School of the Arts

Our Town

CSU, Chico’s School of the Arts presents the opera Our Town. Performances take place Friday–Saturday, January 25–26 at 7:30 p.m. in Harlen Adams Theatre. Purchase tickets at the University Box Office in person or by calling 530-898-6333.

Our Town is a three-act opera based on the 1938 play of the same name by Thornton Wilder. It is composed by Ned Rorem with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy.

Taking place in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, from 1901–1913, the story is one of life and death in an American small town and follows Emily Webb and George Gibbs, along with their family and friends. The play uses metatheatrical devices, and the opera follows this same technique. The setting is the theatre in which the performance takes place, and the Stage Manager character breaks the fourth wall. The play calls for a bare stage with no set and limited props; Rorem’s music reflects that to maintain the feel of the original production. The opera is sung through with very little spoken dialogue.

Wilder’s play was first performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey in 1938 and had a successful move to Broadway. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1940, the play was turned into a movie with a score written by Aaron Copland. He requested to expand his film score into a full-length opera, but was denied by Wilder. However, half a century later, Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executer, granted J. D. McClatchy the rights to turn Our Town into an opera.

Indiana University Opera Theater premiered the opera on February 25, 2006, using student singers and an orchestra. The professional debut took place at Lake George Opera on July 1, 2006. It has since been performed at several opera houses and universities across the United States. The American opera was even performed in Europe, with the British premiere by Silk Street Theatre at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama on May 29, 2012, directed by Stephen Medcalf and conducted by Clive Timms.

Many reviews of the opera have been positive. The New York Times praised Rorem’s music, describing it as, “an intimate chamber opera to match the play’s spareness…Rorem’s music is accessible, singable, and full of integrity.” Financial Times also praised the music, writing, “Langorous melodic lines or fragments, often with an unmistakable Americana flavor, interact in the orchestra, and the vocal parts engagingly follow suit. If Wilder’s play is to have music, Rorem’s is credible and often exquisite.”