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‘Tragedy’ Comes to the Met

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When composer Tobias Picker got a call—from James Levine, no less—in 1997 to write “a big, tragic opera,” he didn’t have to think twice about his subject. Picker had been drawn to Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy since age 10, when he saw A Place in the Sun, the film based on the novel. The book, he says, “struck me as profound—profoundly sad, profoundly moving. It gripped me as a story.” The true tale of a young pregnant woman drowned by her boyfriend in an Adirondack lake in 1906 raises issues of class and religion and depicts human failings on a grand scale—in other words, it’s perfect opera material, especially in this elaborate staging by director Francesca Zambello, with costumes (pictured) by Dunya Ramicova. “Clyde Griffiths, the central character, is Everyman,” Picker explains. “He wants success, the American Dream. But he really goes about it in the wrong way, so he gets into a lot of trouble. Very serious trouble.” At the same time, he admits, it was a tough book to adapt: It’s 900 very wordy pages, and, as Picker puts it, it’s “unnerving—there are no verbs for pages and pages.” Was it too much? “Did Verdi make a mistake basing La Traviata on a book, or Bizet with Carmen? It’s based on a true-life story, and having a great writer tell this is a wonderful scaffold on which to hang music.”

An American Tragedy
Directed by Frencesca Zambello
Metropolitan Opera
Premiers December 2.


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