In the Press
THE NEW YORK TIMES (REVIEW)
He May Be Loathsome, but This Evangelist Has Pipes
"Mr. Aldridge has said he wants to please mainstream audiences with this opera, and his vibrantly lyrical, cinematic score (sometimes redolent of Gershwin and Copland) unleashes no great dissonances or avant-gardisms on the unsuspecting listener. The populist score, with its tuneful arias, fits Mr. Garfein's libretto, in which Lewis's acerbic, relentless satire has been toned down to offer a more playfully humorous, balanced portrait of religion."
THE NEW YORK TIMES: ARTS AND LEISURE (article)
Behold! An Operatic Miracle
"On a cold Saturday afternoon in November, Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein held court in the vaulted marble lobby of the Hermitage Hotel here, dispensing bons mots and refreshments with abandon. A Brownie troop practicing Southern charm over tea nearby kept glancing toward them in awe. Who were these great men seated before the fire, broadly gesturing and accepting homage in plus-size wingback chairs?"
WNYC: SOUNDCHECK (interview)
"The story behind "Elmer Gantry," a new American opera based on the Sinclair Lewis novel, which gets its local premiere this week in Montclair, NJ."
NEW JERSEY STAR-LEDGER (review)
"..."Elmer Gantry" the opera straddles satire and sentiment -- as well as the genres of opera and musical theater -- with a warmth and thoughtfulness that carries one along. Particularly as the area premiere Wednesday at Montclair State University's Kasser Theater was staged with a vividness to rival big-city productions."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: PICK
PICK - Opera: 'Elmer Gantry'
A show draws on classical, gospel and folk to bring the 1927 novel to the stage
"New opera has been seen as something confined to a small coterie of listeners and opera nuts who might appreciate new music," says composer Robert Aldridge. He says that he and librettist Herschel Garfein wrote "Elmer Gantry" "not only for opera fans but for people who might never have seen an opera."
"...the opera makes for a gripping evening of musical theater. The principal roles are gratefully conceived musically, sharply characterized dramatically, and there is some terrific ensemble writing in the form of gospel music (all of Aldridge's own invention, but entirely idiomatic in impact). Gantry also boasts a propulsive developmental arc that avoids the common pitfall of hotly burning its inspiration in Act I, only to run on fumes for the duration; its final moment - an ethereal choral diminuendo as a congregation of hapless worshipers is engulfed in fiery immolation with evangelist Sharon Falconer - is one of the most chilling in memory."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Operas on the Horizon: Tantalizing Glimpses of Adventurous Productions
By Anthony Tommasini
"...an unabashedly populist piece. The music is kinetic, vividly scored and steeped in American vernacular idiom; the storytelling is urgent."
The Montclair Times
Go and Hear: Elmer Gantry
""Elmer Gantry," a new American opera, based on the 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis, with music composed by Robert Aldridge and libretto by Herschel Garfein, will have its Tri-State premiere, Jan. 23 through Jan. 27, in the Alexander Kasser Theater on campus at Montclair State University."
NASHVILLE SCENE (review)
Nashville Opera fares well with world premiere based on Sinclair Lewis novel
"The major players are terrific. As Gantry, Keith Phares is simply amazing: handsome, athletic enough and supple-voiced throughout while carrying a serious musical burden... Jennifer Rivera as Falconer uses her earthy mezzo-soprano to powerfully communicate her character's mix of piety and personal romantic conflict. Tenor Frank Kelley, as Gantry's rival, almost steals the show with his Chekhovian personality and his arias, filled with reflective pathos, self-loathing and vengeance."
THE TENNESSEAN (review)
'Elmer Gantry' stirs soul, provokes thought:
Nashville Opera presents distinctly American world premiere
"Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein's new opera Elmer Gantry explores the complex, often conflicted role that religion plays American life... What better place to present this work than Nashville, a city where religion remains at the core of our civic identity?"
On The Beat
"With the religious right in this country still highly visible (and audible), the world premiere of Nashville Opera's Elmer Gantry on November 16 seems well timed."
Nashville Opera takes ambitions to stage
Nashville Opera has been hitting its share of high notes lately. Its major growth campaign, currently under way, will culminate next fall in the debut of a new $6 million office and rehearsal facility, and in less than two weeks it will present a world premiere. Elmer Gantry, an opera based on Sinclair Lewis' 1927 novel about a blustery Midwesterner who dazzles and deceives as an evangelist, will debut Nov. 16-20.
"This is the first time we've done a world premiere of this scale," says Nashville Opera artistic director John Hoomes... "For our company, it's a huge step forward. What we're committing to is a belief in the future of our art form.
We are looking for the next La Bohème, the next Carmen, the next piece that's going to endure and go forward and enter the standard repertoire.' "
Adapting Sinclair Lewis' 'Elmer Gantry' for the stage
"'Elmer Gantry the book is a great social novel, meaning that all the characters are vivid individuals and interesting people, but also they embody important trends. We tried to be true to that in the opera.'"
About the Creators
"Nashville Opera's premiere of Elmer Gantry is the culmination of a 17-year-long journey for Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein. They began working on the opera in 1990, and originally had hoped to stage it at the Boston Lyric Opera. A change of artistic leadership at the company left their work without a home. But nearly a decade later, they presented excerpts of Elmer Gantry at a national opera conference, where Nashville Opera artistic director John Hoomes heard it and decided to get involved."
