Author: Henry Michaels

A Haunting Double Bill

An open door. A broken window. Ghostly visages from the past. All this and more will feature on stage when the CU Boulder College of Music’s Eklund Opera Program presents “American Stories by American Women,” an exciting operatic double bill featuring two uniquely American stories. 

Amy Beach’s 1932 chamber opera “Cabildo” is a story within a story. The frame sees a group of sightseers touring New Orleans’ Cabildo, a government building that once held the imprisoned pirate Pierre Lafitte. After one of the tourists falls asleep in Lafitte’s cell—a completely normal place for a nap—the action moves to her dreams of the imprisoned pirate. It’s here that most of the roughly 45-minute-long opera’s action takes place, including a prison escape, a visit from a lover’s ghost and a War of 1812 connection.

Written in 2018, Missy Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” is the tale of a family of Nebraska homesteaders seeking to achieve ownership of their land by satisfying the requirements—proving up—of the Homestead Act: “House of sod, acres of grain, five years of harvest, a window of glass.” It’s a dark tale of a family haunted—figuratively and literally—by the ghosts of daughters lost to the harshness of prairie life: A father willing to do whatever it takes to prove up, a mother terrified of losing more children and a son confronted by a menacing stranger.

On one level, the American stories presented in Beach’s and Mazzoli’s operas could not be more different. The moment when the specter of Lafitte’s lover idealistically exhorts him to “Pay thy debt to America,” for example, seems worlds away from the grim portrait of American homesteading life in “Proving Up.”

Perhaps what they share, then, is a kind of idealism undercut by the reality that the American dream is complicated. Pierre Lafitte ultimately clears his name by fighting alongside Andrew Jackson, a moment of patriotism spurred on by the ghost of his lost love. Yet the pirate hero also participated in the slave trade, a fact mentioned by the chorus of tourists in Beach’s opera—“The Lafittes sold slaves … Sold their slaves like cattle in the city”—a heavy statement that is flippantly answered by the tour guide’s “Right-O!”

For the family in Mazzoli’s opera, the Homestead Act and the idea of Manifest Destiny that it represented were built upon layers of exploitation: The settlers used as pawns in an attempt to expand American territory, but also the existing people whose land was stolen and “proved up.” The father in Proving Up is desperate to achieve the American Dream for himself and his family, but at what cost? In the end, their story serves as a reminder that this dream is sometimes as fragile as a window of glass.

The CU Boulder College of Music’s Eklund Opera Program presents “American Stories by American Women” in the Music Theatre (Imig Music Building) from April 25 through 28, 2024.