If we're talking strictly "opera", I think "Porgy & Bess" probably better fits the appelation. Rather, I would argue WSS is the definitive Book Musical (a theatrical genre that, like jazz in the music milleu, is an American-born art form).
Yes, West Side Story, a more innocent time, with switchblades and a single gun shot. Today we've got blood, guts, machetes, uzis, car explosions, water tortures, blah blah blah - all there up on the screen to numb us. Yes, it was indeed nicer then. Back in the 80s my friends and I had a game we played. If we happened to meet somebody on a particular night, the next day we'd tell our friends if we had pegged him as a JET or a SHARK. Yeah, it's a little mean spirited, but you should hear about the fucked up mind games the other kids played.
Well, I think saying "West Side Story" is the great American opera is a bit of a stretch, even if it were an opera, which it's technically not. I'd vote for John Adam's "Nixon in China" or his most recent, not even out on record yet, "A Flowering Tree." God that shit is good.
I work at a music-heavy office, and a co-worker just reminded me how good Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" is, something that I'd totally forgotten. That would be his vote. Or Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Consul."
Another opera that came up in our chatter was Glass's "Einstein on the Beach." And then there was total silence. Nobody wanted to advocate for Glass, but I think the piece is really good. But it's no Adams. It would make my list of the top five most influential American operas, but not my list of the top ten best.
But, "West Side Story" is a completely badass piece of art - Bernstein's finest composition, alongside his "Chichester Psalms" and Symphony No. 2 "The Age of Anxiety." And everyone should see it live, because the songs and dances make it the very best American musical. You will be humming the tunes for weeks, and you'll be happy you are.
But then, you said that Amazing Spiderman #1-200 was the great American novel, so I get where you're coming from. Sure, in that sense, West Side Story is the great American opera. I'll dance to that tune...
Josef @ 3,
I had hoped I wouldn't have to explain this, but in saying WSS is the Great American Opera, I'm saying it's not formally an opera. Dig?
And yes, three cheers for Philip Glass.
Josh @ 5,
Yep. Got that. See Josef @ 4. It was really fun to ask my co-workers what their favorite American operas were, and I'd forgotten how many of them there actually are... that are, like, you know, really good. Because American opera doesn't find it's way to many opera houses, especially in America. Speaking and writing the names of these operas was kind of magical.
I'll take "Porgy and Bess" over anything else mentioned here, though "West Side Story" is pretty good. Did you see the restored (and ludicrously rare) print of it that showed at the Cinerama several years back during SIFF?
"West Side Story"'s got just a whiff of concert hall Bernstein to it, which keeps it out of the number one spot among musicals. Of course, I'm only talking about movies.
YES! Fnarf, I loved the giant, stunningly pretty print of "Porgy and Bess" at SIFF - remember the weird German sub-titles? That was awesome. Best parts? Sidney Potier as Porgy -- all totally young and hot as hell -- and Sammy Davis, Jr. singing "It Ain't Necessarily So."
But, I've got to say: I've got "Nixon in China" playing right now, and Nixon is singing about the news and realizing that he's making history...
("News has a kind of mystery. When I shook hands with Chou En-lai, on this bare field outside Peking, just now the hold world was listening.! And though we spoke quietly, the eyes and ears of history caught every gesture, every word...")
...and the music has everything in it -- ragtime, jazz, big-band, American 60s pop -- all layered over a pulsing, centered minimalist groove that you can't help dancing to? That's some great opera. One of the best arias ever. Ever.
For the first time, the greatest living composer in the world is an American.
Nothing beats Sammy Davis, Jr. when he's got the fever. Nothing.
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