the pioneer’s outsized ambitions, but it also renders him so unrealistic that he cannot feasibly fit within either the dramaturgy or the history it signifies. Bunyan is also excluded musically. Reduced (though ostensibly elevated) to a resounding recitative without musical accompaniment, he never participates in Britten’s polystylistic soundscape, whose free mix of fireside ballads, dancehall tunes, and operatic pastiche represents a cosmopolitanism beyond the understanding of an artless forester.
From the opera’s beginning, Bunyan is shrouded in preternatural and proto-national myth, emerging from the ether under a blue moon and to cadences inflected with “blue” notes. Over twittering avian flutes, Bunyan surveys the virgin woodlands: “It is America . . . but not yet.” Soon he enlists pioneering lumbermen from Germany, Scotland, and Sweden, sending out word that he seeks “men without foresight or fear.” Librettist Auden didn’t accidentally stumble across the phrase “without foresight.” The phrase drips with deliberate irony: Bunyan falsely believes all men share his static, Turneresque place in the frontier and fails to realize his own built-in obsolescence. Though upright and amiable, Bunyan is disconnected from his workers, puzzled that they refuse to call him by his first name and unaware that many resent being wage slaves. Unbeknownst to him, many of his lumbermen are precocious entrepreneurs who tire of material labor. In a comic duet, lumber camp cooks croon about beans in the manner of a cheap 1930s radio advertisement. “We will mail you a fascinating booklet, ‘Beans for Beauty’ . . . if you send us your address,” one sings, already imagining a fetishistic mass marketplace Bunyan can neither anticipate nor understand.7 The geographically horizontal frontier may close, but in its place will arise a new, vertical frontier of upward mobility, towering skyscrapers, rising stock markets, and hierarchical institutions.
As Auden says, the “irrational destruction” of nature wrought by Bunyan’s forestry empire makes “possible the establishment of a civilized order.” However, with “settlement and cultivation [ . . . ] the aggressive will is no longer pure.”8 Bunyan’s lumbermen eventually professionalize themselves, succumbing to the gentrified pursuits of middle-to-late capitalism. The camp cook becomes a Manhattanite chef, the camp manager becomes a Washington bureaucrat, and Inkslinger, the brainy bookkeeper, heads to Hollywood to write dime-store screenplays. With the advent of modern specialization, a “collective mythical figure is no use,” Auden says, “because the requirements of each [social] relation are unique” rather than universal.9 Whether lumberman or cowboy, Turner’s pantheistic pioneer knows only Nature and himself, which he believes are essentially interchangeable. Of Manhattanite chefs and florescent-lit bureaucracy, he can know nothing.
In Paul Bunyan, Auden unmasks Turner’s patriarchal hero as a melancholically static figure rather than a dynamically heroic or tragic one. If Auden’s Bunyan believes he remains untainted by the corruptions he unwittingly prepares, he is more an ignoramus than a hypocrite (as a myth, he has the luxury of temporal blindness). As such, Auden’s treatment ironizes the loneliness of the traditional Hollywood cowboy, whose melancholy is buried beneath a code of manly self-denial.
Even Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (1910), the only “cowboy” opera in the standard repertoire, takes a rather un-American approach to masculinity: in its pacifistic ending, a heart-of-gold (yet gun-toting) woman sabotages the Western’s ritualistic bloody climax. While most analyses of La Fanciulla subsume ideological concerns within the arc of Puccinian aesthetics,10 we can briefly observe that Puccini’s scenography (after David Belasco’s 1905 stage play The Girl of the Golden West) anticipates the gendered consciousnesses of 1950s operas such as Susannah and The Ballad of Baby Doe. The relationship between bandit Dick Johnson (née Ramerrez) and tough yet maternal saloonkeeper Minnie turns the Western genre’s machismo on its head. When Johnson sings a soaring, minor-chord aria in Act 3 (“Minnie, flower of my life . . .”), he becomes freed from his generic stoicism and is emotionalized to a degree unknown to the Hollywood gunslinger. The happy ending continues the logic of gender reversal. As a gun-wielding Minnie rushes to the hangman’s noose to save Johnson, she convinces the lynch mob to put aside its bloodlust and let love reign supreme – at which point the couple (rather than a lone, asexual gunman) disappear into the sunset.
Though Minnie and Johnson flee the civilized outpost of California and return to the wilderness, it is within the wilderness that the final act of redemption transpires, suggesting a circuitous – rather than a fallaciously dichotomous – relationship between nature and society. Just as humanity is itself part of nature, so can redemption spring from natural environs. Placing opera conventions above those of the Western, La Fanciulla centers on a plucky heroine and decenters masculine agency: though Minnie is virtuous (she reads Bible verses in the saloon), she is also cunning (cheating at cards), resilient, and, as she climactically faces down Johnson’s lynch mob, brave to a fault. Meanwhile, Johnson plays the role of damsel in distress in the final scene, where Minnie rescues him from vigilantes. Occasionally the cowboy hero is redeemed by a good Christian woman, but only after he has completed the ritual of a violent gunfight. Having no means to recreate himself (a la Turner), the Westerner here requires the Christian redemption of an “imported” verismo heroine who can more ably adapt to civilizing ways. In Turneresque myth, the frontiersman relates to Christian ideology ambivalently, even if his westward journey supposedly embodies Manifest Destiny. Unable to carve out a space for himself between savagery and modernity, he is usually condemned to savagery, rarely succumbing to pacificism, Christian morality, or a stable (and paradoxically effeminizing) heterosexual relationship.
Although operas dealing with pioneering themes aren’t numerous, they’re not limited to Puccini’s La Fanciulla, Floyd’s Susannah, and Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. In our discussion, we’ll touch on Susannah and Baby Doe but also delve into lesser-known, seldom-performed works. Our approach will be primarily thematic and narratological, examining how mid-century American operas reframed the mythologies of gender and nationhood advanced by the Hollywood western. While musicologists might find my emphasis on “story” reductive, I’d suggest that we shouldn’t take operas’ themes for granted or treat them as disposable. If critics often pass over libretti with a sense of embarrassment, it is partly because nearly all operas written before World War I (and many after) engage trite Hellenistic or Christian topoi, excepting a few orientalist curiosities, such as Holst’s Sāvitri and Roussel’s Padmâvatî. At a certain point, there is nothing left to say about hamartia or Christian redemption – except for how such themes can be musically transformed, undermined, and/or remade. While the Americanist operas discussed do indulge clichés of fated love and (occasional) redemption, they more importantly critique the geopolitics embedded in Manifest Destiny and the masculinism that underwrites it.
The mid-century trend in folk operas – partly a product of postwar optimism – reflects an American musical culture ready to shun the polar traditions of Franco-Italian grand opera and German expressionism. Some of these operas reflect the influence of the
“adult Westerns” Hollywood was producing after 1950, which repopulated the genre with neurotic, vacillating men and strong, defiant women. More generally, these operas absorb Hollywood aesthetics and narrative structures. With a few exceptions (such as Baby Doe), they deemphasize solo and ensemble “numbers” and Italianate vocal virtuosity in favor of prose texts, intelligible recitative (often in the vernacular), and flowing, cinematic action.
