Reading a book is a solitary, intimate experience in which the reader sets the pace and imagines the characters as he or she sees them. Listening to a book is another way to appreciate a work, sometimes influenced by the narrator’s voice. Gatz, as created by Elevator Repair Service, uses an unprecedented approach, staging the book as it is read in its entirely. The performance begins when an anonymous office worker sits at a desk in a grungy office and, while waiting for his computer to boot, idly picks up The Great Gatsby and starts reading it aloud. The worker slowly takes on the character of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age novel, who reads every word of the book including the “he/she saids” for a marathon six hours. Bit by bit, the other office workers assume the rest of the characters although the bulk of the effort falls to the staggeringly good Scott Shepherd.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
My collleagues have already written extensively about Emmanuel Music's performance of John Harbison's opera, The Great Gatsby, both at Jordan Hall and at Tanglewood. I won't attempt a full review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about the opera and the performance, both of which I heartily admired. As performed this year at Emmanuel Church and Tanglewood, Gatsby embodied some of the best and most characteristic traditions of American opera—the setting of classic literary texts (a speciality of Mr. Harbison's) and the mixture of popular musical and theatrical elements with an infrastructure of the most cultivated and rigorous compositional technique.
“So we beat on, boats against the currents, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick Carraway’s concluding insight in The Great Gatsby is one of the great closing sentences in literature, and one of the great images of our human helplessness to escape the past. It’s also the line that ends John Harbison’s Gatsby opera, which—13 years after its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera—just had its first complete Boston performance, in a concert version produced by Emmanuel Music (the musical organization Harbison co-founded in 1970 with Craig Smith at Boston’s Emmanuel Church, mainly to play all of Bach’s cantatas as part of every Sunday’s liturgy). Harbison is now Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel, which has long been associated with his music, including the very first public performance, in 1997, of the first two scenes from The Great Gatsby.