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Mark Adamo

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Little Women (1998)
Text Writer
Libretto by the composer after the novel by Louisa May Alcott.
G Schirmer Inc
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
2 Hours 0 Minutes
Baritone, 2 Basses, 3 Mezzo Sopranos, 3 Sopranos, Tenor
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Programme Note
Mark Adamo Little Women (1998)
Composer Note:

More than a century after its publication, Louisa May Alcott's chronicle of growing up female in civil-war era New England remains a main dish in the smorgasbord of American popular fiction. Readers have devoured the adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in more than one hundred languages. In our own land and tongue, Hollywood has had to film the piece once every 20 years or so to slake the recurring appetite. The applause that hailed Little Women in its own century echoes in its steadily rising prestige at the close of our own; writers as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir and Joyce Carol Oates have claimed Alcott as a literary ancestor.

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I read the book as a child, and loved it. And I recognized that Little Women itself solves certain problems for the opera composer. The novel itself — part classic, part mass-culture perennial — as well as its young, lively characters in their antique locale reminded me of opera itself these days: an art buzzing with new writing and thinking while still working with resources (the bel-canto trained voice, the acoustic orchestra) that stabilized one hundred years ago. I knew Jo's wild imagination, her haunting memories, would free me musically to range between abstract and tonal, poetic and vernacular, song and symphonic forms.

The conflict of Little Women is Jo versus the passage of time. Realize this about Jo: alone among adolescent protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Portnoy), she's happy where she is. Adored by her family, she adores them in turn. Not so poor as to starve, Jo is just poor enough to see in each small windfall gold to delight a Midas. Jo knows adulthood will only graduate her from her perfect home. She fights her own and her sisters' growth because she knows deep down that growing up means growing apart.

— Mark Adamo

Act II full score

Vocal score

Cast List:
   JO: Mezzo-soprano
   LAURIE: Tenor
   AMY: Soprano
   BETH: Soprano
   MEG: Mezzo-soprano
   ALMA MARCH: Soprano
   JOHN BROOKE: Baritone
   Additional Character Singers

Percussion battery:
Percussion I = Vibraphone, Chimes, Glockenspiel, Timpani, Bell Tree, Xylophone, Brake Drum, Crotale, Tam Tam, Temple Blocks

Percussion II = Tambourine, Triangle, Woodblock, Bass Drum, Ratchet, Snare Drum, Cow Bell, Brake Drum, Gong, Suspended Cymbal, Vibraphone (doubling on the Perc I instrument), Tam Tam, Tenor Drum


(Setting: Massachusetts during the Civil War)

The dark attic of the March house.
Jo, distraught, greets her friend Laurie. He's just married Jo's younger sister Amy; but has he only married Amy to stay near Jo? Worse: Laurie adores Amy — nothing is as it was — and the opera spirals back in time to show why Jo tried to keep it so.

Act I, Scene 1
The attic, two years ago.
Jo and her sisters Meg, Beth, and Amy make games of their chores. Laurie tauntingly tells Jo that his tutor, John Brooke, keeps Meg's glove because he loves her. Jo, alone, sketching a story, fearfully denies that Meg might love him too.

Act I, Scene 2
In front of the March house, weeks later.
Brooke courts Meg. Jo urges the family to reject him. Cecilia, the girls' aunt also scorns Brooke: but Meg, resolved, accepts him. Her family celebrates; but Jo accuses Meg of abandoning her.

Act I, Scene 3
The March garden, the following summer.
Meg and Brooke adapt their parents wedding vows. A feverish Laurie pleads for Jo's love. She spurns him; stung, he flees. Beth, secretly ill, collapses as Meg cries for help.

Act II, Scene 1
The offices of the Daily Volcano, a New York City fiction tabloid, one year later.
A triumphant Jo sells a story; back at her boarding house, she writes her increasingly atomized family. A new acquaintance, Fredrich Bhaer, invites her to the opera.

Act II, Scene 2
Simultaneously, Jo's boarding house; the March parlour; sunny Oxford lawn.
Jo and Bhaer engage in flirtatious debate while, in Oxford, Amy tests Laurie's feelings for Jo. Beth rages at the piano. Bhaer ardently recites Goethe to Jo: then Alma's desperate telegram interrupts them. Jo flees to Concord.

Act II, Scene 3
Beth's bedroom, three sleepless nights later.
Beth dozes as her family keeps vigil. Jo bursts in; Beth bids her family leave. Beth urges Jo to accept her impending death.

Act II, Scene 4
Before the March house, the following spring.
Cecilia baits Jo with Amy's letter about loving Laurie. Jo wearily admits Bhaer may have abandoned her. Cecilia urges Jo to choose solitude; refusing, Jo retreats to the attic.