The present essay is only a long sketch; a full accounting of frontier themes in American opera would require a monograph. In my discussion, I omit certain American folk operas that do not engage Turnerism, such as Copland’s The Tender Land (1954) and Lukas Foss’s Mark Twain-inspired The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1949), a one-act comedy that tends to beat drawling folk idioms into the ground. I have put aside early-twentieth-century Indianist operas, even though Cadman’s Shanewis: The Robin Woman (1918) might be tangentially relevant – the opera deals with ethnic and class conflicts that ensue when an educated Native American woman returns to her Oklahoman reservation after the Civil War. Douglas Moore’s Pulitzer-winning Giants of the Earth (1958) is perhaps also relevant: based on Ole Edvart Rølvaag’s 1925 novel of the same name, the opera tells of pioneering Norwegian immigrants in the postbellum Dakotas. Unfortunately (and unaccountably), no recording of Giants of the Earth is currently available.11 The same fate has befallen Ulysses Kay’s Civil War-era Jubilee (1976) and Frederick Douglass (completed in 1985 but not staged until 1991), two operas that foreground the racial politics too often missing from American operas of prior generations.
I will mention in passing Walter Damrosch’s seafaring opera The Man without a Country (1937), based on Edward Everett Hale’s 1863 short story. The work prefigures the cinematic aesthetics of Floyd and Moore and is spiced with a touch of the sea-shanty atmosphere of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers (1909). Dealing with the theme of pre- and postbellum American nationhood, the opera concerns a traitor condemned to maritime slavery and fated to never touch American land again (sort of an earthly Flying Dutchman). Its hero, however, is not a frontiersman but a lieutenant embroiled in politics far beyond the pioneer’s innocence. An establishmentarian who betrays and is expelled from the establishment, Damrosch’s traitor effectively takes a journey contrary to that of Turner’s frontiersman.
Non-American operas dealing with frontiersmanship likewise lie beyond our provincial discussion, though Australian composer Richard Meale’s Voss (1986), after the 1957 novel by Patrick White, mirrors the American Western’s obsession with Manifest Destiny. Set in 1845, the opera tells of a German-born explorer, the titular Voss, who declaims in the first scene, “I will cross this country from one side to the other. . . . It is mine by right of vision!” The narrative emphasizes introspection rather than high adventure, however, as if the vistas to be conquered spring from Voss’s panoramic gaze. “We are born out of our own destiny, not from the womb,” he bellows, though members of his expeditionary party see as quixotic his attempt to colonize Australia’s unmapped heart. As Act 2 begins, the scenography envisions and then subverts the Western’s hesitant wilderness-civilization dichotomy. “The stage is set to provide an open space that is sometimes Sydney, sometimes the desert, sometimes both at the same time,” the stage directions read.12 While the dichotomized stage is something like a cinematic split-screen, its alternate sides offering (geographic) counterpoint, it is also an organic space whose boundary actors can simply transgress. Yet only when the dramaturgy visualizes Voss’s febrile dreams do characters magically jump between Sydney and the outback. In waking reality, Voss’s traveling party is ambushed by aborigines, and eventually his own aboriginal Man Friday betrays and decapitates him. In the opera’s coda, Voss’s wife joins newspapermen to resurrect him as a monumental statue – another manifestation of the doomed frontiersman’s statis, here literalized in concrete. Around the statue, young children play blindman’s bluff as the curtain descends. Meale and librettist David Malouf conclude with a sardonic commentary on the myopia of colonialist “vision.”
In opera, as in Turner, we address the mythopoeic frontier, not the historical one. The myth of the frontier is entrepreneurial but only incipiently capitalistic: it assumes that (male) pioneers should find greater (or more “natural”) satisfaction as lumbermen, trappers, hunters, and local tradespeople than as the staid bureaucrats of an unglimpsed late capitalism. Although the several operas we’ll examine subvert the gender norms of the classical western, none satirize those norms outright. Beyond the scope of this essay lies an unfinished opera that would have pulled out the rug from under the entire Americanist project: Theodor Adorno’s singspiel Der Schatz des Indianer-Joe (derived from Twain’s Tom Sawyer). Given the Brechtian implications of recasting folkish Americana within an atonal musicality – Adorno’s two published fragments sound more like Webern than Berg – one could only imagine how the completed work would have excoriated the (pre)industrial capitalism to which Western “progress” was tantamount.13
Part One: Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Carry Nation
If Turner’s masculine assumptions are undone by the verismo swooning of Puccini’s Fanciulla, a more direct kind of reversal comes to the fore in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. Premiered in 1956 and featuring a libretto by John Latouche (also the writer of Bernstein’s Candide), the opera concerns a vicious (if sympathetic) woman who redeems a cowboy hero corrupted by the enervating civilization Turner so lamented. Though Moore largely refrains from quoting folk tunes, his musical palette vividly conjures images of antique parlors and burnished taverns. Based on the once-scandalous true history of late-nineteenth-century silver baron Horace Tabor, the opera opens in an 1879 Colorado saloon filled with carousing miners singing ecstatically about the silver rush. Their revelry disrupts a performance at the newly adjacent “Opry House,” the brain-child of civilized, austere Augusta Tabor. She is the wife of Horace, a philanderer who “owns everything in town,” as the saloon girls sing (to the tune of “Clementine”). Though Horace boasts of his newly civilized ways, his miner employees know his politesse is a façade. Knowing his true background as a swindler, they jest, “But to [us], you’re still a lop-eared cutthroat from a squatter’s claim.”
Augusta soon enters the saloon, horrified that her husband has left the opera to carouse with “jezebels.” To the sound of a tinkling, out-of-tune saloon piano, the young and beautiful Baby Doe enters, singing with lilting innocence of her loneliness in the West. A married woman, Baby Doe outrages the Tabors’ upper-crust crowd with her shameless flirtation. Confronted by Augusta, Baby Doe claims she loves Horace because he is a great frontiersman not bound by civilized mores: “He must be free to follow his destiny/For he is above all conventional ways.” Augusta, embodying economic responsibility and foresight, reveals to Baby Doe that Horace suffers from the pioneer’s immaturity: “You don’t know him. The Man is a child/Horace is a weakling . . . the mine was pure luck,” she sings. She further reveals that Horace – never a prescient, Promethean capitalist – only became rich by hoodwinking two miners out of their claim. Nevertheless, Baby Doe convinces Horace to divorce Augusta and marry her. Despite the ensuing social scandal, Horace becomes a senator and friend to presidents; no longer a frontiersman, he is now a budding (if fraudulent) feudalist about to encroach on federalist powers and institutions.
The opera’s final scenes cut forward to 1893 (the year Turner published his thesis), when Horace’s latent pioneer characteristics – myopia, intractability – fully reveal themselves. Confronted with Easterners (like future President McKinley) intent on instituting the gold standard, Horace places his faith in silver and banks on the election of populist (and bimetallist) William Jennings Bryan. Singing en masse, “He won’t change with the times,” Horace’s chorus of cronies bemoans his tragic inadaptability. A pioneer by nature, he’s settled (both mentally and “metally”) in one spot for too long, depriving himself of the recreative mobility of Turner’s undomesticated hero. His temporarily successful industrialism is more or less a sham; in spirit, he shares the tunnel vision of Auden’s Paul Bunyan and fails to realize he cannot cheat his way into civilization. He thus belongs neither to progress nor to the frontier: his soul is unfeasibly split between the opposing tendencies, precisely the precarious position Turner feared when positing a hero who must either recreate himself in fresh frontiers or finally cross the border into civilization – at which point he no longer rebecomes a pure self but becomes a corrupted alter ego.
