WILLIAM MAYER: A Death in the Family – Bert K. Johnson (bass)/ Jennifer Goode (soprano)/ Ian Samplin (vocals)/ Ted Schmitz (tenor)/ Julie Cross (mezzo-soprano)/ Deborah Lifton (soprano)/ John Bischoff (vocals)/ Christianne Rushton (mezzo-soprano)/ Darrell Babidge (baritone)/ Ethan Watermeier (baritone)/ Deborah Domanski (mezzo-soprano)/ Daniel Gross (bass-baritone)/ Jennifer Powell (mezzo-soprano)/ Stanford Felix (bass-baritone)/ Carissa Kett (vocals)/ Amanda Nisenson (mezzo-soprano)/ Oshin Gregorian (baritone)/ Marcos Vigil (tenor)/ Rob Gildon (baritone)/ Ted Huffman (baritone)/ Henry Stenta (bass)/ Kyle Barisich (vocals)/ Carl Kranz (vocals)/ Jay Glazer (vocals)/ Gabriel Levi (vocals)/ Robert Wickstrom (vocals)/ Eric Catania (vocals)/ Yanni Amouris (banjo)/ Manhattan School of Music Opera Orch./ David Gilbert – Albany TROY 395 (2 CDs), 118 minutes *****:
A Death in the Family was completed in 1983 for the Minnesota Opera Company. The story, based on James Agee’s novel of the same name, and Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, both eventual Pulitzer winners, has the same flavor as Agee’s earlier Knoxville, Summer of 1915 stunningly set by Samuel Barber. There is a family, there is a lot of love among them, there are interpersonal conflicts, religious disputes, and general struggle among those striving, as we all do, to live a normal life with its alternating exaltations and depressions. And there is indeed a death in the family which brings a lot of the aforementioned to the fore in very intense and often heart wrenching ways, making the point in the end—in a very Catholic communion of saints manner—that through the tragedy of human existence love refuses to be denied, and the remembrance of lost childhood is something that permeates each person’s existence. Indeed, the tale of Catholicism in the South, illumined by Flannery O’Connor’s stories not long after Agee’s, is a fascinating one yet to be completely recounted.
On many levels it reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, though not nearly as despondent and depressing as that work. And it shares characteristics—or at least goals—of Leonard Bernstein’s ultimately failed opera A Quiet Place, also about a family, though Lenny’s is far more dysfunctional and emblematic of the underlying tension surrounding the otherwise golden age America of the 1950s. Mayer’s work, no doubt because of its close tie to the Agee original, feels more like a real-life chronicle than a work of fiction, perhaps because Agee modeled much of his work on his own life experiences. Nothing is lost, no sentence or punctuation that’s in any way important, escapes the total connectedness to Mayer’s score, tuneful and yet of a place (Knoxville 1915), modern (the electronic scenes are really effective), yet effectively bringing the various strands of twentieth century music into a bridled, controlled package.
The work was very well received upon appearance, though it had to wait until 1999 for the recording by the folks and students at the Manhattan School of Music to set it down on record. It is abridged for the production and the recording, but not by much, so those wanting a full issue will have to wait. The cast is uniformly excellent, not at all what you would expect from a conservatory setting, and only the boy part of Rufus Follet (Ian Samplin) lets down as he has trouble maintaining pitch and doesn’t project very well. The orchestra is wonderful, only occasionally betraying their origins, and the sound general very good, low level, and somewhat compressed with some small indication of “microphone” sound around the voices. This was released in 2000, and is now being presented again. It is an important American Opera, easily assimilated and absorbed, with some of the best and most poetic settings of text ever done by an American composer.