In the constant search for new operatic inspiration, composers in recent years have seized on some of the great American novels of the 20th century. F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" was turned into an opera in 1999 by composer John Harbison, premiering to great fanfare at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
More recent page-to-stage adaptations include John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" by composer Ricky Ian Gordon in 2007, and Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" by composer Tobias Picker in 2005.
The latest American literary masterpiece to receive an operatic makeover is Willa Cather's 1913 novel "O Pioneers!" On Friday, L.A.'s Center Stage Opera will present the world premiere of "Marie's Orchard" at the 430-seat Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park. Composed by Philip Westin, the opera condenses and re-focuses Cather's prairie epic, concentrating primarily on the character of Marie Tovesky, a free-spirited homesteader who becomes involved in a romantic triangle.
"Marie's Orchard" began its life as a stage musical developed in 2008 at the ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop at Disney Studios in Burbank. Selections of the musical, which was then titled "Heartland," were performed for a panel including the workshop's director, Oscar-winning composer Stephen Schwartz.
Despite some positive feedback, the opera's composer was unhappy with the piece. "We tried to capture the whole novel and it was just too big," said Westin. "I was going to put it on the shelf."
At that point, Center Stage Opera stepped in to turn the musical into a full-fledged opera, with a new libretto by Dylan F. Thomas. "Reading the novel, I found that the most operatic story was the love triangle of Marie, Emil and Frank," said Thomas, who is also directing the production. "I felt you could extract that from the novel fairly successfully and have a beautiful story."
"Marie's Orchard" will be performed with a live chamber orchestra, conducted by Brian Onderdonk, and a principal cast of seven singers plus a chorus. The English-language opera (with surtitles above the stage) has a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
Westin described his musical style as melodic with vocal harmonies and fairly complicated rhythms. "It's tonal and atonal," he said. "But we're striving for something accessible."
He said that he took some of the original material from "Heartland," but it's "really a new piece."
The composer, who lives near Temecula, studied music at USC during the '60s. He taught for many years at Cerritos College and has since devoted himself to composition and conducting. "Marie's Orchard" is his first opera.
The role of Marie will be played by soprano Shira Renee Thomas, the wife of the director and a former singer with the now-defunct Opera Pacific. Thomas has sung the part of Marie since the Disney workshop in 2008. She described the role as challenging, but "to the audience it won't sound like it's difficult. It will sound like it's easy."
Rounding out the cast will be tenor Benjamin Bunsold as Emil, who enters into an adulterous relationship with Marie, and baritone Abdiel GonzÃ¡lez as Frank, who is Marie's impulsive husband.
The opera culminates with the section of Cather's novel titled "The White Mulberry Tree," in which passions fully ignite and a sudden burst of violence changes the course of the story. Trees play a pivotal role in the literature of Cather and will figure prominently in the opera production, with chorus members symbolizing the arboreal landscape.
As Cather once said, in words that resonate with the opera, "The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own."