In Baby Doe’s tragic ending, a destitute, politically failed, and unrecognizable Horace returns to the opera house that bears his name. Stumbling onto the stage in a stupor, he hallucinates episodes of his life, singing to his deceased mother, to Augusta’s ghost, and finally to the flesh-and-blood Baby Doe, who ascends to the stage to redeem Horace with her love. Ironically, Horace’s greatest moments of both pathos and alienation occur on a diegetic opera stage, the pinnacle of a civilized culture he can neither claim nor access – yet also a venue that, meta-diegetically, allows him to tearfully utter the pain tough men typically mask.
Fanciulla and Baby Doe see in womanhood a sentimental redeemer: Minnie rescues outlaw Dick Johnson from a lowly mob much as Baby Doe frees Tabor from a corrupt, elitist civilization. Douglas Moore’s later (and seldom produced) biographical opera Carry Nation (1966) imagines a far more belligerent womanhood, positioning the hatchet-wielding temperance campaigner as the redeemer of a pathological society, not a pathetic man. The opera’s flashback structure offers an etiology for Carry’s (sometimes Carrie) violent crusade, but apart from a rumbustious, tavern-set prologue, the work is largely a claustrophobic chamber piece. For critic Bernard Holland, Moore’s focus on Carry’s tragic early years “turns the opera into a stock Victorian melodrama . . . that mostly ignores [the] eccentric and often violent escapades” of her maturity.14 Though librettist W. N. Jayme was a journalist and (oddly enough) a successful marketing guru, he avoids the sensationalistic aspects of her biography, instead emphasizing adolescent trauma and the pop Freudianisms that occupied the consciousness of mid-century America.
Carry Nation begins with a Prologue set in 1901, as boisterous saloon patrons warn one another of the teetotaling crusader. “She’s a tough one, Carry Nation!” they sing to ragtime piano accompaniment. “Tough? She’s crazy. . . . Twenty-five saloons . . . smithereens!” a chorus responds. After drunkards sing an ode to beer and whiskey, Carry enters dramatically to astringent orchestral chords, followed by a small army of temperance ladies. Over sawing strings, the axe-wielding Carry declaims, “Men of Topeka. . . . Behold the right arm of the law!” Chaos and breakage ensue, until the marshal enters, guns blazing, to arrest Carry for “defacing private property.” Carry, in stark recitative rather than song, takes offense at the sheriff’s officious euphemism. “Defacing? I’m destroying!” she hollers. As she is physically carried offstage, she warns that one day Prohibition will come. Here, “civilization,” represented by the saloon, is not quite civilized enough and requires the higher “civility” of religious morality. In an era of rampant alcoholism and attendant domestic abuse – the ostensible impetus of the temperance movement – civilization needs an axe-wielding dogmatist more than a loving redeemer à la Baby Doe.
Act 1 flashes back to 1865, right after the Civil War has ended. A young Carry sits in her parents’ parlor, listening to her father’s fundamentalist dogma and hellish sermons about the “ungodly.” Much to the embarrassment of Carry and her father, Carry’s mother laments that in a postbellum America, the “darkies” are no longer around to help with her chores. To recoup their losses from the war, the family takes in a boarder, Charles, a former Confederate field doctor. Introducing himself, he sings that his “gaudy uniform of hate” now has been replaced by “an ordinary suit.” Yet he remains haunted by battlefield trauma: rather than patch up a wounded Yankee soldier, Charles let him bleed to death. Visibly ill and singing his part woozily, he clearly has found solace in the bottle.
In the following scene, disillusioned Charles rushes from a church service, much to the alarm of the flock. Outside, he bellows maledictions at a god who “gives life . . . then wryly smiles and kills” and whose dogma “shackles Carry, so innocent, so young.” In her private moments, Carry also harbors religious doubt, lamenting that she hardly “know[s] the god she used to pray to.” United by their crises of faith, Carry and Charles commence a love duet, reciting lines between Katherine and Prince Hal from Henry V to the sound of soaring strings and plucked harp. Overhearing their mutual professions of love, Carry’s fanatical father confronts the young man. “All my love for her is natural!” protests Charles. Carry’s father is appalled by Charles’s lustfulness – so much so that we might suspect his overprotection of Carry harbors incestuous desire. The father, an imposing bass voice, excoriates the young man for being a hell-bound drunkard – a fact still unknown to naïve Carry. Charles silently, defiantly raises a flask to his lips, whereupon the father expels him from their house, bellowing fortissimo, “You no good, drunken bastard!”
Some time passes. At a town hoedown that allows Moore to indulge ethnomusicological color, Charles asks Carry to flee her parents and begin a new life together. He proposes to Carry just as her father reveals Charles’s alcoholism to her. Far less judgmental than her father, she argues in a passionate aria that she can restore him to grace. As Act 2 begins, Carry begins a new life in Holden, Missouri, where she hosts a ladies’ auxiliary, reading aloud Wuthering Heights and swooning over Heathcliff. But the civic niceties are a façade: Charles’s alcoholism is intensifying, and his trembling hands in surgery cost a trampled boy his life. As malicious gossip spreads, Charles’s medical practice flounders, and Carry blames herself for being unable to save him. Rather than prompting his sobriety, sudden news of Carry’s pregnancy only sends him deeper into alcoholic rage. At this point, the opera unfortunately descends into the Victorian melodramatics Holland grumbled about: Carry’s mother spirals into bedridden madness and her father, learning his daughter is now pregnant and destitute, entreats Carry to return home. In a climactic trio set in a saloon, a drunken Charles confronts Carry’s father; between them is a pleading Carry, who ultimately chooses her father over Charles. Cut to a year later, when Carry still dreams of being reunited with Charles, until a telegraph informs her of his untimely death. In a lengthy, impassioned aria that closes the opera, Carry reverts to the religious masochism of her upbringing, exclaiming to God, “It’s I who’ve done wrong . . . abandoned You, abandoned him.” Promising to atone through a prohibitionary crusade, she cries, “Possess me God . . . show me a path,” while around her soars heavenly music, punctuated by a plaintive solo trumpet. As her soulful aria grows into a heated oath, she is joined by the full chorus for a rousing finale.
The choral peroration’s appeal to religious morality and to Carry’s future as a “defender of the home,” as prohibitionists were called, does have roots in an episode from the historical Carry’s life. In her 1904 autobiography The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation, she claims to have had an epiphany one morning in 1900, when a godly voice commanded her to travel to the small Kansas town of Kiowa, where she was to demolish a local bar. The flashback structure of Jayme’s dramaturgy assumes that this spiritual awakening (at fifty-four) and subsequent “hatchetations” are the highlights of a life that must be psychologically unpacked and morally justified. A less conventional, less flattering opera might have focused on her later years, in which she, attempting to capitalize on her notoriety, launched an ill-fated, transatlantic vaudeville act that exhorted spectators to lead upstanding lives. Such ill-conceived spectacle seems ripe for satirical grotesquerie or even masochistic expressionism, revealing that the “civilization” Carry wanted to “carry” was unworthy of her fervent devotion. Ironically, the thesis of Carry Nation seems to confirm the pessimistic worldview of the hermetic, agnostic frontiersman, who rejects an immoral (in this case, drunken) civilization destined for decadence and self-destruction.
