This 'Huck Finn' Is Not for Children
By RAYMOND ERICSON
The Juilliard Opera Center's last premiere, given in late March, was Harold Farberman's "The Losers." It was about today's youth, specifically a gang like Hell's Angels. The company's next premiere, due this Thursday and Saturday, is about the youth of another and more innocent era, the characters in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." The opera is by Hall Overton, a 51-year-old composer on the Juilliard faculty. He collaborated on the libretto with Judah Stampfer.
Overton was commissioned to write an opera dealing with youth, which would hopefully appeal to young people and relate to the way they feel today. The composer thought the Twain novel would fill the bill. "Huck," he says, "was concerned over issues of conscience, over moral issues. He rejected civilization as he saw it. He ran away from it. His main goal was to run to some place where he could be free. His strongest relationship was with a black man."
Overton says that the libretto will not please everybody, because they had to leave so much out. "We have concentrated on three main areas: the characters and relationship of Huck and Jim; crowd scenes -- it was important that they be represented because Twain uses them as a foil for the closed world of Huck and Jim; and the symbolic forces of the river and the raft and the freedom that seems to be there wherever the river takes you.
"We have tried to preserve Huck intact as much as possible. He is what he is in the novel except that we have advanced his age from 13 to 16. Jim's character is altered somewhat. He represents an older, wiser man who instructs in his own way. Towards the end, we have made a real change, Jim is freed, as in the novel, by his former owner, but instead of going back with Huck and Tom Sawyer, he takes off on his own to continue his original mission to free his immediate family."
Overton waited until he had a workable libretto before he developed the opera's musical style. "The thing I felt had to be preserved was the language. Twain is a master of the vernacular, and I had to start with that. I took the rhythms and inflections of the spoken language and wrote a continuous recitative, with arias, in most cases, being implied. The music is sometimes dissonant, sometimes very tonal, but at all times, I hope, consistent with the aim of the piece -- the American language as Twain so truly recorded it. I have utilized by background in jazz for Jim."
People who have heard about "Huck Finn" have frequently asked if it is a children's opera. Definitely not. It is a serious opera by a serious, well-regarded composer.
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