PAUL SOLMAN: At the Metropolitan Opera this holiday season, bridging millennia old and new, the world premiere run of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," as set to music by Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Genius Grant Winner John Harbison. Musically the opera itself bridges old and new. Spreading the score are 1920s-style dance songs by Harbison , lyrics by Murray Horowitz. But the music that dominates the opera is thoroughly modern. Gatsby was a big deal commission, an opera to honor Conductor James Levine's 25th anniversary at the Met. Add a glitzy past headed by soprano Dawn Upshaw and tenor Jerry Hadley and you pretty much have the opera event of the season.
JERRY HADLEY, Tenor: What a better way for us in America in the operatic world to end the century than the bringing to the operatic stage of a 20th century American icon. And so, in that sense, in a global sense, I think it's a big deal. For me personally, I mean this is one of the kinds of roles that people die to do their whole lives.
PAUL SOLMAN: Jerry Hadley plays Jay Gatsby, shady, self-made mogul whose thing for old flame Daisy Buchanan has driven him to stalk her in style though from afar -- a mansion that overlooks hers on Long Island's Gold Coast. (singing in background) Not that Gatsby's gaze goes unrequited. Daisy married a big bucks blow hard when Jay went off to war but she's been pining for Gatsby ever since. Dawn Upshaw says she tries to make this feeling among others palpable when she sings her lines.
DAWN UPSHAW, Soprano: For instance, when Gatsby comes into the room and she sees him for the first time after five years, the music is written...
DAWN SINGING: I see Gatsby. I'm certainly glad to see you again.
DAWN UPSHA: I was talking to John Harbison about this because he was talking about the importance of rhythm here to show the formality and a bit of the stiffness so that if you were saying, -- who I -- Jay Gatsby, I'm certainly glad to see you again, -- and you're too free with it, it shows too much comfort.
(singing in background)
PAUL SOLMAN: Upshaw finally gets to open up when Daisy's secret love for Gatsby is revealed. But the opera's show stopper is entrusted to Upshaw's mezzo soprano counterpart, Lorain Hunt Liberson. Hunt Liberson is make her met debut as Myrtle Wilson, the downscale dame with whom Daisy's rich husband is having a fiery fling.
LIBERSON: (singing) I could not keep my eyes off him…
LORRAINE HUNT LIBERSON, Mezzo Soprano: My music is very bluesy. I feel like I'm making my blues debut here at the Met. (Laughing) So it doesn't feel appropriate to sing it in kind of a European operatic style. I wouldn't sing it the same way I would sing Mozart or Handel or Belios or anything.
PAUL SOLMAN: Classical roles are what Hunt Liberson is known for, but Myrtle Wilson demands a 20th century style, as she explains in song why she has decided to stray from her marriage.
LORRAINE HUNT LIBERSON: (singing part of Myrtle Wilson) You can't live forever you can't live forever.
LORRAINE HUNT LIBERSON: Now, I could sing it in a... I mean it's not... That's not a pop style. It's not a real bluesy style. It's sort of something in between. Now, another way, a more kind of formal way: (singing) You can't live forever you can't live forever -- that's how I don't want to do it, how I don't think it sounds right for this opera. Actually, these things probably should be allowed in any kind of opera performance, but maybe because it's so clear to us in terms of the style of the scene and also because it's our own language which makes a huge difference, we take greater liberty with it.
PAUL SOLMAN: So Harbison's Gatsby is full of new music sung in new ways. For its big moments it relies on the old operatic themes: Lust and longing, love and loss, murder and madness. These themes are in part what made The Great Gatsby alluring to Harbison in the first place, adding to its appeal Princeton, F. Scott Fitzgerald's alma mater. Harbison, who literally grew up at the university, comes from a long line of Princetonians. His father on the right taught there. His great uncle was a classmate of Fitzgerald's. Hooked on the book in high school, Harbison reread Gatsby in the early '80s and began putting its plot into the dialogue of opera. The great challenge: How to transpose Fitzgerald's famous writing style.