By ending the opera with Carry’s grandiose religious awakening, Jayme and Floyd create a simplistic (even jejune) thematic framework, reducing the proceedings to Carry’s subjective experience and worldview. The chorus’s final affirmations urge the audience to uncritically accept Carry’s religious awakening at face value. We are never meant to wonder if her epiphany stems from madness or is the neurotic symptom of a puritanically tortured upbringing. The opera’s finale encapsulates the aesthetic and ideological limitations of mid-century American folk operas, which reduce the nineteenth-century Gesamtkunstwerk to a Hollywoodized aesthetic. Carry Nation’s competent melodrama is comparable to the dramatic films of Vincente Minnelli or George Cukor – but its conservative, unironic aesthetics go no further. In our next section, we can consider a far more successful “Hollywoodized” opera, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, a work that uses a strong central heroine to renounce rather than affirm conventional religiosities.
Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair
If Baby Doe’s hallucinatory climax psychologizes the male Western hero in the manner of Hollywood’s “adult Westerns” of the 1950s,15 Carlisle Floyd’s more sensual Susannah (1955) goes considerably further. Floyd’s own libretto centers on a willful young woman who not only defies patriarchy and puritanism but ultimately rescues herself rather than a fallen man (as in La Fanciulla or Baby Doe). With an economical length of about ninety-five minutes, Susannah proceeds much like a movie: action is compressed into tightly edited scenes, choral interludes are omitted almost entirely, and symphonic (i.e., Wagnerian) development is supplanted by an orchestra that responds elastically to scenes’ fluctuating emotional contents, as does a film soundtrack.16 Susannah further evinces the adult Western’s eroticism, presenting a heroine unashamed of her sexuality and neurotic men who contend with sociosexual impotence.17
Though Baby Doe presents two strong heroines, the ascetic Augusta and its amorous title character, their opposing moralities mainly serve to facilitate and frame Horace Tabor’s tragedy; neither ascends to the level of autonomous, independent agent. Floyd’s Susannah rectifies this shortcoming not only by advancing a defiantly feministic heroine, but by subversively drawing its plot from the Book of Daniel. In the Apocryphal text, the beautiful yet god-fearing Susannah inflames the lust of two elder judges, who spy on her as she bathes and threaten to blackmail her unless she sleeps with them. When she refuses, they slander her in public as an adulteress. Brought before a tribunal, she is found guilty (without concrete evidence) and sentenced to death. Yet God intervenes in the person of chaste Daniel, who exposes the accusers’ public lies and secret lusts. On the surface, this simple tale of lechery, voyeurism, and the sin of bearing false witness hardly seems the stuff of good (or even mediocre) opera. In transplanting the narrative to rural Tennessee, however, Floyd thoroughly secularizes the proceedings, removes the climactic appeal to patriarchal redemption (i.e., God/Daniel coming to the rescue), and posits a pioneering heroine stronger than men weakened by convention. Susannah engages the frontier thesis’s standard dichotomy of barbarism-civilization, but inverts gender roles and their conventional associations, as a young woman adopts the role of independent pioneer and feckless men embody a frontier town corrupted by a particular kind of pernicious civilization – organized religion.
Suffused with the Appalachian soundscape of its setting, Susannah begins with a fiddling folk dance, where gathered townswomen sing of rampant sinfulness and welcome the cleansing presence of Blitch, the new preacher. The townspeople single out for scorn the eighteen-year-old rural girl Susannah, who was raised in the woods by her “drunken brother” Sam and who scandalizes the civilized folk with her short skirts. Sam, though older than Susannah, reveals the intellectual immaturity – or even arrested development – at the heart of the mythically naive frontiersman. He lives apart from society (in a woodland cabin), hunts, handles a gun, and apparently is self-sufficient, yet also sings childish tunes to entertain Susannah, totally misreads the vindictiveness of the townspeople, and ultimately proves rash and incompetent in his violence. As in the Apocryphal story, the action really begins when lustful elders spy on Susannah bathing at the baptismal creek. By limiting the elders’ wrongdoing to voyeurism, not attempted rape (as in the Daniel story), Floyd highlights the story’s feverish Puritanism: here the sexual “offense” is the simple existence of the (naked) female body, which even in its most passive form becomes an ungodly offense. Floyd orchestrates the scene with trombone glissandi and unsettling whoopings in the horns, emphasizing the surging, phallic nature of the elders’ voyeurism. Notably, a 2011 Loyola Opera Theatre production of Susannah, directed by Octavio Cardenas, emphasizes the elders’ jaundice by framing the bathing scene in symbolically colored silhouettes. Darkened in shadow, the oglers wail about Susannah’s naked “blasphemy” while she, singing an innocent vocalise, is backlit in a silhouette that gradually becomes tinted blood-red, at once foreshadowing bloody tragedy and suggesting that her “sin” exists only in her beholders’ bloodshot eyes.
News of Susannah’s shamelessness spreads among the local Bible-thumpers, who insist she confess her sins publicly, lest she be excommunicated. Nonplussed by the accusations of “exposing [herself] without any shame,” Susannah contends that she’d long bathed at the creek without complaint. Nevertheless, Sam insists that she confront her accusers at a revival meeting that night, while he tends to his hunting chores. At the revival, the flock – as judgmental as that in Carry Nation – sings a vigorous hymn of Floyd’s own invention. Over the chorus and in a stentorian Sprechstimme, Blitch calls forth sinners and finally singles out Susannah. As the hymn rises in pitch and Blitch’s exhortations darken (“She pays no heed to my pleadin’!”), Susannah suddenly screams “No!” and flees her judgment. As she runs, dramatic chords from the tutti orchestra seem to cry both with her (exclamatorily) and after her (pleadingly), representing her ambiguous relationship to the frontier town and its tenuous, theocratic notion of “civilization.” Floyd affords Susannah the bulk of the opera’s soaring high notes, as if only her voice, uncorrupted by civilization, can truly ascend to heaven (especially in her haunting aria, “The Trees on the Mountain Are Cold and Bare”). As a result, her exalted expressivity overtakes the guttural tones of Blitch and the puritanical townspeople, whose lines are steeped in folksy banality or earthbound recitative.
The following scene finds Blitch visiting Susannah at her borderland shack (“This is what you might call a social visit . . . ”), claiming he wants only to redeem the girl’s soul but soon revealing his terrible loneliness and predatory intentions. With Sam still away tending his animal traps, Blitch forces himself on Susannah, at which point he discovers her virginity (presumably by her unbroken hymen). Realizing Susannah isn’t the “wench” the townspeople claim, he begs her forgiveness; now (partly) defiled by Blitch, she only responds, “I don’t know the meaning of forgiveness.” Wracked with guilt, Blitch wants to clear Susannah’s name but cannot reveal the wicked source of his knowledge. At a church meeting, Blitch implores the townspeople to see Susannah’s inner purity, but they are implacable and, more significantly, unmusical. Reserving for the prejudiced townspeople the coarsest, most provincial recitative (an unnamed member of the flock barks, “How d’ya know she’s innocent, preacher?”), Floyd links archconservative ideology to prosaic modes of (in)expression.
