Q & A: Mark Adamo on ‘Little Women,’ His Major Influences & Interests Outside Music

By Mike Hardy
(Photo: Daniel Welch)

Italian/American composer and librettist Mark Adamo has just enjoyed the UK premiere of his opera, “Little Women” at Opera Holland Park. Although written in 1998, it has taken 24 years to be performed on British soil and was warmly received throughout. At the time of its composition, Adamo noted:

“I recognized that ‘Little Women’ itself solves certain problems for the opera composer. The novel—part classic, part mass-culture perennial—as well as its young, lively characters in their antique locale, reminded me of opera itself these days: an art buzzing with new writing and thinking while still working with resources—the bel-canto trained voice, the acoustic orchestra—that stabilized one hundred years ago. I knew Jo’s wild imagination, her haunting memories, would free me musically to range between abstract and tonal, poetic and vernacular, song and symphonic forms,” the composer told OperaWire in a recent interview following the opening night performance of the opera.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Adamo had already composed substantial choral works, but his 1998 undertaking of Louisa May Alcott’s tale, commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera for its Opera Studio, elevated his standing within the opera world, becoming even more widely-known within music circles when “Little Woman” was performed on PBS’ “Great Performances” in 2001.

He has served as composer-in-residence for New York City Opera from 2001 to 2006, and has subsequently composed further operas, “Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess” in 2005’, “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” in 2013, and “Becoming Santa Claus” in 2015.

He is currently working on a new opera, due to be performed in 2025, but has been “sworn to secrecy,” pending its official announcement.

What follows in the conversation with Adamo from the opening night of the “Little Women” performance, and subsequent contact via internet at his home in New York City.

OperaWire: Congratulations on the UK premier of “Little Women,” which has been performed in over 135 different productions, worldwide, since its debut at Houston Grand Opera in 1998. Why do you think it has taken so long to receive its UK premier?

Mark Adamo: I couldn’t tell you. “Little Women” started being performed internationally almost immediately after its telecast: Mexico City introduced it in 2002; Calgary, Tokyo, and Nagoya in 2005; Adelaide in 2008; Amsterdam produced it two years back; and Teatro Colón, in Buenos Aires, gives the South American premiere this November. I do hear from colleagues in London that opera intendants, as well as audiences, are looking closely at the current golden age that contemporary opera is enjoying in the United States. For example; Chicago Opera Theater, which produced my “Becoming Santa Claus” last Fall, included it on an all-modern season that year—and no one thought that unusual, as there isn’t a company in the entire country anymore, from the Met to Beth Morrison projects, that isn’t either commissioning or reviving new work every year. New opera hasn’t always been as strongly emphasized on this side of the pond. Maybe this production is evidence that things change.

OW: Of course, the stories of sisterhood, change, innocence, childhood, and maturing are one of universal relevance; but do you think some factions may have seen “Little Women” as being an evergreen American tale whose cultural transition might somehow have diminished its appeal here in the UK?

MA: You’d have to ask those factions yourself; but I see little to support the premise. Ms. Gerwig’s most recent film adaptation was a great success here; and, from the dress rehearsal right throughout the third performance of the opera, the last I saw, our house was full and our audiences both responsive and enthusiastic.  American audiences don’t struggle with “Peter Grimes;” why should British audiences struggle with “Little Women?”

OW: You cite Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim as influences whilst studying playwriting for your degree, but you started playing/creating music from a much earlier age, didn’t you? What were your earliest influences?

MA: I didn’t grow up with classical music, either as a cultural signifier or as a genre of pleasurable listening. So, when I started being drawn to it, it was simply because of how it sounded; how it worked. It was the sound of Stravinsky’s orchestra, and the story its rhythms and harmonies told—over a stretch of time much greater than that of any given popular song—that drew me to “The Rite of Spring” before I knew anything about its place in musical history. It was the same with music as dissimilar—and yet, not really—as Reich’s “Music for Eighteen Musicians” and Ravel’s “La Valse.” How did these humans find such incredible variety, such poetic narrative, in so small a set of materials? I learned of motivic development first via Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and only later traced it back to Wagner; I fell in love with counterpoint as playful aural algebra before it was required of me in conservatory.  An eccentric path, obviously, but, overall, I’m glad of it; I got to discover this world, rather than be nudged into it because it was supposed to be good for me.

OW: Given your obvious love of the musical theatre, acting and playwriting, what made you take the operatic route in your work, rather than the traditional musical theatre route, and would you have preferred to have written another version of “Little Woman” the musical, rather than the opera?

MA: Without quite being aware of it, I was always more interested in the more operatic entrants in the musical theatre repertoire; “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music” more than “Chicago” or “Cabaret,” “Candide” or “Porgy and Bess” more than “Carousel.” Though I took my composition degree in order to be overqualified as a theatre songwriter, while studying, I loved doing everything that composers did. So, when the offer for “Little Women” came in, I realized that, in this form, I could not only do everything that I wanted to do theatrically, but also do much more musically than I could ever dream of in a Broadway context.

