Pride and Prejudice: Preface to the Opera (Abridged)

“An opera on Pride and Prejudice?”

I’ve been asked. “After all the films, plays and books, who needs an operatic version?” I can answer this question only with a more difficult question: “Why has no one ever written an opera on Pride and Prejudice before?”

It is the most beloved novel in the English language; it has strong and varied characters, humor, opportunities for dancing, for ensembles and scenic beauty, and above all, it is built around one of the most fascinating love stories of all time. These are the hallmarks of opera. While films have the technique to open up action in ways the stage cannot, opera can more powerfully convey the passions and nuances of human emotions. The language of love is music.

Why then, for two centuries, was Pride and Prejudice overlooked by opera composers? Could it be because the soprano doesn’t die? In nineteenth- century opera that seems to have been obligatory, except for comic operas, which Pride and Prejudice could never have become. In spite of its frequent irony the book has important scenes of anguish and even anger. As Somerset Maugham observed in naming Pride and Prejudice one of the world’s ten greatest novels, Austen “had too much common sense and too sprightly a humor to be a romantic.”

But what about twentieth-century English composers?

Benjamin Britten, the most prolific, was interested mainly in the uncommon. Austen was interested in the common, according to Maugham. “She made it uncommon by the keenness of her observation, her irony and her playful wit.”

For American composers, opera — except for Porgy and Bess — was relatively unimportant until the latter half of the twentieth century. After Menotti’s post-Puccini period, our composers concentrated on American subjects and idioms. The last quarter of the century saw the rise of what one critic called “CNN operas.” A 200-year-old British love story hardly seemed relevant to American composers and impresarios of that mind-set. But I agree with Anna Quindlen: “Jane Austen wrote not of war and peace, but of men, money, and marriage, the battlefield for women of her day and, surely, of our own.”

Another reason twentieth-century composers ignored Pride and Prejudice probably had to do with musical style. Austen’s novels are so rooted in their time and place, it is hard to imagine them being sung to atonal or dissonant tonal music. I did not consider this a problem, as I have always tried to respect not only the words themselves but the style in which the original works were written. That is not to say that I have limited myself in this opera to the musical styles of the early nineteenth century (the novel was published in 1813). While I have imitated certain stylistic characteristics of the period, particularly in the dances, I was writing to engage a twenty-first-century opera audience, which is just another way of saying that I was trying to compose inventive and expressive music that I would like to hear if I were in the audience.

Finally, I want to assure fans of the novel that I love it as much as they do and have tried my best to remain true to its characters and its story. I sorely regret the cuts I had to make. But please remember: only Wagner could get away with five-hour operas.

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