On his return to the frontier shack, Sam quickly learns of Blitch’s transgression. Though Susannah never explicitly expresses her sexual desires, her reply to Sam (“If they’re going to think the worst anyway, I might as well do it”) suggests she places little stock in conventional morality. Overcome with murderous rage, Sam impulsively kills the preacher in the baptizing creek – an act the townspeople believe Susannah instigated. Crying for her blood and then singing wordlessly, a vengeful chorus descends on Susannah’s shack, sitting at the border between vicious civilization and once-noble savagery. Unrepentant, Susannah interrupts her accusers with absurd, perhaps nihilistic laughter before producing a shotgun to hold the crowd at bay. “You can’t settle everything with a gun, wench,” cries a townsman, leveling the sort of accusation usually reserved for a headstrong male outlaw. Floyd offers no dramatic closure or denouement. The opera ends with Susannah alone on her woodland porch, singing snatches of her melancholy aria (“The trees on the mountain . . . ”) yet bristling with defiance, remaining as pure in her feminine sexuality as the Turneresque gunman is pure in his forbearance and self-denial. Unlike Susannah’s Apocryphal namesake, she requires no redemption from a paternalistic savior, nor does she reiterate the compulsory martyrdom of so many verismo heroines.
Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Allan Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), a leftist Western once lauded by the Cahiers du cinema critics,18 Susannah is typically read as an allegory of McCarthyite persecution. However, the opera’s “pioneering” feminism is more remarkable today. As a gender-inverted commentary on Turner’s frontier thesis, Susannah presents a heroine who, in the opera’s final scene, remains situated in the outlands, alienated from a society corrupted not by commercialistic mandates (as in Turner) but by (male) sexual repression, a syndrome the frontiersman’s mythic stoicism only intensifies. Though Susanna’s folk idiom is musically conservative even by the standards of Samuel Barber, William Schuman, Howard Hanson, or other mid-century neoromantics, the opera offers serious images of women’s agency rare within the archconservative spaces of the Eisenhower-era frontier tale. Shotgun-toting Susannah is not a performatively masculine incarnation of Turner’s willful frontiersman; though defiant and even pugnacious, she is autonomous in her feminine sexuality, able to imagine alternative futures, and free from the Hobbesian brutishness that the Western genre assumes is an authentic manifestation of the American character.
As both a victim of sexual trauma and an unapologetic sexual agent, Susannah evinces a resilience unknown to failed symbols of patriarchy – Blitch, the archetypal religious hypocrite, and Sam, the infantile brother unwilling to accept Susannah’s sexual maturation. Most radically, when confronting the townspeople, Susannah spontaneously laughs – not in the manner of a hysterical nineteenth-century mad scene, but rather to signify that she realizes existentially her tragicomic position. She laughs not at the townspeople but beyond them, as if mocking the plot contrivances of a genre that demands feminine martyrdom and weepy tragedy – concessions both she and Floyd are unwilling to make.
As we’ve said, Susannah dovetails conspicuously with Hollywood’s 1950s “adult” Westerns, which didn’t so much demythologize the genre as add a psychoanalytic gloss to stock character types. While adult Westerns often neuroticized male heroes and advanced rebellious heroines, many also indulged Freudian clichés and rarely imagined humane, non-generic heroines, such as Floyd’s Susannah. For instance, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), though a magnificent exercise in camp, offers travestied images of female power in Mercedes McCambridge’s ultra-butch murderess and Joan Crawford’s damned saloon proprietress “Vienna,” a holdover from Hollywood’s masochistic “woman’s films” of the 1930s and ’40s. Samuel Fuller’s more nuanced Forty Guns (1957) initially offers a rare – perhaps unique – psychological portrait of an empowered Western gunwoman but ultimately reverts to binaristic constructions of gender. Barbara Stanwyck plays a domineering, whip-wielding cattle baroness who lords over the titular guns: “She commands and men obey!” sings a diegetic balladeer. After falling in love with an upright, square-jawed marshal, she begins to reveal her mortal, feminine side and reflects on her historical position as a power-hungry frontierswoman: “This is the last stop . . . the frontier is finished . . . no more towns to break . . . no more men to break,” she says to him as they lie together. Unfortunately, the script normalizes gender in the final act, when Stanwyck, now smitten, sacrifices her masculinized power, adopts conspicuously feminine dress, and enacts the role of damsel in distress. As the film’s ballad continues, “if someone could break her and take her whip away, you may find that the woman with a whip . . . is only a woman after all.”
If Susannah presents a heroine more authentically feministic than those found in the “Freud-on-the-range” Westerns of the 1950s, Floyd’s seldom-heard satiric opera The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair (1963) offers a freethinking heroine perhaps unique in opera. The work puts aside psychoanalytic bromides and familiar contentions of feminine eroticism by centering on a middle-aged frontierswoman armed not with physical beauty and a gun but with a progressive historical consciousness. Moving the civilization-barbarism dichotomy to a North Carolina plantation circa 1765, the opera openly politicizes the symbolically gendered tension between the Western’s two conflicting tendencies: masculine conservatism and feminine forethought. In Mollie Sinclair, this tension is embodied by a fiery woman who opposes usurious British colonialism and a headstrong man hesitant to move beyond stolid tradition. As Floyd himself remarks, “These two opposing forces, the reactionary and the revolutionary . . . could be personified by two powerful personalities, one a vainglorious old Scottish laird, fiercely maintaining the ways of the old world, and the other a middle-aged Scottish woman, consumed by the fever of revolution and protest, who eagerly embraces the new.”19
Economically scored for a sixteen-person orchestra, Mollie Sinclair was produced in 1963 for local North Carolina television (sadly, the telecast seems lost), a fact that links the opera to the era’s ubiquitous pioneer-themed TV shows. The opera begins as slaves sing of thankless toil (“Hone hoe, bend low/Corn spring up and cotton grow . . .”) unknown to spoiled rake Lachlan Sinclair, prospective fiancée to Jenny MacDougald, the daughter of a highlander chieftain about to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. Jenny and Lachlan’s union is threatened by parental strife, however. The reactionary Mr. MacDougald is appalled by the rebellious feminism of Lachlan’s mother. In hyperbolic song, he claims she is “a witch and a heretic . . . a traitor to the land of her birth as well as her class,” while Mrs. Sinclair sings that Jenny’s father is “a relic of bygone days . . . a stumbling block to the future progress of man.”20 The geopolitical poles of male stasis and female prescience could not be more clearly articulated.
