A Night on the Mississippi: A review of “Tom Sawyer”

On Sunday afternoon, April 18, my granddaughters, Michaela and Danielle, and I attended the much anticipated opera, Tom Sawyer: A Chamber Opera by American composer, Phillip Martin. Hartford Opera Theater had a competition last year for a one act opera on Tom Sawyer to be premiered at the Mark Twain House Visitor Center in honor of Mark Twain’s Centennial of his passing (1910). This was an exciting opportunity for us to attend a “world premier” of a brand new opera!

Initial Impressions

Not knowing what to expect made this experience a bit of a challenge, but a lot of fun. As the overture was played by the small chamber orchestra, which was led wonderfully by Joseph Hodge, Tom Sawyer and his friends pantomimed painting the fence scene. Aunt Polly’s opening aria was so beautiful, but I had difficulty understanding what she was singing. The young artists all sang very well. However, I didn’t think the music had enough tonal variety, but there were plenty of different styles to peak interest. The one choral piece towards the end of the opera was a highlight because of its exceptional splendor. The entire cast (and the composer) all stood around the small theater and filled the room with an astonishing melody! It was breathtaking!

Observations

As the opera drew to an end, I began to see a pattern. The opera format seemed to be structured like a Baroque Opera. (An era of which I am well-studied; I recently finished teaching three different classes all about Baroque opera!) After the overture, there was a dialogue (recitative, in opera terms) between Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly, who then broke into her first aria. It was not Dacapo (A-B-A) Baroque form, but a Passacaglia (another Baroque musical style that builds on the melody like a fugue). The entire opera went back and forth between spoken dialogue and song. I thought the use of recitative was excellent, as it helped to move the action forward in very understandable terms, again a characteristic technique of the Baroque. Mostly, the music seemed to be minimalistic; but the music of Injun Joe was definitely Baroque with it’s embellished line and postponed cadence. So we did get a variety of styles, as promised by the composer in the advertisement for the opera. The show was staged with only a few props on a dais (not even a full stage), which actually worked. I thought the opera was a success. Both my granddaughters enjoyed the performance as did all the children in the audience who seemed absorbed in the story and music.

Another observation I had was that most of the characters, both male and female, were played by women. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Dobbins, Alfred, Injun Joe, and Ragged Man were all sung by women. Special mention of Tracy Bloser, who played Tom Sawyer, must be made because of her superb portrayal of such an adventurous young boy. During the Baroque period, young male characters in the operas were played by castratos (today’s countertenors, but without vital parts), whose abilities to sing in the female range made them immensely popular. Interestingly enough, Baroque composers required a high voice to not only represent youth, but courage as well.

Conversation with the composer, Phillip Martin

I had an opportunity to meet and later speak with composer Phillip Martin. He explained that most of what he wrote for Tom Sawyer was tailored to fit the contest rules set up last year by Hartford Opera Theater: subject matter, gender of the singers for the characters, length, and instruments. Putting together a complete opera score is a lot of work, as Martin says, and he therefore felt he had a chance at winning, since the odds that most other composers would pass on the competition, were pretty high. Luckily, Mr. Martin has a “day job” and could afford to work on his opera project.

As to musical style, Martin sees his music to be more traditional. When he studied music composition in the 70’s, his teachers wanted him to work strictly with experimental music, which he felt made creating music “restrictive”. He chose to use elements of Baroque, Romantic and modern love music to put variety into his works. I would add that he has a masterful way with minimalist (20th Century style) music as well, which tends to build intense feelings with the music and draw the listener into the drama of opera. Mr. Martin is especially proud of his use of variety in his first opera, “Tom Sawyer: A Chamber Opera”.

On the personal side, I asked Martin about his interest in opera. I, being an avid (sometimes rabid) opera lover, was surprised to learn that he really didn’t have much interest in opera until about ten years ago. His daughter had sparked an interest in opera music, so he purchased opera tickets to The Met to encourage her new found passion. (Now that’s a model dad for you.) They saw the previous season’s production of Hansel und Gretel, the same show I took my granddaughter to see, which I thought was “picture book perfect”. Now, Martin attends opera regularly and has developed a real interest in this great art form.

While speaking with Phillip Martin, I was reminded of another young husband and father who had a day job and entered an opera competition. This figure won and his opera was produced in Rome in 1890; his opera is still very popular today, one hundred and twenty years later. His name was Pietro Mascagni and his opera was “Cavaleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry). Mascagni’s opera not only became popular, but he started a new era in Italian opera composition called “verisimo”. I think we live in exciting times to have a young composer, like Phillip Martin, premiering his work in Hartford.

I asked Martin if he had written any opera music before the Tom Sawyer competition. He informed me that he would write choral music for his church, but never tackled an opera before. When he learned of the Hartford Opera Group’s competition, he embarked on this operatic journey for purely personal reasons. Those who attended the performance are all happy that he submitted his personal affair! After the premiere at the Mark Twain Visitor Center, Martin said he heard a young lad say he wanted to see the opera again. If nothing else happened, he told me, he felt he had done his job. Me? I’m with the young lad: I would love an opportunity to hear the opera again or more of Martin’s music. We all may get an opportunity if Hartford Opera Theater asks for a sequel… Huck Finn anyone?