The Great Gatsby takes an unsentimental glimpse into the conspicuous, arrogant life of the 1%, which makes it an unlikely subject for an opera. After all, that is the percentile that would be funding it and sitting their well-padded asses in the grand tier, what with the million dollar budget required to produce an opera with an orchestra of 90 musicians and the voices. So, you know, a unique and timely choice.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Papal-music-composing John Harbison did, however, set the story to song for the 25th anniversary of musical director James Levine at the Met, back in the late '90s, well before the deepest recession since 1929 brought to the fore the awareness of the gaping class divide. His interest at the time was in the musicality of the movement and setting: the Great Gatsby features car and train travels, live jazz bands and the advent of the radio. But the current times do make the story ever so contemporary, and Ensemble Parallele took the only possible approach to make it accessible to the 99%: re-orchestrate the piece so it can be performed by a chamber orchestra of twenty musicians and set in a smaller theater. Which will happen for three performances tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Ensemble Parallele, led by music director Nicole Paiement, is a group dedicated to staging modern opera in more intimate settings, but with great vocal talent. They already have reduced the orchestration of Alban Berg's 20th century classic Wozzek, to great success. Jacques Desjardins is taking on the re-orchestration for Gatsby. We called John Harbison to his home in Massachusetts -he's on the music faculty at MIT- to ask him what he thought of Desjardins' modified score and why he'd agreed to see his opera updated to fit smaller theaters.