Act II, Scene 5
The attic.
As in the beginning, Jo, distraught. Laurie, appearing, again reminisces; but now Jo rejects the past. Her sisters materialize as memories: Jo, in emotional exorcism, celebrates and releases them. Bhaer — her future — appears: Jo extends her hand to him.

  • G. Schirmer:
  • Ensemble
    Houston Grand Opera Orchestra
    Patrick Summers
  • 21 MAR 2020
    Roussel Hall / New Orleans, LA / USA
    New Orleans Opera Association
    Carol Rausch, conductor

    Other Dates:
    22 March - Roussel Hall / New Orleans, LA / USA
  • 26 MAR 2020
    The Ridges Auditorium / Athens, OH / USA
    Ohio University Opera Theater
    Steven Huang, conductor

    Other Dates:
    27,28 March - The Ridges Auditorium / Athens, OH / USA
  • 17 APR 2020
    Tomlinson Theater / Philadelphia, PA / USA
    Temple University Opera Theater
    Corinne Hayes, stage director; Steven Gross, conductor

    Other Dates:
    19,21 April - Tomlinson Theater / Philadelphia, PA / USA

★ ★ ★ ★ – Adamo's emphasis on unwavering family love sometimes makes Little Women (the opera) a bit too sweet. Daniël van Klaverens light-footed director offers a clever counterbalance with sharp humour. What also helps is the director’s decision to move the action forward over eighty years, to the fifties. But the fact that the opera captivates for two hours is certainly also a musical achievement. Adamo proves to be a brilliant theatre composer and smoothly switches between Bernstein-esque musical style, softly sparkling sound veils, spiky twelve-tone music and baby howls on an oboe. Dutch Premiere
Joep Christenhusz, NRC Handelsblad,16/01/2020
Its excellences begin with Adamo’s libretto, a deft compaction often in rhymed couplets that never cloy… The entire opera is moving, funny and unsettling by turns, and the end – this is not gushing exaggeration – approaches Richard Strauss and his outpourings of womanly emotion…
John Rockwell, Opera Magazine,01/07/2016
…the orchestral ensemble is small, so that a certain “American” openness is built in, and 16 years after I first heard it, the music is still fresh, even bracing. The vocal writing is gratifying to young singers especially, and where the music is spiky, “modern,” rebellious, uncompromising — well, aren’t those the qualities we cherish in Jo? You may think you want Stephen Foster, but what you require is Mark Adamo. He knows how to tell this story in sound.
William Madison, Billevesées,26/05/2016
Overall, Pittsburgh Opera has a winner in its cozy yet intense production of Little Women.
Mark Kanny, Pittsburgh Herald-Tribune,24/01/2016
Canadian Premiere With Adamo...even the simplest dialogue is shaped to find its point in rhyme (often with humour), with the added benefit that when the music moves to aria-like music, one senses no break, no lurch from narration to reflection. ...Little Women is actually filled with arias, duets, and ensembles. As the opera progresses, the gathering emotional force of the story is expressed in music that becomes increasing lyrical and powerful, the end a true conclusion of an emotional odyssey. ...In the end the opera holds up the mirror to what all of us have experienced, viewing personal growth through the lens of that special moment in life when what has been and what must be collide. The opera thus remains faithful to the larger narrative of the original novel, and provides a gloss or commentary upon its significance, a point perhaps not foregrounded in the book but the contribution of Adamo as librettist and composer. ...Any modern opera will prove a challenge to an audience, but the challenges encountered in Little Women are not so very many. The story is a strong one; the singing is uniformly good; and the production is intelligent. The production, fully on par with other productions of modern opera, continues the company's worthy attempt to challenge and stimulate its audience. With traditional opera and modern theatre holding hands, the stage is increasingly filled with new works to fire the imagination. Little Women is one such work.
Kenneth Delong, Calgary Herald,31/01/2010
A compelling opera in a fascinating performance...This music is modern, yet not difficult to absorb. Though this is a modern opera, it deals with classic themes, tracking the way each character deals with the challenge of adult intimacy: these are women who are not so little anymore... The capacity audience, which may have had a bit of trepidation about 'modern music', ended up thoroughly enjoying this fascinating contemporary performance.
Ona Binur, Maa'riv,01/07/2008
Australian Premiere [Little Women is] vivacious music-theatre of charm, wit and humor. Adamo brings considerable verve and freshness to Alcott’s story, with the result that this opera is never less than endearing: and his score leaves little doubt that he is a resourceful composer. Adamo’s musical ideas are coherent at every turn: his quartet writing for the sisters is ethereal and totally charming, and solos from Jo, Meg and Friedrich Bhaer possess wonderful, genuine emotional amplitude. Little Women is magically transporting.
Graham Strahle, The Australian ,23/05/2007
I urge you to see it, to assure yourself that beautifully proportioned small-scale American opera can still work if serious intelligences are involved. Adamo did his own libretto, and set it to vital, shapely music that, for once in the troubled annals of new opera, doesn't sound cribbed from half a dozen soundtracks. Not having made my way through Louisa May Alcott's enduring novel at any time in recent decades, I still get from this lithe and enormously attractive stage work a sense of closeness to the interlock of personalities that I missed in, for example, in the recent Winona Ryder film. Adamo writes arias, lots of them, and they really identify the people singing them. Better yet, he writes ensemble pieces with real operatic counterpoint... For a first opera, by a composer still in his 30s, I would reckon Little Women a happy, even astonishing success.
Alan Rich , L.A. Weekly,18/05/2001
Beautifully wrought, tightly executed and consistently entertaining, the local premiere of Mark Adamo's 1998 operatic setting of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, seen at the first performance Saturday night in the Irvine Barclay Theatre, is a joy in every way.