While waiting for his birthday party to commence, Mr. MacDougald, “wearing [the] full regalia of a highlander Chieftain” (according to Floyd’s stage directions), sings a nationalistic Scotch folksong (“O Take me back to the Isle of Skye . . . ”) before hoisting the English flag and singing “God Save the King.” On her way to Washington to protest the Stamp Act, Mrs. Sinclair stops by MacDougald’s party to enlist his help, despite their long-standing enmity. MacDougald initially recoils at the notion of political revolt, exclaiming that his Scottish kinfolk were exiled for rising up against the British. But she retorts, “You and all your kinsmen came to this wilderness exile because you were poor in Scotland and had heard this was the Promised Land!” After a series of shrill political arguments, Mrs. Sinclair characterizes the Scottish frontiersmen as spineless sheep, even (bizarrely) screaming “Baa-baa sheep!” over mocking orchestral dissonances.
In a long, melancholy aria, Mrs. Sinclair reveals unexpected tenderness, singing of “a woman half a century old whose childhood is gone forever.” Sentimentality needn’t impede progress, however, and as she continues the aria, her progressivism fuses unconsciously with her submerged fondness for MacDougald: “Tomorrow, my friend, is already today, and tomorrow’s pleasures will be as sweet as those that graced us . . . yesterday.” Snapping herself from musical reverie, she then bests a group of young Scotsmen in wrestling (!), while MacDougald, having overheard her aria, returns without his outmoded laird’s attire. He enters as a modern man poised to join Mollie in civilly disobedient politics and, perhaps, in love. To the exuberant sound of folksong (of Floyd’s own invention), the mulish frontiersman MacDougald now flies a pirate flag in lieu of his British one. The opera ends with MacDougald freed from the shackles of clan and ethnicity by an enlightened woman, but the pair’s potential romantic union remains a glimmer in the future, a possibility contingent on MacDougald’s ideological conversion. As in Susannah, the unclosed ending hinges on a revolutionary woman cognizant of her political will to defy.
The Frontiersman Steps into Modernity: The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Mighty Casey
Hardly a progressive, Turner never assumed that modernity would successfully rectify social inequities. He assumed that the conclusions of the Industrial Revolution would not only exacerbate economic inequalities but annul the terra nullius that was the pioneer’s lifeblood. Turner’s essential pessimism exposes the frontiersman’s paradox. Although he tries to conserve his self-reliant spirit as he moves across the frontier into civilization, the frontiersman is – like Douglas Moore’s Horace Tabor or Sam Peckinpah’s “Cable Hogue”21 – overtaken by entrepreneurial cum political forces he has underestimated or tragically misjudged. Theoretically, Turner’s hero wants to stop precisely at the border between energizing savagery and enervating society. But capitalism’s mandate for innovation and rash progress cannot be slowed by the pioneer’s Epimethean position, whose vaunted autonomy becomes obsolete in a post-frontier world of pluralistic, legalistic, and cooperative social institutions.
Douglas Moore’s one-act folk opera The Devil and Daniel Webster (1939) provides an “updated” image of a frontiersman more integrated into the continuum of history. He is a man equipped with a slightly raised historical consciousness, ready to stumble into capitalism but not able to do so willfully. In this case, he needs the devil’s goading. If Paul Bunyan cannot imagine the future, the protagonist of The Devil and Daniel Webster is kicked into it by force, only to be perfunctorily redeemed by a woman on the frontier’s far side. Based on the doggerel fable by Stephen Vincent Benét (who also supplied the opera’s libretto), the Faustian plot is familiar from William Dieterle’s semi-expressionistic film version of 1941. Struggling farmer Jabez Stone endures an honest, countrified life in the 1840s – unlike Turner’s violent hero, he has graduated modestly into civilization’s next stumbling stage of development through his Protestant faith. Yet Jabez’s religion also opens the door for Scratch, who tempts him with promises of an instant capitalist success his pioneer naiveté cannot control or truly comprehend.
Greatly condensing a source narrative that Dieterle’s film expands, Moore’s fifty-minute opera begins with Jabez already having sold his soul and Scratch coming to claim it, with a Greek chorus filling in the backstory. Jabez is a differently corrupted version of Horace Tabor in Baby Doe. He is neither a criminal claim-grabber (à la Tabor) nor the beneficiary of his own work ethic (à la Max Weber). Rather, his nascent and untested civility – his provincial religiosity – gets the better of him, as he succumbs to the devil’s temptations. The opera is set entirely during Jabez’s wedding party, where Daniel Webster, secretary of state and valiant constitutionalist, extols Jabez for “starting out with a patch of land that was only rocks and mortgages” only to become a state senator now poised for the governorship. Suddenly, fiendish fiddle strings snap in the background. The devil enters, and the wedding party learns of Jabez’s ungodly bargain. Scratch introduces himself by fiddling a Danse Macabre-like tune, but the wedding party, faithful and unintimidated, bands together to protect Jabez.
The brief trial that famously ends Benét’s tale expressly links the devil to America’s racist, genocidal past – a history to which Mollie Sinclair only alludes in the slaves’ work song.22 When Daniel Webster argues (fortissimo), “The law permits no traffic in human flesh,” Scratch slyly replies, “Oh, my dear Mr. Webster, courts in every state of the Union have held that human flesh is property and recoverable. . . . Read your Fugitive Slave Act.” But Webster’s final oratory before a jury of the damned – “We were men, we were free, we have not forgotten . . . our children shall follow and be free” – magically convinces even those excluded from the march of democracy that a man’s future is in fact autonomously his own.
Through deference to legalism, patriotic rhetoric, and religious posturing, The Devil and Daniel Webster manages to overcome the bind of Turner’s static, hesitating hero, who fears rather than embraces the future. Jabez Stone, an artless pioneer, is unprepared for a political future he wins only through deceit (an idea probed more psychologically in Dieterle’s film version, in which Jabez suffers a mental breakdown). Fortunately for him, the love of a devout wife and the progress of a civilization willing to question the Fugitive Slave Act relieve the hero of his corruption (here rewritten as sacrilege).23 He is now prepared to leap miraculously across the existential chasm between his rugged, rural past and a bright political future, perhaps as governor. Of course, we cannot imagine how a still-naïve soul like Jabez would actually govern in any realistic fashion, and the story conveniently omits scenes of Jabez performing his senatorial duties. Such scenes would be ridiculous and unconvincing – salt-of-the-earth types like Jabez seldom wield political power or engage in state-building. For that matter, few would be truly persuaded by Benét’s specious appeals to nationalism and religiosity, as espoused in Webster’s final oratory. Exactly how, then, might we envision a mythopoeic hero assimilating into civilization without any rhetorical “assistance” or jingoistic baggage?
To the degree that audiences still romanticize the maverick cop, the deviant gangster, or the misunderstood superhero, mass culture continues to position Turner’s outsider individualism against civilized conformity, even as such heroes spring from a conformist culture industry. Hollywood plotlines might give outsider heroes backstories, but like Turner’s hero, they seldom (if ever) possess viable futures and seem doomed to live underground or resentfully on society’s urban margins, the vestiges of the old frontier. To solve Turner’s dilemma, we ultimately need a narrative willing to break the rules of the Western genre (and its descendants), surrender the male hero’s stoicism, and make his individualism into something other than a futile and stationary rebellion against perceived conformities.