JOHN HARBISON, Composer: The most beautiful language in the novel is not in the characters' mouths; it's in the transitional and connective and descriptive material. And it's only occasionally that that can be moved over into the characters' speeches themselves.
PAUL SOLMAN: So it's the music that captures that.
JOHN HARBISON: Yes. The music has to step in.
PAUL SOLMAN: You can hear Harbison's musical version of Fitzgerald's in the opera's opening moments. (music in background)
JOHN HARBISON: The beginning of the overture is music associated with the sort of dramatic longing of Gatsby's situation, his kind of great plan for his life, for winning Daisy back, but also the inherent danger. (music in background) This piece is about someone who has thrust himself into a very risky, perilous quest.
PAUL SOLMAN: A quest, it seems not unlike that of the contemporary composer, who hopes to get his opera into the permanent repertoire. One can only hope his struggle to rise above the crowd won't be as futile of that as Myrtle Wilson, married to a poor man, shooting for a rich one.
CHARACTER MYRTLE WILSON SINGING: Take me
PAUL SOLMAN: As for the opera's real chances, the person who commissioned, Maestro Levine, is cautiously optimistic.
JAMES LEVINE, Artistic Director, Metropolitan Opera: It's been very well sold for its initial theories. That's a very good sign because that means there's a lot of interest to start with before anyone passes judgment on the piece. Whether it stays in the repertoire, I find, has less to do with hasty judgment than it has to do with the artist's belief in the piece.
PAUL SOLMAN: James Levine has ruled the rostrum at the met for a quarter century and knows how hard it is to create an appetite for modern music when audiences can feast on Mozart instead. He thinks almost any new artwork needs repetition before an audience really gets it. And that means the artists themselves must make the case.
JAMES LEVINE: First of all, the musicians have to love and believe in the piece and keep trying to find ways to schedule it, to perform it. Then audiences gradually notice that that is happening and they want to know this because they know that the people who are immersed in music all day are interested in it and want to put it before the public.
PAUL SOLMAN: So if you love it enough, you can keep it here?
JAMES LEVINE: I think so.
PAUL SOLMAN: And then you'll get people to think that this must be good enough because Levine keeps putting it in here and listen to it differently.
JAMES LEVINE: Well, at least they give me a chance when they trust me that I can take them on a journey they haven't been on before and maybe they won't love every one, but maybe life gets more stimulating that way because, let's face it, there has to be... I mean, the art form would die if all it was, was repeating something with which we were already familiar.
PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile back on stage, Myrtle has decided to leave her husband for her lover. But as operatic state would have, Myrtle is struck and killed by her lover's car driven by his wife, her rival, Daisy. (music in background) Gatsby, who was riding shotgun, chivalrously takes the rap, leaving Myrtle's stunned spouse in the end to wreak murderous revenge. (music in background) Though early reviews were mixed, the "New York Times" called it the victim of the inflated expectations surrounding it, Harbison's Gatsby has received for an opera a huge amount of attention. And for director Mark Lamos, at least, that is further evidence of encouraging uptick in the market for modern music.
MARK LAMOS, Director: I think one of the healthy things is more companies commissioning living American composers to write new operas is that we're not going to be looking at everything to enter a pantheon. I do a new opera at the opera theater in St. Louis, the place is packed. They're ready for an adventure. You know, and you think, wow, St. Louis, good for you - you know, six performances, eight performances. They're eagerly accepting a new work without having heard it before, without having a recording to study, without really knowing much more about it than they do when they just sit down and hear it the first time. That's saying a lot about American culture right now.
PAUL SOLMAN: But if impatient audiences don't give it a chance or "The Great Gatsby" simply fails to achieve operatic immortality, perhaps it -- like the rest of us -- can take some solace from the immortal words of Myrtle Wilson.
CHARACTER MYRTLE WILSON SINGING: You can't live forever...