Opera in English, an old American musical ideal often forgotten, makes an impressive, reassuring reappearance here. Not surprisingly, the squeals of delight coming out of the Opera Pacific audience attested to the many joys and satisfactions still possible in that old concept.

A strong, poetic text, clearly delivered, married to music of charm and tunefulness and in the language of the audience, will always win over its listeners. And so did this one, the handiwork of librettist Adamo, in efficient and astute collaboration with himself.

This novel is perfectly suited for operatic treatment, and the author-composer uses its dramatic and comedic high points with care, affection and abundant clever touches.

The two opening scenes tell the story of the four sisters compellingly and with bracing economy. From the start, each character is drawn in detail, but without overstatement. Alcott's characteristic sanguinity is the motor that drives this plot, and it never fails; Adamo draws upon its power and intelligence throughout.

Daniel Cariaga , Los Angeles Times,14/05/2001
A beautifully crafted work: shows remarkable confidence, [and] does a brilliant job of molding Alcott's tale into operatic form. Adamo is a spirited, fast-witted composer: like Britten, he can turn on a stylistic dime, running the gamut from open-throated Broadway song to serpentine twelve-tonish writing, mak[ing] fascinating music from the simplest possible material....I suspect that in five or ten years' time Mark Adamo will be greeted with ovations on the stage of the Met.
Alex Ross, The New Yorker,01/01/0001
A striking debut -- a crackling adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic that both distills the tale's most powerful elements into a two-act drama of cinematic fluency and gives it the sweetly mythic dignity of an old family album. Big arias -- or half-arias -- soar suddenly out of skittering dissonances; effusions of giddiness, yearning, impatience and pathos jostle pell-mell with one another. At times, ghostly offstage voices provide a supernatural chorus, like wind whistling through a graveyard. And somehow, because of what is manifestly Mr. Adamo's deep-felt enthusiasm for the book, this kaleidoscopic approach feels just right for evoking the passage of four 19th-century American sisters from tightly bonded, hermetic girlhood into the separate, expansive state of womanhood...(Jo) is as complex a character as I have seen in a contemporary opera, and although Mr. Adamo has given sharply sketched dimensions to her parents, sisters and suitors, she dominates the piece as completely as does the title character of Tosca. The recurrence of her eerily adamant aria, "Perfect as we are," is the opera's most telling motif. Yet it's a testament to Mr. Adamo's dramatic instincts that the single most resonant moment in the piece is given not to Jo but to her German suitor, Friedrich Bhaer, when he widens her horizons by singing a Goethe poem ("Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom"). It is set to an arching, angular melody that Brahms might have written if he'd ever visited New England...Charm is not a word that can be often applied to opera, but it's a quality that Mark Adamo's Little Women has in abundance, and the audience -- who rewarded him with a standing ovation -- seemed to savor every minute of it.
Charles Michener , The New York Observer,01/01/0001
Fiercely true to Alcott's spirit as he understands it, Mr. Adamo has treated the letter of her novel with the ruthlessness that distinguishes the artist from the mere adapter. Star-caliber young mezzos are sure to find Jo irresistible: and the opportunities for the rest of the cast are juicy, too... Though hardly the first of the Houston Grand Opera commissions to have an afterlife on other stages, Little Women may well go down as the most fortunate.
Matthew Gurewitsch , The New York Times,01/01/0001
Passionate elegance...The composer's staging, eschewing the realism of the original Houston Grand Opera production, instead placed the narrative in a surreal world of flashbacks illuminating Jo's psychological plight. The result was a spare, emotionally direct production in which past and present melded seamlessly; and Adamo's score, a keen blend of serial elements and vibrant lyricism, sounded affecting and smart...Lyric Opera Cleveland landed a big coup with Little Women.
Donald Rosenberg , Opera Magazine ,01/01/0001
"Some sort of masterpiece..." Mr. Adamo's libretto, built in rhymed couplets of seemingly effortless naturalness, proceeds with amazing sureness for a first opera. We come to love the complexity of Jo's character but can still be appalled by her selfish cruelty. Her sisters are all limned surely, as are the three men who come as agents of inevitable change. Mr. Adamo's music mixes modernism (actual 12-tone rows) with tonal lyricism, the former usually to advance the action or for humor, the latter for the big effusions. And yet the two styles blend effectively, the modernism not rigorously alienating and the lyricism genuine and heartfelt. Nearly all the big moments in the opera work: Jo's arias, those for her sisters and for the older German teacher (who eventually, maybe, melts Jo's heart) and his recitation of Goethe in both German and English... If you have any interest in new opera, or just want to enjoy yourself, you should make every effort to go.
John Rockwell , The New York Times,01/01/0001
Masterly, and often poetic: Jo and her sisters are touchingly drawn, often with humor, and Mr. Adamo's sense of timing is nearly perfect. The score is invitingly lyrical, but not unsophisticated: many of its themes and recurring motifs are derived from 12-tone rows. Good tunes propel the arias and ensembles, with skillful orchestration supporting them. [Little Women] does everything an opera should do. Not least, it leaves an audience moved.
Allan Kozinn , The New York Times,01/01/0001
I can't think of another opera that begins to portray family life so vividly and in such deep dimension. In one remarkable scene, sickly daughter Beth plays the piano and sings her new composition; her parents discuss household finance, inquire after Beth's health and comment on her music; suitor John begs sister Meg to marry him; Jo tries to break them up; and sister Amy subtly counters Jo. Adamo wraps it all up in a compelling rhythmic and harmonic flow that gives an uncommonly complex scene a big contour you can hold in your mind...Bits of counterpoint crop up and harmonies converge at cadences, but mostly the voices sing in lively exchanges. This isn't just recitative or droning arioso. Adamo writes singing lines, in many cases variations or reprises of melodies we've heard earlier, so it expands on character and resonates emotionally. In this scene, you can get almost every word and you want to. Adamo's wordplay can be brilliant, and we want to get to know these people, the girls especially and Jo most of all. These sisters can make a clever courtroom ritual of laundry folding, complete with opening and closing hymns to the legal system. Coached, naturally, by Adamo the stage director, their acting appears artless. You don't think about it during the show - you're just watching these people live their lives. They're funny and passionate, but then no character in Little Women is a cipher. The girls, their suitors, their aunt, their parents - all have dimension. We learn more about them every time they sing, and that's why the opera engages from start to finish.
Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ,01/01/0001
Powerful stuff...Adamo didn't simply take Alcott's words and set them to music; he examined the personalities of the book's characters as well as their relationships with one another and found a thematic anchor that has universal resonance. The music defined the inner life as well as the interpersonal relationships of the characters, saying — as great opera does — what the text leaves out...Little Women gives us everything we ask of an operatic experience.
Carol Simmons, Dayton Daily News ,01/01/0001
The last operatic masterpiece of the 20th century... Fort Worth got its first taste of Little Women in a production that clearly demonstrated why it has already become the most frequently performed of new American operas. Adamo's inspired handling of textures ranges from heart-stopping moments of silence to soaring melodies and piercing dissonance. In short, he proves that opera still has a magic that neither cinema nor the mainstream theater can match...(Little Women is) a moving epitomization of the American experience as real in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.
Wayne Lee Gay , Fort Worth Star-Telegram,01/01/0001
A grand success...networks of motives knit the opera together, and the score, like the characters, accumulates memories as it goes along, and ponders them. Most promising of all, Adamo has a real sense of the theater, of dramatic effect, and of stage time. There's no question that Little Women connects to its audience, and what makes the connection is Adamo's identification with the feelings of his characters, especially Jo. It is the "Cinderella" of recent American operas: an opera that hits the bull's-eye of its own ambitions.
Richard Dyer , The Boston Globe ,01/01/0001
Stunning in its inventiveness, craft, and downright beauty...Adamo also penned the well-thought-out libretto, but it is his seamless music that gives the piece its power. He careens from high, searing melody (such as the repeated "perfect as we are" motif) to atonal, incisive bite as the drama dictates. This remarkable American opera deserves to be heard and here is a recording that does it proud. Adamo has composed a truly American piece, and it is, both musically and theatrically, an impressive (and maybe even important) contribution.
Daniel Felsenfeld ,,01/01/0001
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