Because I don’t know of a mid-century “cowboy opera” in which the frontiersman succumbs fully to everything modernity entails, I’d like to conclude with William Schuman’s 1953 folk opera The Mighty Casey (after Ernest Thayer’s proverbial 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat”), which supplants the Western hero with a modern, civilized analogue, the baseball player. Admittedly, the analogy is knotty. Like the cowboy or gunslinger, the baseball player seeks individual glory in masculine contests, but his individualism has been acculturated and commodified, and his strivings are interconnected with those of his teammates. Unlike the autonomous pioneer, Casey must work within a political universe in which spectators, umpires, managers, and other social actors influence his fate. The baseball diamond hides no undiscovered countries; baseball heroes already know their incremental goal (or fate) is to return “home” rather than encroach on another’s territory. The game thus supplants Turner’s perennial rebirth with a prearranged eternal return – an unexciting bargain, perhaps, but also a solution to the insatiable wanderlust implicit in Turner’s thesis. That Thayer subtitled his poem “A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888” confirms the intended political allegory of the baseball diamond, and the small-town name “Mudville” acquires a historical resonance, calling to mind the muddy towns of the old West or the borderlands of Susannah’s shack on the Appalachian frontier.
Though suffering a poorly reviewed 1955 television broadcast on the CBS program “Omnibus,” The Mighty Casey, running about seventy-five minutes, is one of Schuman’s most engaging works, featuring intricate, nimble Sprechstimme, brassy ballet interludes, and a lyrical intensity reminiscent of his 1943 Fifth Symphony. Describing Casey as a work “intended for baseball lovers as well as musicians,”24 Schuman employs wholly intelligible vernacular prose, mostly treated parlando over heavily syncopated rhythms. Whereas Floyd’s Susannah utilized vernacular and recitative to signify the hoi polloi’s vulgarity, Schuman employs prosaic voices to signify the communitarian spirit of the Volk.
In representing small-town 1950s America, Schuman sketches out a cross section of individual voices: a juvenile autograph-seeker; Casey’s girlfriend, afraid he’ll abandon her for the big leagues; the opposing pitcher, singing tensely of “the drama of the moment”; and screaming spectators, each of whom Schuman affords individual vocal lines. Special attention is afforded the umpire, vociferously hated by the spectators but hardly a villain. Schuman provides him a soulful, quasi-tragic air in which he, after calling two strikes on Casey, expresses dismay that the hectoring crowd cannot appreciate his objectivity and just decisions. Notably, Schuman generously gives each of Casey’s teammates (including a thickly accented immigrant) individual declamatory lines as the roster is announced. Arranged like a music-hall song with a refrain that accumulates as each new player is announced, the number drags on too long, but it does demonstrate that heroic Casey, the last player called forth, is not an estranged, Bunyanesque figure but only one individual among many.
Librettist Jeremy Gury inserts into Thayer’s storyline a third-person (non-singing) narrator, “The Watchman,” who addresses the audience directly, attempting to rationalize the retelling of an anticlimactic fable already well known. “You know what happened to Casey as well as I do,” he interjects in the opera’s middle section, “but deep inside of you, there’s that bright little glow of hope that says, ‘Maybe something else will happen.’” Nearly half the opera comprises Casey’s lone at bat, distended to unbearable levels of suspense despite the story’s foregone conclusion. Most of the drama focuses on the spectators, not on Casey, particularly their extended ruckus with the umpire and the expressions of hope and joy they collectively project onto their undeserving hero. Apart from striking out, Casey actually does little, except for pacifying the outraged spectators with his stoic presence and a diplomatic wave of his hand. “With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone,” says the Watchman, but the line (taken directly from Thayer) is clearly ironic, for Casey’s tranquil façade ultimately cannot disguise his un-Christian hubris. Only after Casey strikes out do the opera’s individuated spectators unify into a chorus, singing a mock-requiem that solemnifies the prosaic line, “There is no joy in Mudville,” with chromatic cries of epic, swelling anguish.
Gury adds a coda that deliberately undermines Thayer’s simplistic moralism. After Casey strikes out, the Watchman directly addresses the audience: “The mighty Casey has struck out – as you all knew he would. . . . But what’s in Casey’s mind? How does a man survive such a thing? How does he live with himself? Who helps him? What helps him? Let’s find out.” Thus begins a three-and-a-half-minute orchestral epilogue, a pantomime subtitled “Twilight of the Big Day,” in which the townspeople, putting aside baseball’s cutthroat competition, come together to comfort a man whose mortality has been painfully exposed. For music critic Tim Page, Schuman’s humanizing coda transforms “the story of a strutting boor whose arrogance lost the day for his town and teammates” into “a vivid portrait of small-town America” in which a fallen “village hero . . . finds redemption through love.”25 But the expedient phrase “redemption through love” is misleading, if not wrongheaded. If Schuman did little more than redeem a headstrong hero through love, The Mighty Casey would go no further than the sentimental formulae of John Ford’s Stagecoach, Puccini’s La Fanciulla, or Moore’s Baby Doe. Rather, Casey is humanized through a communitarian (but not nationalistic) love rarely extolled in American culture (whether low, middle, or high). The pantomimic coda not only civilizes the stoic man of action, welcoming him into the ranks of an unexpectedly empathetic society, but also releases the townspeople from their quasi-fascistic delusions, for they are no longer alienated from a fallaciously worshipped hero.
