Louis Gruenberg achieved his greatest distinction with his opera The Emperor Jones
, composed to Eugene O'Neill's play of the same name and first produced at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, January 7, 1933. On the occasion of its premiere Olin Downes called it "the first American opera by a composer whose dramatic instinct and intuition for the theatre seem unfailing, and whose musical technique is characterized by a very complete modern knowledge and a reckless mastery of his means." (The New York Times
, January 8, 1933).
In seeking to make an opera of Eugene O'Neill's play about the Pullman porter who made himself "Emperor" of an island in the West Indies, Gruenberg set himself a tremendously difficult task. His music for the play was at all times appropriate. The interludial outcries of the chorus, the orchestral comments on the drama, with rhythms not unlike those found in "Le Sacre du Printemps" of Stravinsky, and the dramatic fervor of the spiritual "Standin' in the Need of Prayer," were all in keeping with the intensity of the drama.
Gruenberg's savage music, with its explosive detonations, its howls and outcries, did provide the most finished and theatrically effective American opera that the Metropolitan had yet produced.