Celebrating American Opera this Thanksgiving

23 November 2023
Woman in pyjamas kneel on floor of oval office, behind her a man angrily leans on desk.

Today, Thursday 23 November 2023, millions of Americans in the United States and around the world will come together to celebrate Thanksgiving. Welsh National Opera loves to perform operas and music from across the globe, and what better way to show our appreciation for music from the across the pond than with a quick exploration of America’s best operas?

Early 20th Century

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that performances of American opera really began to pick up in the USA. American opera composers of the day included Scott Joplin and the émigrés Kurt Weill and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, meanwhile important commissions from The Metropolitan Opera brought forward operas by Deems Taylor and Howard Hanson.

This clip shows perhaps the most famous song from George Gershwin’s celebrated opera Porgy and Bess (1935), Summertime, now a much-loved jazz standard.

Mid-20th Century

After the Second World War, production of home-grown American opera really began to take off in the works of Gian Carlo Menotti, Carlisle Floyd, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson.  

The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was a key figure during this time. Earlier this year, WNO performed his vivacious operetta Candide (1956). Bernstein always longed to compose operas and completed two others; Trouble in Tahiti (1952) and A Quiet Place (1983).

Late 20th Century to the Turn of the Millennium

Later on, America saw the major contemporary composers Philip Glass and John Adams emerge on the international scene. Along with John Corigliano, Anthony Davis, Mark Adamo, Jake Heggie and Meredith Monk, these composers’ operas explored modern culture and controversial political issues.

WNO performed Jake Heggie’s first opera Dead Man Walking (2000) as part of our FREEDOM Season in 2019. Adapted from the memoir of the anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, it’s now one of the most performed contemporary operas in America, staged more than 40 times across the northern continent.

21st Century

American opera composers in the 21st century have continued to explore controversial and difficult topics with completely original new works. Thankfully, in recent years there has been a huge diversification of American composers, with many more women and composers of colour writing for the stage, among them Terence Blanchard, Matthew Aucoin, Nico Muhly, Shara Nova, Ellen Reid, Kate Soper, Tobias Picker and Laura Kaminsky.

Jeanine Tesori’s Blue (2019) explores the impact of police brutality on a black family in the United States, highlighting the injustice and inequality that still exists within their communities today.

Migrations (2022)

Lastly is WNO’s Migrations which received its world premiere last year in Cardiff.  Although not strictly an American opera (it was written by British composer Will Todd), one of its stories focuses on the journey of the Mayflower ship, which carried the first migrant settlers from England across the Atlantic to America in 1620. It was these migrant Pilgrims that were said to have shared the first Thanksgiving celebration with the native Wampanoag people in 1621.

If you’re celebrating this Thursday – we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving.