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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Sellars: The World Is Round; Beulah in Chicago

06/25/2017 1:00 pm
06/25/2017 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

I like to think of the last Sunday in June as Stonewall Sunday, referring to the Stonewall Inn gay bar and the gay riot that took place in Greenwich Village on the last weekend in June, 1969. The Stonewall rebellion in New York City gave birth to the gay liberation movement nationwide and to so much of the history of the struggle for gay, lesbian, bi-, and trans- rights that would follow. On Stonewall Sunday I endeavor to broadcast lyric theater music by gay or lesbian composers. James Sellars (1940-2017) was for decades Hartford's resident classical music composer. He was professor of composition at the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Music. And he was an openly gay man.

This Sunday I honor James Sellars's life and work by airing his opera The World Is Round (1993), based on the book by that title by the eccentric lesbian writer Gertrude Stein. Juanita Rockwell adapted the book into a libretto. Sellars's opera was recorded live in performance, April 30, 1993 at the Wadsworth Atheneum museum of art in downtown Hartford. Michael Barrett directed the Company One Orchestra, with five vocal soloists. The World Is Round was released on two compact discs in limited edition in 1998 through the private Hog River Music record label. This opera production at the Wadsworth seems to echo the now famous staged production there in 1934 of Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, for which Gertrude Stein herself wrote the libretto.

Beulah in Chicago (1981) is a setting of four poems by the American poet Frank O'Hara. Sellars dedicated this piece to Virgil Thomson on the occasion of his 85th birthday. The Beulah character of the title is a flapper straight out of the Chicago of the "Roaring Twenties." Sellars gives her a sequence of quasi-pop tunes to dance to. The lyrics for these tunes are declaimed by narrator John McDonough. Sellars conducts the Hartt Contemporary Players. The whimsical verse with "night club" combo-style accompaniment might remind you of William Walton's Façade. Beulah in Chicago was included in a 1998 Hog River Music CD compilation of Sellars' chamber works. I have previously broadcast Beulah on Sunday, July 4, 1999.

James Sellars died on February 26th at the age of seventy six. Two days later on the 28th my colleague Doug Fox passed away at age seventy seven. Since 1983, Doug Fox had been host/producer of "Evening at the Opera" on our sister station WMNR, 91.9 FM, "Fine Arts Radio" in Monroe, Connecticut. I have been a longtime listener to Doug's Tuesday evening broadcasts. I always learned something new about our beloved genre by listening to him. A team of opera deejays (Doug's disciples, as it were) will continue to broadcast opera in Doug's long-standing timeslot. They're knowledgeable guys in their field, and I continue to learn from them also. But in my estimation they can never truly replace their mentor, and I miss hearing Doug Fox's voice on the airwaves.

My friend Rob Meehan used to socialize with James Sellars and obtained directly from the composer CD copies of The World Is Round and Beulah in Chicago. Rob preserved the Sellars recordings in his own extensive specialty collection of recorded music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Rob loaned to me for broadcast the CDs of both of those Sellars compositions, as well as the Pentatone compact disc release of Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain. Over a period of decades Rob Meehan has kept on providing me with recordings of interesting "alternative" vocal music of our time. I always try to give him credit and thanks in our WWUH Program Guide for his assistance.