Hopper paintings inspire opera

The Baltimore Sun

The average museumgoer would not look at a series of paintings about loneliness and think "live theatrical adaptation."

Leon Major, artistic director of the Maryland Opera Studio for the University of Maryland, is not the average museumgoer, and according to his colleagues, his directorial work could not be further from this description.

Originally, Major's intentions were to have singers from the university perform recitals in front of various paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. About two years ago, after learning that the Edward Hopper exhibit would be there, he expanded his idea into making an opera based on Hopper's paintings.

The result is Later the Same Evening, an opera inspired by five Hopper paintings. This joint project of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, National Gallery of Art and UM School of Music makes its world premiere tonight through Sunday at the performing arts center and the D.C. gallery. Coinciding with the opera is the Edward Hopper exhibit, at the gallery through Jan. 21, which is his first American exhibition outside of New York in more than 25 years.

Major said he has long admired the New York-born artist's work, whose paintings from the early 1900s to the 1960s are known for depicting people's moments of loneliness and solitude, often set in his hometown.

"He's so insightful in terms of looking at human beings and music, and textually they are all in sync," Major said. "What has been created is a very dramatic piece where music and words are one."

Composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell, who worked with Major on the opera Volpone, were commissioned to write Later the Same Evening. It is performed by the university's Maryland Opera Studio and the Glen Cortese-conducted National Gallery Orchestra.

Campbell, a New York native, chose five paintings, Room in New York, Hotel Window, Hotel Room, Two on the Aisle and Automat, based on the fact that they all take place in the evening in his hometown.

From there, he drew a narrative out of these works, crafting a story about imagined characters (taken directly from the paintings) living in 1932 New York City, and how their lives intertwine in one night.

"The story is very much a love letter to New York and the belief in chance and serendipity, and how people find each other and connect or reconnect or disconnect," Campbell said.

It begins as the characters roam through an art gallery and literally see themselves in the paintings, according to Major. The opera then dives into each of their lives, and synonymously each painting, through music. Connecting them is the fact that they are all attending the Broadway show Tell Me Tomorrow.

Campbell says the opera has "some sweet humor." He said the creators chose not to focus on the alienation aspect of Hopper's work.

"We knew we couldn't write a piece about someone staring out the window and saying, 'I'm so lonely,'" the librettist said. "Theater is about connection, and opera is theater."

Musto credited his well-established chemistry with Campbell in the composition of the opera's music. Drawing inspiration from the libretto and the paintings, Musto said the music he composed does not fit into a single category.

"It's opera, music theater, Broadway tunes," Musto said. "Whatever the story demanded is the kind of music in there."

Adam Hall, 29, plays Jimmy, a young gay high school teacher in the city for the first time. Hall said it has been exciting and challenging performing new music. This world premiere, he said, is jazzy, and "is not as opera-y of an opera." Instead, he said, "this is a jazz opera musical."

Eric Sampson, 26, who plays Sheldon Segal, said they are trying to make the characters look as much like those in the paintings as possible. He agreed that this is not the most traditional of operas.

"It's the perfect opera for first-timers," he said, "It's short, the music is easy to listen to, and if you know the paintings, you feel like you already have insight into the characters."

The inspiration of Hopper's work is at the heart of Later the Same Evening, Major said, but the focus of the opera is on the solitude of the paintings. "Emotional," "funny" and "insightful," according to the director, the opera is about more than just the people from the paintings.

"It will help people look at themselves," Major said.


The world premiere of "Later the Same Evening" will be at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's Kay Theatre tonight through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and at 3 p.m. Sunday. The Performing Arts Center is near Route 193 and Stadium Drive at the University of Maryland, College Park. There will be a free performance at the National Gallery of Art at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. The gallery is at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington.

Tickets for the Performing Arts Center show are $7 to $20. The free show is first-come, first-seated starting at 6 p.m. Go to claricesmithcenter.umd.edu or call 301-405-2787 for tickets.

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