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Florentine Opera debuts ‘Sister Carrie’

World premiere takes an unflinching look at the past and the present

Sep. 27, 2016
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“Bob Aldridge and I hope that our opera has particular relevance for our times, when the division between the haves and the have-nots of the country has come to seem particularly stark, and when American mores governing the meanings and the purposes of wealth have largely eroded.” So writes Herschel Garfein, librettist of the new American opera, Sister Carrie—a work receiving its world premiere as the Florentine Opera Company’s first production of its 83rd season.

Aldridge and Garfein’s opera is set in the U.S. of the 1890s, when the burgeoning Industrial Revolution was bringing unprecedented wealth to a few men—while millions toiled away in filthy factories in filthy cities for paltry pay. Then as now, the gap between rich and poor was enormous and, for the vast majority, unbridgeable. For a woman of the era, life offered little beyond marriage and motherhood; those are fine life choices to be sure, but they ought to be just that—choices. They weren’t really viewed as merely optional back then, however. Only about 19% of women over 16 were employed in 1900; of these, fully half were in domestic or farm work. “The reality was that women could only achieve status-stability or status-advancement through the agency of men,” Garfein explains. “This is the world that Dreiser unflinchingly depicts in Sister Carrie.”

Herschel Garfein’s reference in that quote is to Theodore Dreiser, author of the original 1900 novel in which we find our main character, 18-year-old Caroline Meeber, leaving her rural Wisconsin home for the big city and, presumably, greater things. She fully understands the “man’s world” she inhabits and thus is no babe in the woods upon arrival in Chicago. But, as an aspiring actress, she’s certainly outside the societal norm. Her story today—that of a young, attractive woman striving to achieve her dreams without dependence on anyone else—is a familiar one. In Caroline’s world, however, it’s fairly well scandalous.

“Much of the notoriety of the book stemmed from Dreiser’s refusal to criticize or judge her for this,” Garfein observes. The “notoriety” he mentions refers to the fact that Dreiser’s novel, described in its day variously as “sordid” and “vulgar,” was not well received by the public, unaccustomed as they would have been to tales of “wayward women” not receiving just punishment for their “sinful” behavior. “She begins as a lowly factory worker in Chicago and eventually she carves out a place for herself as a singing star on Broadway,” Garfein explains, and “in rising up the social ladder, Carrie fights battles that all women still fight.”

If the names Aldridge and Garfein sound somewhat familiar, there’s good reason. Robert Aldridge is an American composer of not only opera, but also orchestral, chamber, musical theater and dance works. He’s currently director of music at Rutgers University, but higher education began for him with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from UW-Madison. Herschel Garfein is a composer, librettist and stage director who’s a faculty member at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Music. Sister Carrie is not Aldridge and Garfein’s first collaborative effort—not at all. In 2007, they completed the fine opera Elmer Gantry. Based upon Sinclair Lewis’ Nobel Prize-winning novel of 1927, Gantry went on to win Grammy Awards for Best Engineered Classical Album and Best Contemporary Classical Composition. They have also co-written the oratorio Parables (2010), a commission of the Topeka Symphony. 

The Florentine Opera will give Sister Carrie a lavish launch. Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala will create the title role, and lyric baritone Keith Phares will portray Carrie’s paramour George Hurstwood—a character who certainly has the potential to become one of the greatest tragic lovers of all opera. A large supporting cast is headed by tenor Matt Morgan and soprano Alissa Jordheim. William Boggs conducts the orchestra, and period costumes are designed by Rachel Laritz (in her company debut).

“We are grateful for the community support that has driven this company to create and present ‘new opera’ as a part of ‘popular’ repertory,” Florentine General Director (and stage director for this production) William Florescu states, and to be able to do so “on a level that supports the production of this world premiere and the recording and worldwide release of this new work.” 

Sister Carrie will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 9 in of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Ninth St. For tickets and more information, visit sister-carrie.com or call 414-291-5700 ext. 224.

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