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Hopper Paintings Get Musical Portrayal in 'Hoppera'

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Hopper Paintings Get Musical Portrayal in 'Hoppera'

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Hopper Paintings Get Musical Portrayal in 'Hoppera'

Hopper Paintings Get Musical Portrayal in 'Hoppera'

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Painter Edward Hopper's images of urban America have become iconic, and have made him one of this country's most popular artists. The University of Maryland has commissioned an opera based on five of Hopper's paintings. "Later the Same Evening," or the "Hoppera," as the work is informally called, premieres Nov. 15.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Painter Edward Hopper's images of urban America have become iconic, and have made Hopper one of this country's most popular artists. The National Gallery of Arts in Washington has assembled more than 100 Hopper paintings, water colors and prints. The exhibition has drawn more than 100,000 visitors since it opened last month. And as part of the Hopper hoopla, the University of Maryland commissioned an opera based on five Hopper paintings. The opera is called "Later the Same Evening," but everyone working on it calls it the Hoppera.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY: Edward Hopper is best known for his painting "Nighthawks," that haunting image of four lonely souls seen through a diner window at night. It's easily the most popular painting here on the exhibition, but it's not among the five paintings included in the Hoppera.

Curator Franklin Kelly says it does share with them a sense of urban isolation and a promise of drama.

Mr. FRANKLIN KELLY (Curator): They do have this mood and this sort of suggestiveness of things going on but no clear perhaps sort of narrative of what goes on in the paintings.

ULABY: So they can tell you to create stories in your mind. And that, says Kelly, makes Hopper ideal for musical adaptation.

(Soundbite of opera rehearsal)

Mr. KELLY: This is the music that's - this is the show they're watching. So that's a tap dancer and they're watching the tap dancer here, and they're going huh.

ULABY: At the rehearsal for the Hoppera at the University of Maryland School of Music, graduate students work with librettist Mark Campbell and composer John Musto. The two collaborated a few years ago on the well-reviewed opera "Volpone," a literary adaptation. For later the same evening, Campbell pinned up dozens of Hopper friends and started creating the stories.

Mr. MARK CAMPBELL (Librettist): It sort of the way anyone does when they go to a gallery and they stare at a painting for a long time, you kind of fall into the painting and you let it reveal itself to you.

ULABY: Campbell decided against using "Nighthawks" because he says there was just too much baggage. Instead, he was drawn to a painting of theater goers taking their seats. Two on the isle became the Hopper's organizing moment. All of the characters meet in the theater, two even fight over the isle seats.

(Soundbite of opera "Later the Same Evening")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Character) (Singing) For the aisle.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As Character) (Singing) I don't care.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) (Singing) If you want.

Unidentified Woman: (As Character) (Singing) I don't care.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) (Singing) All right then. Take the aisle.

Unidentified Woman: (As Character) (Singing) If you want.

Unidentified Man: (As Character) (Singing) All right then. Let's just sit.

Unidentified Woman: (As Character) (Singing) Good. I've heard you sing.

ULABY: One of the characters does not come to the theater. Librettist Mark Campbell was struck by a painting of a young woman sitting alone on the edge of a hotel room bed, musing over an open letter.

Mr. CAMPBELL: I decided she was a dancer because she's very long-legged, she's just looks like a very beautiful young woman and yet she looks very sad. I started to think what is in that letter? Is it a letter from home that's saying bad news, a letter from a lover? And then I said, oh God, no I don't want her to be rejected. I want her to reject someone. So…

(Soundbite of opera "Later the Same Evening")

Unidentified Woman: (As Character) (Singing) As for me, I will never forget you.

ULABY: On this Arian, the young woman reads over her break up letter to her boyfriend and to New York.

Mr. JOHN MUSTO (Composer): She loves this city and it's just too much for her.

ULABY: Composer John Musto says her ambitions to dance fizzled, and she'd decided to go home.

(Soundbite of opera "Later the Same Evening")

Unidentified Woman: (As Character) (Singing) Hello Indianapolis. Of course but it's great to be home. All right, you were, when you say I never make it. All right you were when you think a car will kill me.

ULABY: The composer says he took more inspiration from the libretto than from the paintings themselves. You see he's color blind, so he says it's hard to appreciate some of Hopper's nuances. Still, Musto says he could hear that enigmatic cityscapes and feel their stillness, and that's what you tried to capture in the Hoppera.

Mr. MUSTO: It's a lullaby to New York. The music is that late night New York lamp shining in the dark street - that kind of an atmosphere.

(Soundbite of opera "Later the Same Evening")

Unidentified Woman: (As Woman) (Singing) It's sleep. This time you'll feel disowned(ph). But when you're near, it is hard…

ULABY: Edward Hoppers' urban images are so iconic it's hard to meet them at their level. So, Musto and Campbell deliberately tried not to be too literal with the paintings. They incorporated elements as disparate as musical comedy and the fiction of John Doe's pasos(ph). Their hope in fact is that the Hoppera will not need a Hopper exhibition in order to work.

Curator Franklin Kelly says great painters and great works of art can stand up to radical re-imagination.

Mr. KELLY: "Nighthawks" would be the best example of that. People have done anything they can think of. They've caricatured it, they've stuck "The Simpsons" in there, you know, they've stuck James Dean. And that's all great. And you know what? The painting is still just great no one will ever manage to trivialize it.

ULABY: In fact, Kelly says, perhaps it's time someone to adapt "Nighthawks" into an opera of its own.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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