The Opera: Fellowship
of the Road in The Losers
By Harold C. Schonberg
The New York Times, March 28, 1971
It's relevant, “The Losers” is, if motorcycle gangs, violence, a gang rape and other assorted gore can be considered relevant. Harold Farberman has put all this into his new opera, which had its premiere Friday evening at the Juilliard Theater. Yes, it's relevant, but it's also an opera, and there is a motor cyclists ballet, just like the Bacchanale in “Faust.” Or maybe “West Side Story.”
These leather‐draped kids, these Blights of the Grail, are headed by a big, blond Maximim Leader. Of him it can be said, as Tosca almost said of Scarpia, “Avanti a lui tre mava tutta California.” The gang acts up, the members have a symbolic initiation ceremony in which a latter day Gurnemanz celebrates sort of Black Mass, and they are indeed the new fellow ship of the road in an animal subculture where fist and sex share the throne.
Barbara Fried's libretto is simple enough. Most of the action takes place in the hangout of a gang called The Losers. This gang recognizes no morality, and terrorizes the neighborhood. A girl gets mixed up with the leader. She is an innocent who ends up getting raped by the gang. The leader is killed in a fist fight. The only man with decent tendencies is killed by the gang. Through all this promenade a pair of girls, acting like a Greek chorus. They sing, utter gnomic utterances and say wise things perhaps. [Photo of Farberman at left is from another source.]
Mr. Farberman's score is avant‐garde. His vocal lines, mostly declamation, use the favored wide skips so beloved of the post‐serialists. The orchestration is noisy and violent. There is some very stylized post‐serial jazz from a quartet on the side of the stage. Mr. Farberman is nothing if not doctrinaire, and he has used every stylistic cliché of the idiom.
In this kind of idiom, striking effects can be achieved. The massed dissonances are fine for making angry noises and squealing commentaries on life. But lyricism? Forget about it. Here and there the composer has tried for stylized kinds of tunes, but has ended up with constipated lines that go nowhere. Something in Mr. Farberman hates a tune.
Thus there is no relief from the prevailing post‐Pierrot speech‐song. Mr. Farberman is a captive of doctrine. Other composers these days are more relaxed. Several who work in an idiom very close to Mr. Farberman's do not hesitate to use elements of real jazz, or rock, or whatever, to vary the texture. But Mr. Farberman has neither the inclination nor, perhaps, the imagination to depart from his set scheme, and the result was a dreadful musical monotony relieved only by the violence of the action on stage.
Yet, with all that action, the libretto was curiously conventional — Hell's Angels types and all. For this was not modern music drama. This was in some respects an old-fashioned opera, where the action stops in one spot for a ballet, and in another for an initiation ceremony that is supposed to give the psychic key to the story.
Anyway, the motorcycles were handsome.
And so was the production. It was brilliant, and by far the best thing I have seen from the Juilliard American Opera Center. Douglas Schmidt's settings are imaginative and effective, full of sleazy atmosphere, coming apart in the Best Broadway manner to give the dancers leg room. John Houseman directed, and there are not many more professional figures on the American stage. The costumes by Jeanne Rutton must have sent a thrill of desire into anybody who ever wanted to go vroom.
And, as might have been expected, the young cast was able to identify with the action. The kids leered and strutted, and looked tough, and swung a mean right hand, and kicked an even meaner right foot. Prominent in the proceedings were Lenus Carlson, John Seabury and James McCray, all fine, all convincing in their roles. Barbara Shuttleworth, in a rather negative role, did all that could be asked.
The two motorcycle muses (or furies, or Greek chorus)
were, for some reason, amplified. Presumably they were intended to be
outside of the action. Anyway, their voices came from. On High. The composer
conducted, presumably authoritatively. At the end, there were great yells
of approval, But I still think “The Losers” is, in a crazy kind of way,
THE LOSERS, opera in two acts with music try Harold Farberman and libretto by Barbara Fried. Commissioned by the Juilliard School. Premiere by the Juilliard American Opera Center at the Juilliard Theater. Sets designed by Douglas Schmidt. Costumes designed by Jeanne Button. Lighting by Joseph Pacitti. Stage director, John Houseman, Choreographer, Patricia Birch. Conductor, Harold Farberman.
|Lord Byron is an opera in three
acts by Virgil Thomson to an original English libretto by Jack Larson,
inspired by the historical character Lord Byron. This was Thomson's third
and final opera. He wrote it on commission from the Ford Foundation for
the Metropolitan Opera, but the Met never produced the opera. The first
performance was at Lincoln Center, New York City on April 20, 1972, by the
music department of the Juilliard School with John Houseman as stage director,
Gerhard Samuel as the conductor, and Alvin Ailey as the choreographer.
A performance of a revised version, by the composer, took place in 1985
with the New York Opera Repertory Theater.
* * * * *
The New York Times, May 16, 1971
This 'Huck Finn' Is Not for Children
By RAYMOND ERICSON
The Juilliard Opera Center's last premiere, given in late March, was Harold Farberman's "The Losers." It was about today's youth, specifically a gang like Hell's Angels. The company's next premiere, due this Thursday and Saturday, is about the youth of another and more innocent era, the characters in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." The opera is by Hall Overton, a 51-year-old composer on the Juilliard faculty. He collaborated on the libretto with Judah Stampfer. [The opera would be conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.]
Overton was commissioned to write an opera dealing with youth, which would hopefully appeal to young people and relate to the way they feel today. The composer thought the Twain novel would fill the bill. "Huck," he says, "was concerned over issues of conscience, over moral issues. He rejected civilization as he saw it. He ran away from it. His main goal was to run to some place where he could be free. His strongest relationship was with a black man." [Photo at left of Overton with Aaron Copland is from another source.]
Overton says that the libretto will not please everybody, because they had to leave so much out. "We have concentrated on three main areas: the characters and relationship of Huck and Jim; crowd scenes -- it was important that they be represented because Twain uses them as a foil for the closed world of Huck and Jim; and the symbolic forces of the river and the raft and the freedom that seems to be there wherever the river takes you.
"We have tried to preserve Huck intact as much as possible. He is what he is in the novel except that we have advanced his age from 13 to 16. Jim's character is altered somewhat. He represents an older, wiser man who instructs in his own way. Towards the end, we have made a real change, Jim is freed, as in the novel, by his former owner, but instead of going back with Huck and Tom Sawyer, he takes off on his own to continue his original mission to free his immediate family."
Overton waited until he had a workable libretto before he developed the opera's musical style. "The thing I felt had to be preserved was the language. Twain is a master of the vernacular, and I had to start with that. I took the rhythms and inflections of the spoken language and wrote a continuous recitative, with arias, in most cases, being implied. The music is sometimes dissonant, sometimes very tonal, but at all times, I hope, consistent with the aim of the piece -- the American language as Twain so truly recorded it. I have utilized by background in jazz for Jim."
People who have heard about "Huck Finn" have frequently asked if it is a children's opera. Definitely not. It is a serious opera by a serious, well-regarded composer.
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 10, 1982. The transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in March, 1989. It was slightly re-edited, and photos and links were added in 2018, and it posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.