A composer invents his own rules.
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Published in: September-October 2006 issue.


“The composer’s success lies less in comprehending the words he is setting than in feeling them musically, and in being able to convince us of the necessity of his feeling.”

— Ned Rorem in Pure Contraption (1974)


EARLIER THIS YEAR, composer Ned Rorem’s opera version of the great American play Our Town, all about the beloved denizens of Grover’s Corners, was unveiled to the public. It was an important moment both for opera and for Ned Rorem, the culmination of years of business negotiations and artistic collaborations bent on producing an opera worthy of the American classic.”

It was back in the early 1960’s that Ned Rorem, like many serious composers before him, succumbed to the Siren call of operatic music. Thanks to a Ford Foundation commission engineered by New York City Opera’s director Julius Rudel, he began work on his first full-length opera based on a notoriously “difficult play,” that intractable virago and Strindbergian cock-tease, Miss Julie. In collaboration with librettist Kenward Elmslie, Rorem completed this work in August 1965. Despite a tough deadline and endless backstage woes—bleak lighting, cheesy scenery, frozen vocal chords—the opera was mounted in time for the autumn season, premiering in a less than ideal production. Although Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden (another woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown!) premiered within eight months of Miss Julie, it was Rorem’s opera that got the critical hatchet job at the hands of possibly homophobic critics. Time magazine did, however, muster the following praise: “Ned Rorem is undoubtedly the best composer of art songs now living.”

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