Memoirs of Uliana Rooney (Fine, Vivian)
American Opera Projects, Inc.
James Bustard, baritone, Mary Catherine George, soprano, Melanie Helton, soprano,
David Stoneman, baritone/narrator, Elaine Valby, mezzo soprano.
Vivian Fine Estate
|Work Title||Memoirs of Uliana Rooney|
|Alternative Title||Memoirs of Uliana Rooney: a chamber opera with video projections|
|Year/Date of Composition||1993|
|First Performance||1994-09-09, Richmond, Virginia; University of Richmond, Camp Theater.
|Average Duration||one hour|
|Instrumentation||Uliana Rooney - soprano|
Uliana’s husbands, Narrator, Salesman, Kerker, and Gustave Mahler - 2 baritone voices
Chorus and Alma Mahler - 2 female voices
Insrumental combo: flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet in B♭ (doubling bass clarinet), percussion (one player, see below for instruments), piano, violin, cello, double bass
percussion: suspended cymbal, vibraphone, timpani, chimes, wood blocks, xylophone, sand blocks, flex-a-tone, ratchet, roto-toms, glockenspiel, triangle, tambourine, gong
Memoirs of Uliana Rooney, a brilliant new chamber opera, was given a polished performance by the Relâche Ensemble and American Opera Projects. The performers’ contagious enjoyment of the deft libretto and the winning, eclectic music ensured a memorable treat for the audience. The opera traces the life of a female composer through the repressions, liberations and calamities of the 20th century. It can be seen as a love song to social justice, but even the most serious subjects are never handled heavily. Ms. Friedman’s easy way with rhymes and blithe disregard for the ravages of time have produced a potent and happy blend of the personal and the social. An important contributor was the documentary video which played along with the staged action.“As the free time-scale of the opera advanced, the music moved easily from period to period, from style to style. Ms. Fine achieved a gratifying blend of simplicity and complexity, harmony and discord, lyricism and energy. Always purposeful and inventive, the music served the narrative mood without ever being overwhelmed by the counterpoint from stage and screen. …This production…provided such a rich hour of enjoyment that it’s hard to imagine a better one, though it’s impossible not to wish for more.”
- —Donald Fletcher, The Music Connoisseur, Spring-Summer 1997
Both satirical and touching, Rooney unfolds in a series of fragmented scenes, highlighted by film sequences assembled by the librettist. Friedman and Fine deliver their feminist message with a naïve charm that disarms criticism. Fine’s jaunty score underlines the action and in brief interludes supplies some drama of its own.”
- —Robert Baxter, Opera News, June 1997
Uliana Rooney, the beleaguered but resilient woman-composer heroine of Vivian Fine’s hour-long comic chamber opera, hurtles through the 20th century, being labeled a subversive by the FBI, marrying four times, and receiving the Pulitzer Prize….
Though much of the story line is sheer fantasy (e.g., the ageless Uliana decides to have a first child in her 80s), it also is full of truths. What an irony to hear the fictional Uliana on stage singing, ‘A big mistake, they say, to have women play in orchestras…. In orchestras, women must play only the harp,’ one day after the real Vienna Philharmonic announced it would finally hire its first female player: a harpist, no less. Despite its biting qualities, the spirit of the opera…ended up being compassionate and hopeful rather than bitter and despairing.
The music of Uliana Rooney is an effective hodgepodge of arialike phrases, melodic ensemble segments, recitative and speech, with a witty takeoff on Bach and even hints of atonality….Crucial to the opera’s success were the large overhead video projections, which formed a counterpoint to the live action and combined original art with historical footage of everyone from Mussolini to Martin Luther King, Jr.
- —Diana Burgwyn, The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 3, 1997
Memoirs of Uliana Rooney portrays the life of Uliana Rooney, a fictional American composer, from the 1920s to the mid-1990s. Archival and original film footage compiled by Emmy-Award winning videographer Sonya Friedman play a crucial part in the stage production and give the audience a vivid experience of the decades through which Uliana lives. Uliana's many husbands act as humorous personifications of their respective eras. Uliana was Vivian Fine’s last major work and her musical memoir–autobiographical in spirit if not in factual detail. The witty score includes musical quotes from herself as well as Bach, Copland, Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, and Alma Mahler. The opera requires only modest performance resources and is well suited to small music theater groups.
In Scene 1 Uliana and the Narrator tell how Uliana’s Russian-Jewish parents emigrated to Kansas: “The Messiah was Papa’s socialist farming Commune.”
Uliana grows up in Kansas in Scene 2 amid tornadoes and piano lessons. She is a child prodigy who soon turns to musical composition. In the 1920s she moves to Chicago to further her studies.
In Scene 3 Uliana contends with societal strictures against women musicians. She sings a satirical duet with Gustave Kerker, in fact a musical director of the period, who felt that “women must play only the harp” in orchestras.
Scenes 4 and 5 find Uliana in the midst of the avant-garde movement and married to Boris, a surrealist poet-painter. But Boris cannot cope with Uliana’s budding success, and they decide to get “a very very friendly divorce.”
Scene 6 is a video sequence first of the Great Depression, and then of Midwest dust bowls, as Uliana narrates, “A bowl of black dust was the only panorama, when Kansas blew to Louisiana.”
Scenes 7 and 8 take place during the Depression years. Uliana marries second husband Tommy, a union organizer. She changes her compositional style, writes marches and songs for the workers, and gets help from the New Deal. “My first commission, and from the USA. Equal money for women artists, never thought I’d live to see the day.” But then Tommy lands a better job and wants Uliana to give up her career and “be all you can be a housewife to me.” She sadly leaves him, commenting, “So there are still two worlds, One for lullabies and for recipes, the other for affairs of state. One to charm and nurture, the other to devise and create”
Scene 9 continues this theme with a conversation between Gustave and Alma Mahler, as Uliana watches from the wings. “This is incomprehensible!” Mahler tells Alma. “Who can picture married life between two composers!…Ridiculous! Degrading! …Give up your music to posses mine instead.” (The music for this section is freely adapted from a song by Alma Mahler. The text is derived from letters of Alma and Gustave on the eve of their marriage.)
Scene 10 begins with a video sequence of modern dance from the late 1930s, performed to Uliana’s music. Suddenly the music is drowned out by sirens and cannon fire, and a film sequence on World War II replaces the dance footage, as Uliana and her GI husband Ben watch horrified (Scene 11).
Scene 12 begins uptempo with the war effort: “Women in the factories, riveting fast,” and ends with the explosion of the atomic bomb.
Scene 13 finds Uliana a war widow and in political trouble. It’s the 1950s, the McCarthy era, and she is blacklisted for those workers’ songs from the 1930s. Joe, husband number 4, turns out to be an FBI informer.
Happier times return in Scene 14 as Uliana is courted by a hippy and swept up into the Peace Corps and the Civil Rights movement. In Scene 15, she has won the Pulitzer Prize and is reunited with Tommy, now working to save the environment. Tommy has seen the light, and tells Uliana, “So you did become all you could be, by living for everyone, not only for me.” Uliana declares, “Tommy, my heart never changed.” The lovers decide to remarry and to have a child, although Uliana is now in her eighties. They are joined by the rest of the cast, who end the opera singing Primo Levi’s words, “Time can make us famous, time can make us fools, and so the best aim is to live by compassion’s rules.”