By Mona Day
Special to the Culver City Observer 

Double Feature Of One-Act Gems


February 29, 2024

LA Opera will present two one-act rarities - William Grant Still's Highway 1, USA and Alexander Zemlinsky's The Dwarf conducted by Music Director maestro James Conlon.

Unifying the operas is the theme of unrequited love told through powerful, emotional music. The story of Highway 1 USA follows a hardworking Black couple Bob and Mary, who have scrimped and saved to put Bob's younger brother through college. After the ne'er-do-well Nate attacks Mary for refusing his advances, the couple come together to focus on building a better life for themselves.

Based on Oscar Wilde's The Birthday of the Infanta, The Dwarf involves a birthday celebration for a young Spanish princess, who along with other gifts is presented with a Dwarf, who falls in love with her. She toys with his affections before callously rejecting him; devastated, he dies of a broken heart. A gothic tale of an impossible one-sided romance in a decadent Spanish court, the story is animated by a lush and romantic score. The production was last staged at LA Opera to critical acclaim in 2008.

A second theme unifying the double bill is that they are both works by major composers lauded in their time but who fell into obscurity as a result of oppression. Hailed as 'the dean of African-American composers', trailblazing composer William Grant Still wrote more than 150 works ranging from operas, ballets, symphonies and chamber pieces and was the first Black conductor to conduct a major American symphony orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a 1936 concert of his own compositions at the Hollywood Bowl. However, he fell into obscurity despite his early successes as well as the quality of his compositions, especially his operas. As such, Highway 1, USA composed in the 1940s didn't have a major professional production until one by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2021.

Similarly, The Dwarf was composed by Zemlinsky during his conducting tenure at the Deutsches Landestheater, but he was forced to resign when the Nazis seized power, and after Hitler's invasion forced to flee with his family to New York where he died in 1942, a broken man. He then fell into obscurity till his rediscovery in the 1970s.

There will be six performances of the double bill at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion February 24 through March 17. Highway 1, USA is sung in English, The Dwarf in German, and both will feature projected subtitles in English. The running time is approximately two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission. Both operas are part of LA Opera's groundbreaking Recovered Voices initiative launched by LA Opera in 2007.

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