A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

"An American Tragedy" composer Tobias Picker

On May 9, I attended the West Coast premiere of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser, libretto by Gene Scheer. The opera was presented by the Santa Monica College Opera Theater at the beautiful SMC Performing Arts Center: the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage.

Dreiser’s novel was based on the Chester Gillette-Grace Brown murder case of 1906, a case which was front-page news during the arrest, trial and subsequent execution of Gillette. The case is still studied today as a model for using “circumstantial” evidence. Chester and Grace worked together in 1905 at a skirt factory in Cortland, New York, which was owned by Chester’s uncle. They dated occasionally, but their relationship was primarily conducted in secret. Grace found herself pregnant with Chester’s child in the spring of 1906. She went home to her parents’ farm after Chester promised to take her away. Grace assumed he would marry her on their trip to the Adirondacks, but we don’t know if he ever promised to do so.

After several letters pleading with him to fulfill his promise, Chester met Grace on July 9, 1906, and they began their trip. In one of her letters Grace had revealed she could not swim. On July 11, they rented a boat and spent the afternoon on Big Moose Lake. By 6 p.m., Grace had drowned. Chester fled the scene and stayed at hotel further south until his arrest three days later. During his trial in November and December of 1906, Chester insisted Grace’s death was a suicide. The district attorney said she had been hit over the head by Chester with a tennis racket attached to his suitcase. He was found guilty, and died in the electric chair in March 1908.

In Dreiser’s retelling of the story, as well as in the opera libretto, Clyde Griffith cultivates a secret relationship with Roberta Alden, whom he meets at his uncle’s factory. When he discovers she is pregnant, Clyde sends her away to her parents’ farm so he can continue his pursuit of society lady Sondra Finchley unencumbered. In the opera, Roberta presses the issue by showing up at a church service attended by Clyde and Sondra and her family, threatening to expose him. He agrees to go away with her. Roberta accidentally falls out of the boat, and Clyde does nothing to save her. He continues to insist it was an accident, even on death row, until his mother visits him before his execution and he confesses his wrongdoing to her.

Director Gail Gordon assembled a stellar cast for this challenging work. Baritone Chad Sloan was convincing as Clyde Griffiths, the womanizing central character. Soprano Shana Blake Hill was vocally flawless and created a vulnerable Roberta Alden. As Sondra Finchley, the society woman Clyde attaches himself to for personal gain, Nazani Ashjian was elegant and stylish. While John Atkins had the right demeanor for the role of Samuel Griffiths, Clyde’s successful entrepreneur uncle, the former baritone struggled with high tessitura of the role. Anne Marie Servier carried the rare poignant moments of the story, communicating a deep faith and a mother’s grief with her warm, rich mezzo. Timur Bekbosunov was engaging as the heir apparent, Gilbert Griffiths.

This daunting project had its challenges. The multiple scene changes were accomplished by projecting black and white period photographs on an upstage scrim. At times David Toledo’s lighting design underscored the inner turmoil of the characters. There was not a single set piece, which may have forced Stage Director Courtney Selan to fashion a static, stand-and-sing piece. Meera Rangachar’s costumes were lovely period pieces, in a monochromatic palette of grays and creams, blacks and whites, which suited the black and white projections.

While the leads and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus were impeccably prepared musically, the adult chorus, especially the initial men’s chorus, seemed unsure of themselves. The orchestra, conducted by James Martin, needed more rehearsal time for this difficult, unfamiliar score. Hopefully by the second performance the balance between the orchestra and singers was adjusted so the artists on stage were not overpowered so frequently by the artists in the pit. Even though the opera was in English, the show would have benefited from supertitles. Much of the drama was lost in the moment because the audience could not apprehend the words.

While Picker’s An American Tragedy had moments of beauty, and some powerful passages (such as the church scene in Act Two), I found myself not caring what happened to the characters, unmoved by the plight of Roberta, and left cold by the self-seeking Clyde. The music did not sustain the drama, nor did it elicit or maintain an emotional connection with the story. The Santa Monica College Opera Theater gave the opera a fair reading; but I would be surprised if this work became a part of the standard repertoire.