THE SCENE, NASHVILLE (preview)
Elmer Gantry sings to the converted in Nashville Opera's world-premiere production
YALE ALUMNI MAGAZINE (review)
Elmer Gantry is ready for his aria
by Anne Midgette
THE TENNESSEAN, Fall Performing Arts Guide
"Nashville Opera's world premiere of Elmer Gantry Nov. 16-20 will be something
new and different from this local company, which prides itself on a creative,
forward-thinking approach to staging and programming."
Read the complete article >
THE STAR LEDGER
"Aldridge's music sounds like the dawning of a new day. What
Aldridge captures most in these two preacherly
arias [from ELMER GANTRY] is the cadence of the pulpit, how the public delivery of a
sermon stands at the crossroads of testament and persuasion."
THE BOSTON HERALD
"In their operatic setting of ELMER GANTRY, librettist Herschel
Garfein and composer Robert Aldridge are onto a good thing.....
Aldridge's music....makes some striking effects throughout. He is a
terrific composer of hymns and there are numerous ones. There are
some excellent ensemble pieces too..."
THE BOSTON GLOBE
"This was a terrific performance, certainly the most effective music
theater of the season so far....the fact remains that GANTRY would
have been competitive with the best in any other season within
memory....Credit for the quality of the performance has to go to
Aldridge and Garfein, who insisted on going first class all the
way...The audience believed it too, following the course of events
with attention, hilarity and emotional responsiveness, and giving
the creators a standing ovation."
"The great news about this opera is its accessibility. Contemporary opera
tends to frighten audiences away but Aldridge's music is lyrical and
satirical, on the order of Carlyle Floyd's Susannah or perhaps musical
theater....Aldridge and Garfein have walked the line between satire and
tragedy with perfect balance. And what subject matter it is...The material
speaks with an eloquence that is timeless -- and Garfein and Aldridge do
For more information on the history of revivalism in America,
Elmer Gantry as an opera
The evening that Bob Aldridge brought me the idea of writing an opera based on Elmer Gantry, neither of us had any inkling of what we were getting ourselves into. We, like everyone else, knew of Elmer as an archetype - the womanizing, hypocritical religious figure who attains great heights before being exposed and disgraced. Every year, the newspapers are full of stories about the latest real-life Elmer. On that first evening, we watched the movie of Elmer Gantry together and we thought we had something straightforward on our hands: the entertaining story of a memorable, outsized character set in an intriguing milieu. We felt sure it could be the basis of a good, conventional opera. We had no idea of how deeply the story would come to resonate with our personal biographies.
Both Bob and I come from devout backgrounds, albeit very different ones. His dad is a retired minister from North Carolina; mine is a Holocaust survivor who had an orthodox Jewish upbringing in Czechoslovakia. Bob grew up playing guitar in church services; I spent a year after high school on a religious kibbutz in Israel, praying three times a day.
We began our project blithely enough, but as we raced back to Sinclair Lewis' great novel and began absorbing it in all its sweep and caustic humor and glorious detail, the challenge began to seem much more complex. For it became clear that Lewis had written the great American novel about religion in our country. Religion, nothing less -- that hugely influential, deeply personal aspect of life that has such enduring power to both unite and divide human beings, and which is found in so many guises, put to so many purposes (good and bad) and, overall, lived with such intensity by Americans. Written in 1927, the book looks back to the turn of the 20th century, to the period in which modern evangelism moved from the frontier to the city by adopting the strategies of that other unstoppable force of the time, American business. The fateful linkage between religion and business has continued down to our day and will be a fact of life in America for many generations to come.
Just reading the novel and writing an adaptation of it clearly wasn't going to be enough. We knew we had to see for ourselves. And so, for several summers we traveled through North Carolina, going to small-town churches and attending traveling tent revival meetings. It was during our trips to North Carolina that we began to sense how we could bring our personal histories to bear on our subject and make Elmer Gantry an opera unlike any seen before. Naturally, we arrived at these revival services with a highly skeptical view shaped by our knowledge of all the contemporary Elmers of our country: the Falwells and Robertsons, the Swaggarts, Bakkers and Haggards. And yet, from the first moment we sat in those churches and those tents, we found ourselves swept up by the beauty and fervor and yes, the sanctity of evangelical Christianity -- as it is actually lived and practiced in day-to-day worship by people across America.
Little by little we came to realize that our Elmer Gantry would be focused differently from Lewis's. We were determined to be true to his biting satire of religious wrongdoing, but at the same time to dramatize the underlying, deeply moving power of American religion itself. We resolved to bring audiences to the heights of both folly and glory within a single evening -- sometimes within a single moment. To communicate to our audiences the emotional depths we ourselves had experienced in revival meetings, Bob envisioned not the typical operatic sound-world, but one drawn from American roots music - gospel, Appalachian folksong, brass band music. I began to write original hymn texts that could both seem like the real thing and work dramatically to illuminate key points in the story we were telling.
As we worked, Elmer Gantry became much more to us than just the viable stage vehicle we first imagined. For one thing, it's hard to imagine that any two collaborators have ever had more sheer fun than we did in writing Elmer Gantry. We came to feel that through Elmer and Sharon and Eddie and Frank and Lulu, and through this wonderful musical language of gospel, we were finding and addressing important aspects of our own selves, our heritages, our beliefs and our many foibles. May all that we discovered make our opera truer, funnier and more meaningful!
- Herschel Garfein