‘The Great Gatsby’ is a hit in Germany

The American icon triumphs overseas as an opera

For local music lovers, the name John Harbison evokes the last warmth of summer. The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, a classical music event hosted and directed by Harbison and his wife, Rose Mary, illuminates several evenings around Labor Day. Many fans may be unaware of how big a presence he has been, even before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1987. One event that gained national coverage was his opera, “The Great Gatsby,” which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999. When The New York Times wrote, “This presumes … that the work will stay around for a while. It deserves to.” The words were prophetic, and not only has it had multiple major stagings in America (including a Met revival), it has unexpectedly become a major hit in Germany.

Any new opera, even one that garners rave reviews, generally doesn’t return to the same stage for quite some time. But when Harbison’s “Gatsby” made its European debut in December 2015, the Semperoper opera house in Dresden, Germany, quickly made plans to revive it next month–a time span in the opera world equivalent to blinking twice.

The European critics were effusive in 2015 with the critic of “Musik in Dresden” writing, “The music of the American composer revealed itself to be … masterfully crafted, showing the many sides of today’s music … encompassing the entire palette of modern tone colors from jazz, blues, tango and [the] Charleston, to symphonic constructions in the spirit of Puccini and Richard Strauss’ ‘Rosenkavalier.'”

Audiences in Chicago, San Francisco and Boston have had a chance to see Harbison’s musical metamorphosis of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, but here in Madison, we have only been teased by a Madison Symphony reading in 2010 of an orchestral suite of the stage work. There is a scaled-down version for chamber orchestra, but there’s no word as to when or if this intriguing work will find its way here. As the critic in Dresden said, “Future performances will find a thankful public.”

‘The Great Gatsby’ is a hit in Germany

John Harbison: A Curious Resonance

It is unusual such an American classic as “The Great Gatsby” would resonate so strongly with European audiences, especially in an operatic version. Instead of scratching our heads trying to puzzle it out, why not just ask the composer? Here are some of Harbison’s thoughts on how his opera has garnered a major new fan base.

“I think that they [European audiences] respond to the exaggerated style of the work–a story of someone who invented his own vision. They clearly perceive the division of class in the story, in a way that we don’t always see it here in the U.S. … Even those without any exposure to the novel, the first sounds and images reveal the purpose of the opera. But it does help that the novel is actually quite familiar in Germany. I do find it fascinating that without any truly sympathetic characters, the audiences become absorbed in the way these characters do–and don’t–relate to one another.”