Theater & art

John Harbison’s opera ‘The Great Gatsby’ gets new life

Dawn Upshaw and Jerry Hadley, pictured here at the final dress rehearsal, starred as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby in the Metropolitan Opera production of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby,” which premiered in New York in 1999.
Dawn Upshaw and Jerry Hadley, pictured here at the final dress rehearsal, starred as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby in the Metropolitan Opera production of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby,” which premiered in New York in 1999.

The rhythmic prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” throbs with the sound of music.

Cars honk, tires squeal, orchestras play, radios blare, jazz singers croon, champagne glasses clink, party guests buzz in what Fitzgerald calls “an opera of voices.” The bully Tom Buchanan’s voice is “a gruff husky tenor” with “a touch of paternal contempt.” Tom’s wife, the willowy Daisy from Louisville, speaks in a “low, thrilling” voice “full of money.” Myrtle, Tom’s doomed lower-class lover, has “a soft, coarse voice.” Jay Gatsby, that grand impostor, peppers his conversation with a jaunty musical refrain: “old sport.” Nick Carraway, the narrator, an attentive listener, falls asleep to the music coming from the splendid parties at Gatsby’s house across the lawn.

For a composer, the rich sonic world of “The Great Gatsby” is both richly suggestive and intimidating. Just ask composer John Harbison. It took him three years of dedicated effort to write his opera based on the novel, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and first staged there in 1999 with considerable fanfare, in a lavish production directed by Mark Lamos. On Sunday afternoon, Harbison’s opera will finally receive its long-awaited Boston premiere, in a concert version presented at Jordan Hall by the forces of Emmanuel Music.


For Harbison, this is a double homecoming; he has been associated with Emmanuel Music from its earliest days. A close friend and colleague of its late founder Craig Smith, Harbison played viola in the Emmanuel orchestra in the early 1970s, and he has been involved with the organization as musician, conductor, programmer, and composer ever since. This year, he serves as principal guest conductor and season composer.

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“This is a very special event for me,” the modest and soft-spoken Harbison acknowledged recently in an interview on a sunny spring afternoon in the courtyard of the Lewis Music Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught since 1970. “Emmanuel Music and I have had a long and wonderful relationship.”

Harbison’s experience with the original production and reception of “The Great Gatsby” was not so wonderful, however. “Doing opera is a rough-and-tumble business that most composers are temperamentally not very well suited for,” he said. “Opera is the most complicated of all art forms, and inevitably very collaborative. For me this was a new experience, I hadn’t really collaborated so much before. And the opera audience is really so different from the classical music audience, much more active. For years after the Met premiere, people would come up to me and complain about some detail of the music or production.”

Gordon Gietz plays Jay Gatsby

Many of the reviews of the Met production were positive, but what Harbison calls the “key reviews” were “not good enough to encourage others to invite me to write more operas.” His “Gatsby” was revived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000, and once at the Met in 2002, but a period of about 10 years followed when the piece “went silent, and I was beginning to think that it might never come back. The way I see it, I loved opera, but opera didn’t love me back.” So Harbison instead has poured his creative energy into writing symphonies.

Recently, however, things have been looking up for “Gatsby.” Last summer, Aspen Music Festival staged the revised version of the opera that Emmanuel Music will perform in concert on Sunday and at Tanglewood this July, in honor of Harbison’s 75th birthday. And last year in San Francisco, Ensemble Parallèle produced a new chamber version for reduced ensemble created by Jacques Desjardins. In 2007, Harbison assembled an orchestral “Gatsby Suite” that has been played around the country.

Devon Guthrie plays Daisy Buchanan

The version of “Gatsby” that Emmanuel Music is presenting differs significantly from the one staged at the Met, recorded live, and released on CD. In the last few years, Harbison has done some major surgery. He admits that director Lamos originally suggested most of these cuts during rehearsals, but that “I was too inexperienced” to heed his advice.

Gone are a chorus prelude preceding the big party at Gatsby’s house in Act 1 and a recitation (by Nick and his girlfriend, Jordan) of the names of guests invited to Gatsby’s house. “What I had to learn,” Harbison says, “was that these scenes were not only delaying the audience’s expectations, but were not essential to the musical structure, either.” This revised score — Harbison now considers it the definitive version — has numerous other smaller cuts as well.

Alex Richardson plays Tom Buchanan

Against the advice of just about everyone, Harbison wrote the libretto himself. “I can see why people want to have a librettist, partly to go out and take some of the flak,” he joked. In adapting the novel, Harbison came to feel that Jay Gatsby is the “archetypal American hero — an impostor. It’s also a much nastier and grittier story than most readers seem to remember. I think that’s why some people got so upset with me when the opera was first done, because I stressed Gatsby’s gangster side.” And onstage, he observed, “it’s more difficult to mythologize his character, the way that the movies can. He’s just right there in front of you.”

David Kravitz plays Nick Carraway

One of the most difficult tasks was figuring out how to include the “ambient” music (jazz and pop tunes, tangos) of the 1920s that figures so prominently in the novel, and how to link it motivically to Harbison’s own style. A longtime jazz aficionado and performer, Harbison wrote all the pop tunes himself, with brilliantly idiomatic results. But he turned to veteran Murray Horwitz for the lyrics, sending him the tunes as he composed them. Many of these songs are heard only in fragmentary form in the opera. Later, Harbison expanded some for a volume of “Gatsby Songs”; they have become popular with jazz and pop singers, including Lisa Kirchner (“Strange”).

Tony Fogg, artistic administrator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a close observer of Harbison’s career, said in a phone interview that what he finds most successful about “The Great Gatsby” is its “incredible coherence on all levels. The pop songs give birth to the remaining non-sung material in a wonderfully integrated way. Everything is of one language. And John’s music for the opera has the best possible balance of head and heart; it is both intellectually interesting and immediate.”


As he was composing and revising, Harbison says he often considered Verdi’s example from “Rigoletto” and “Masked Ball,” in which tense psychological action seethes beneath the surface of carefree party music. Conveying the disparity between Gatsby’s glamorous social life and the sordid reality of his violent criminal career is the challenge for any adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, and one that has absorbed Harbison’s creative energy for years.

“I always expected there would be another Gatsby opera after mine,” he reflected. “It’s an endlessly fascinating piece of American culture.”

Harlow Robinson can be reached at