In the wordless pantomime, the outsize hero joins with his community, representing the organic solidarity (à la Durkheim) to which Auden’s Bunyan was blind. Here, Casey’s individual characters surrender their personalities to the orchestra, which echoes previous vocal numbers – but without the egoistic trappings of the human voice. Schuman’s choice to conclude Casey wordlessly is unexpectedly subversive, bypassing climactic conventions of individualistic high notes or a totalizing chorus. The final recourse to ballet unites emotional strangers through a very necessary – and perhaps transcendent – physical intimacy that voices alone cannot achieve. Indeed, as the wounded Casey unifies with the forgiving townspeople, the larger-than-life hero finally emerges from his heroic alienation, finding his place within a civilization that, as Rousseau claimed, grants humanity greater freedom than does the savage state of nature.26
- Goehr, Lydia. “Amerikamüde/Europamüde: The Very Idea of American Opera.” Opera Quarterly, vol. 22, nos. 3-4. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 412, 2006. [↩]
- As Leonard Bernstein indelicately put it in one of his Young People’s Concerts, “Most of those Montezuma Operas and Minnehaha Symphonies and Cotton-Pickin’ Suites are all dead and forgotten and gathering dust in second-hand book stores.” [↩]
- Goehr, “Amerikamüde/Europamüde,” 406. There were, of course, many American operas written before 1930, though none survive in the repertoire. I assume Goehr uses the year 1930 to herald George Antheil’s Transatlantic (1930) and (perhaps) Deems Taylor’s once-popular Peter Ibbetson (1931), operas that preceded Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. [↩]
- Overwhelmed by Wyoming’s wild landscape and burning prairie, Wister wrote in his journal, “We passed this morning the most ominous and forbidding chasm of rocks I ever saw in any country. Deep down below, a campfire is burning. It all looked like Die Walküre – this is much more than my romantic dream could have hoped.” As John Seelye suggests, Wister’s own frustrated desire to compose likely prompted him to imagine the pioneers’ distant campfire as the fiery magic circle that protects Brünnhilde. Seelye, John. “Introduction.” The Virginian by Owen Wister. New York: Penguin, 1988, vii-viii. [↩]
- Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History, 3rd ed. George Rogers Taylor, ed. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1972, 4. [↩]
- Auden himself characterized Paul Bunyan as an “operetta,” as do most commentators, though it’s obviously far removed from the Lehar tradition. With its eclectic mix of “low” musical comedy and operatic pastiche, the work is somewhat akin to Weill’s satires, though with a subtle melancholy and narrative breadth usually lacking in Weill. [↩]
- “Commercial” satire is also found in Douglas Moore’s one-act opera Gallantry (1958). Subtitled “a soap opera,” it is replete with commercial interruptions for dish detergent and floor wax. Satirizing both TV and opera itself, the work includes the absurd (sung) line, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s only my chronic appendix!” to syncopated accompaniment in the trumpets. [↩]
- Auden, W. H. “Paul Bunyan.” The New York Times, 1941. Reprinted in booklet notes for the Virgin Classics CD recording of Paul Bunyan. London: Virgin Classics, 1988. [↩]
- Auden. “Paul Bunyan.” [↩]
- Puccini’s exercise in occidental exoticism coincided with the short-lived Indianist movement advanced by Cadman and Arthur Farwell. For his tale of the California gold rush circa 1850, Puccini mined Alice Fletcher’s Indian Story and Song from North America (1906) and Natalie Curtis’s musical compendium The Indians’ Book (1907) for usable melodies (the Act 2 song of the servant Wowkle, for instance). [↩]
- The total neglect of Giants of the Earth is baffling, but Cadman’s Indianist opera is probably rightly forgotten. Excerpts of Shanewis recorded by contralto Elsie Baker in 1925 reveal faux populist music of hackneyed sentimentality. [↩]
- Malouf, David. Libretto to Richard Meale’s Voss, after Patrick White’s novel. Sydney: Boosey and Hawkes, 1987. Philips audio CD. [↩]
- One also wonders how Kurt Weill might have Brechtianized Western mythos had he finished his singspiel Davy Crocket, sketched in 1938. For a discussion of Indianer-Joe, see Tiedemann, Rolf. “Adorno’s Tom Sawyer Opera Singspiel,” The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, Tom Huhn, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 376-394. [↩]
- Holland, Bernard. “Review/Opera; Moore’s Carry Nation, a Prohibitionist’s Story.” The New York Times. July 1, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/07/01/arts/review-opera-moore-s-carry-nation-a-prohibitionist-s-story.html. Accessed January 2023. [↩]
- Feministic American folk operas dovetailed with Hollywood’s “Freudian” treatment of the Western, then entering its so-called “adult” stage with films such as Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie (1955) and Man of the West (1958). It must be admitted, however, that Baby Doe’s musical vocabulary, featuring spot-on imitations of nineteenth-century folksongs and political anthems (for the William Jennings Bryan scenes), was conservative even in the context of 1950s adult Western soundtracks, which began using psychologizing dissonances as early as Franz Waxman’s score for Mann’s The Furies (1950). [↩]
- Floyd’s one-act opera Markheim (1966), after Robert Louis Stevenson, is similarly cinematic, compressing its action into a lean, unbroken seventy minutes and transitioning into scenes with cinematic fades rather than sharp breaks. [↩]
- The theme of male impotence is central in The Man from Laramie (1955), in which Jimmy Stewart is symbolically castrated by bullets to his gun-wielding hand. [↩]
- Unlike many 1950s anti-McCarthyite dramas, Silver Lode hardly bothers to mask its political critique – the villain is unsubtly named “McCarty” (without the “h”). [↩]
- Floyd, Carlisle. “The Genesis of The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair.” Booklet notes to the VAI Audio CD release. Pleasantville, NY: VAI Audio, 1999. [↩]
- Carlisle. “The Genesis of The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair.” [↩]
- The title character of Peckinpah’s 1970 The Ballad of Cable Hogue (played by Jason Robards) is ironically run over by a newfangled automobile that visits his early-twentieth-century desert watering hole. The film’s comic-elegiac tone is analogous to the defeatist melancholy of Auden’s Paul Bunyan. [↩]
- Edward Joseph Collins’s one-act opera Daughter of the South (composed in 1939 and reconstructed in 2008 by Daron Hagen) provides more offensive images of slaveholding. The work is a case study in the controversial use of black – or “black-associated” – nineteenth-century folk themes by a white composer. Set in a Virginia plantation in 1861, Daughter begins with enslaved black men hearing that Lincoln might emancipate them. Singing in thick dialect, one slave, Jonah, balks at the idea (“Ah sho likes t’be free but not if/Ah has to leave dis ya’ home”) before the plantation hands dance to rumbustious music in cakewalk rhythm. Momentarily “stepping out” of stereotyped dialect, the female slave Melda then sings a plaintive arioso, telling of how she can never leave Mary Lou, the white girl she raised and who is now betrothed to a Northern boy, Robert. Collins further employs “Dixie” and “The Girl I Left behind Me,” as well as Celtic folk tunes in a later orchestral interlude, to represent the border-crossing romance between Southern belle Mary Lou and the Irish Yankee Robert. Its regionalist romance aside, Daughter of the South features one truly startling moment, when its folk-tinged music accrues overt political significations. In a scene shocking for its racism but perhaps ironic in its dissonance – the only true dissonance in the whole work – the chorus, representing “white society,” adopts black dialect, urges the black folk to sing “an old plantation song,” and calls on all the slaves present to “Shake dem feet and role dos eyes.” As the “white” chorus sings black dialect without sacrificing patrician enunciations, the scene could be read as ironic, especially as the chorus continues, “Day ain’t gonna be no war!” One might infer from the patrician enunciations that there will be “no war” as long as the slaves heed the chorus’s dehumanizing commands and submit to the basest stereotypes. Yet in the final chorus (injected with snatches of “Dixie”), all assembled sing, “We shall live again, and bury the past with its sorrows . . . while love triumphant rules the land!” Banal sentimentality aside, it is notable that newly emancipated black men not only join in the contrived choral optimism but jettison their thick dialect, adding their voices to a now-homogenized aural mass led by white powerholders. That this “ecumenical” chorus retains the ghostly melody of “Dixie” suggests the South will happily modernize without sacrificing its racist history, remaining in a state of suspended animation like Turner’s hero – a notion that must have seemed problematic even in 1939, when Collins penned the opera. [↩]
- The story takes place in the 1840s; the Fugitive Slave Act was passed only in 1850. The anachronistic error apparently is Benét’s. [↩]
- Page, Tim. “William Schuman at the Bat.” Booklet notes for the Delos CD of Schuman’s The Mighty Casey and A Question of Taste. Hollywood: Delos International, 1994, 8. [↩]
- Page. “William Schuman at the Bat.” [↩]
- An abbreviated version of this essay previously appeared in Katarzyna Nowak-McNeice and Alejandra María Aventín Fontana, eds. Representations and Images of Frontiers and Borders: On the Edge. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2021. [↩]