Want a break from prestige TV for an evening? Good news: An important 20th-century American opera is newly available to stream, after a rare live staging this summer. And it’s about 50 minutes long, just like an episode of “The Crown.”
The bad news: It’s only available until Sept. 30. (Tight streaming windows are an all-too-regular issue in a classical field still adapting to digital formats.)
The work is “Highway 1, U.S.A,” which combines swift narrative drive and some folksy, mellifluous tunes with a look at the tension between community belonging and individual advancement. The plucky company is Opera Theater of St. Louis, which has made its summer festival slate available for rental on its website, through the end of this month.
With an excellent cast, Leonard Slatkin as conductor and a crisp production by Ron Himes, founder of The Black Rep company in St. Louis, this one-act is the work of William Grant Still (1895-1978), known in his lifetime as the “dean” of Black American composers.
Still was a pathbreaking artist, with his “Afro-American Symphony” widely played after its 1931 premiere, but he struggled to get his operas produced. Terence Blanchard — who will become the first Black composer to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera in its 138-year history when his “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” opens the company’s season on Monday — referred to the neglect of Still in a recent interview about his milestone.
“I was just in St. Louis and heard the William Grant Still piece,” Blanchard said. “And I’m like, OK, he was around. I’m honored, but I’m not the first qualified person to be here, that’s for sure.”
Opera Theater of St. Louis gave Blanchard an early boost, staging both “Fire” and his first opera, “Champion” (2013). The company is giving its larger competitors on the American opera scene another chance to play catch-up when it comes to Still’s “Highway,” which has rarely been performed since its 1963 premiere.
The work revolves around a married couple, Bob and Mary, who run a rural filling station. The couple has supported Bob’s younger brother Nate through his undergraduate studies, as the brothers’ mother had requested on her deathbed. But now, as Nate prepares to graduate, Mary (the soprano Nicole Cabell) is dismayed to discover that he hopes to secure their patronage for a while longer.
In this performance, Mary pivots thrillingly between the loving entreaties she makes to her husband and the hint of rising conflict with Nate. As she fulminates, Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra respond with punchy yet well-judged changes in dynamics — perhaps with an eye to the film and TV scores that Still produced after having his early operas rebuffed by the Met.
The Bob in this production is Will Liverman, who plays the leading role in “Fire” at the Met and will also play Malcolm X when Anthony Davis’s “X” arrives there in 2023. Bob gets some of the most beautiful solo music in “Highway,” which Liverman handles with affecting, even soothing grace. But he also makes the most of the moments that curdle. In the second scene, when Bob briefly comes around to Mary’s more jaundiced view of his brother, Liverman seethes along with the churning, mechanical sound that Slatkin elicits from the orchestra.
When Nate (the tenor Christian Mark Gibbs) enters, irony does, too. This college-educated young man reads Schopenhauer. But, more to the point being made by the opera, he brags about his reading of Schopenhauer. It’s the ego — not the erudition — that comes in for scorn in the libretto, by Verna Arvey (who was also Still’s wife).
Just as erudite, yet generously so, is the way Still transforms an opening, ascending orchestral motif throughout the piece. Sometimes that line comes back to underline an expression of ardor; in other moments, it can be decked out with harmonic portents of danger.
Though stylish, the music is unabashedly approachable. If played more widely, Still’s aesthetic might attract modern-opera skeptics who have rejected works from the modernist or Minimalist camps that dominate the 20th-century repertoire currently performed in America.
Classical music in this lineage — connected both to European examples and to American folk forms like blues, gospel and jazz — amounts to an answer that’s always been hiding in plain sight for American institutions that are (now, at least) publicly questioning their priorities and histories in the wake of protests for racial equality.
In 2019, as the Met was preparing a new production of “Porgy and Bess,” I offered a list of eight operas by Black composers, long neglected by major companies, that might enter the repertoire. “Highway” was one of them. (So was Davis’s “X.”) And there are other Still operas that await premieres or belated revivals.
Given his work in popular music — arranging for W.C. Handy, and also putting his spin on tunes like “The Slow Drag Blues” — it’s clear that his contributions will remain important to the understanding of the Black American opera tradition currently being extended by the likes of Blanchard and Davis, whose jazz careers, while very different, season both men’s operas.
Blanchard’s “Fire” will be recorded for posterity as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. That’s appropriate for a company with its budget. And the fact that the much smaller St. Louis can’t afford to keep its commendable Still production available in perpetuity is understandable, given the cost of agreements with publishers and unions.
Yet St. Louis’s work will nevertheless help keep a hanging question in the air — even after “Highway” sunsets, digitally. Which among the more robustly funded companies will take this baton, and run with it? While administrators and donors ponder that question, audiences are advised to stream Still’s “Highway” while they can.