Opera sets ‘Little Women' to music

For a new opera, this is off-the-chart success: More than 50 productions around the world in a decade. And that's without a famous composer or performer for a PR boost.

Then again, Mark Adamo's opera does have a great name attached: “Little Women,” the Louisa May Alcott novel that inspired it.

Opera Carolina has talked about producing Adamo's “Little Women” in the 1,200-seat theater under construction on South Tryon Street. But Jo March and her adored sisters will arrive first at the Brevard Music Center, which performs Adamo's opera Thursday and Aug. 2.

The director of Brevard's opera program, David Gately, has directed two of those 50-plus productions, in Texas and Kentucky. He has seen the opera's effect on viewers firsthand.

“Audiences go away just loving it,” David Gately says.

Adamo, born in Philadelphia in 1962, by no means had a sure thing when he turned to Alcott for his first opera. He was several years ahead of the Broadway “Little Women” of 2005 – and even that one was no smash. Adamo's version, by opera-world standards, is one.

Adamo, doubling as composer and librettist, has shaped Alcott's story into two acts playing out in a bit less than two hours. He has won admiration for ingeniously boiling down Alcott's story; for capturing personalities and feelings in a few well-chosen words; and for fleshing those out with lively, heartfelt music.

Adamo has focused the novel into “a story of dealing with change in your life,” Gately says. “That makes it a very universal piece. We all deal with change…. Sometimes we fight it, and sometimes we welcome it.”

The opera revolves around Jo, who fights it. Adamo, discussing how he worked, has written that Jo is different from most of American fiction's young protagonists. Unlike Tom Sawyer or Holden Caulfied, Adamo explains, “she's happy where she is.”

“Jo knows adulthood will only graduate her from her perfect home,” Adamo writes. “She fights her own and her sisters' growth because she knows deep down that growing up means growing apart.”

Adamo's music has the sweetness to capture Jo's delight in her family, and the bite to drive home how sharply she resists any threat to her idyllic existence. But there are some forces that even the most vigorous will can't block. When those take hold, the opera “has all the poignancy of the book,” Gately says. He points again to seeing the opera in action.

“It usually manages to get the audience to cry twice during the evening,” he says. Yet the opera ends with a hint of future happiness for Jo: the arrival of a suitor.

Standard-repertoire operas have gotten the bulk of Brevard's attention in recent years, Gately says. Taking over this year as head of the opera division – after several visits directing shows as a guest – Gately hopes to give newer works a place amid the familiar ones. He picked “Little Women” for his first try at getting Brevard's audience to branch out.

“I thought we could get them into the opera house to hear a contemporary opera,” Gately says. “And I felt like we could send them away actually liking it.”