So, as a songwriter I got to build these stand-alone numbers like “Perfect as we are” and “Things change, Jo,” in the first act, or the “You, alone” duet and “Kennst du das Land?” in the second act. But as a composer I could also take the leitmotivs of those pieces and thread them through the entire score from start to finish so that, say, I could make Jo and Laurie’s scena at the close of Act One a clearly-audible battle between the themes of “Perfect as we are” and “Things change, Jo,” now sung by Laurie.  Which is why, when “Little Women” made a home for me in the opera house, I never looked back.

OW: You are, obviously, an acclaimed composer of contemporary—or modern—opera, but who do you admire, if anyone, from the world of traditional opera in the past, (i.e. Verdi, Puccini etc…), and did any of those composers of old influence your creative bent?

MA: Oddly, perhaps, 19th century opera was the last repertory I explored. My trajectory, beginning with the theatre composers I cited, continued with the orchestral composers that influenced them—Stravinsky, Ravel, Britten, and Copland—then other contemporary composers drawing from, or stretching out of, that lineage—Corigliano, Barber, and Crumb—then Baroque, or earlier, opera—Handel, Monteverdi, and Purcell—and then, only later, the High Romantic period.  I do remain in awe of the staggering artistic and political ambition of so many of Verdi’s projects, even more than Strauss’s. To distill so many weighty political and social issues into music of such fluency and force is to set an example to treasure.

OW: I recently listened to, and hugely enjoyed, your Concerto, “Last Year.” Do you find it easier or more difficult to write music for orchestration than the voice?

MA: They’re different projects. The obvious difference is that voices sing text, so you need, from a technical standpoint, simply to make sure that the words are set intelligibly and expressively. Then, more subtly, you need to absorb and develop the music intrinsic in those words as you shape your vocal line. Instrumental music is less limited in that regard; but it’s also less specific. If you have a story you want to tell, you have to do so entirely in sound.

“Last Year,” for example—my concerto for solo cello, string orchestra, harp, and percussion—asks the question: if Vivaldi were alive today, knowing what we know about our climate—if he had been in London this historically sweltering July—and he were asked to compose the “Four Seasons,” what might he come up with?  The answer to that is a narrative, of sorts; as with an opera, I’m trying to tell a story, though here I have only reference to pre-existing musical tropes and my own ideas, rather than words. But these are equally satisfying challenges. I hope always to be able to write both opera and symphonic music.

OW: I understand you have performed as an actor and a singer in the past. Can you tell us a little about that, and do you have a classically trained voice? Do you ever conduct, and would you like to conduct one of your own compositions? Or perhaps even sing or perform in one?

MA: I trained as a concert tenor and acted and sang in college, but never with ambitions to perform professionally; it was simply to understand what performance felt like from the inside, so I’d be better equipped when it came time to compose a role. I was invited to conduct a concert of my own music at National Sawdust, which I did, though I wouldn’t call myself anything more than ‘competent’ as a conductor. What I have enjoyed doing, and would like to do again, is direct more opera: I’ve led three productions of pieces of mine, as well as of “A Little Night Music,” and time permitting, I’d love to direct productions of both my “Lysistrata” from 2005 and my “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” from 2013.

OW: What are you currently working on and what can we expect to hear from you in the near future?

MA: I have a new opera due for 2025, but have been sworn to secrecy until it’s announced. The Carnegie Hall premiere of “Last Year” is this October, and the world premiere recording of “The Lord of Cries,” the opera I co-created with John Corigliano, is to be recorded in Boston with the original cast from Santa Fe Opera the following month.

OW: What does Mark Adamo have a passion for, outside of his work?

MA: The best answer to that question is to divulge that I am at last starting the project which many friends have requested for years, which is my first—and doubtless, last—original cookbook. I’ve been writing since I was eight and composing since I was 16, but cooking—mainly, but not exclusively, in a classic Italian style—since I was 12. When I’m not at the piano, I’m at the stove. I’ve amassed a surprisingly large number of recipes which I haven’t seen anywhere else. We shall see.

OW: In the 1994 film adaptation, Jo is wooed by the love duet from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”—obviously historically inaccurate. What do you think Louise May Alcott would have made of Mark Adamo’s opera?

MA: I like to think that she would say, “well done, you,” and then have her agent follow up with a discreet inquiry into royalties.

In all seriousness, the opera’s strengths are the novel’s strengths: I just refined and rendered into another medium the art and wisdom that was, and is, already in the text. If the opera sends even a few listeners back to Alcott, I’ll take that as high praise indeed.


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