Mark Adamo speaks and gestures. Photo by Larry Ligget

A Conversation with Mark Adamo

Mark Adamo is one of today’s premier composers for the lyric stage. His debut opera, Little Women, was commissioned and first performed to critical acclaim by the Houston Grand Opera in 1998. The work received encore performances in places as far ranging as Tokyo, Mexico, and Tel Aviv. Adamo has produced three additional operas since then: Lysistrata (2005), The Gospel of Mary Magadelen (2013) and Becoming Santa Claus (2015).

Mark Adamo grasps DePauw student Shannon Barry's hands as they stand before a grand piano

Mark Adamo works with DePauw soprano Shannon Barry, who plays the outspoken Jo in Little Women

Little Women recently received an additional performance at the DePauw University School of Music. The opera adapts Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel of the same name, which tells the story four sisters growing up in Civil War-era New England. Though the story has made its way to film multiple times, Adamo sought a new angle for his own interpretation: He wanted to highlight Jo overcoming her resistance to change. Thus, the entire opera is framed as a series of flashbacks, as the adult Jo “comes to learn that growing up means growing apart.”

21CM’s Mark McCoy interviewed the composer during a residency at DePauw.

Interview Highlights

On the importance of curiosity in adapting an oft-adapted work …

In this case, boredom is your friend. … If you are drawn to the material, which I was, but thought that the direction in which previous adaptations had been either incorrect or obsolete, then you do get curious. Why do we keep going back to this book over and over again?

I found it striking that the piece had been filmed at least three times and adapted for television a number of times, which made me think, we haven’t gotten it right yet!

On the reason for framing the opera from Jo’s perspective …

[Alcott’s] real interest was in the beginning [of Little Women], when the four girls are this unit. … Jo is at a point in her adolescence, which I think all of us can be, which is: You’re smart enough to know you’re happy; you’re not wise enough to know that the happiness can’t last. And when I
located that, I thought, that’s still a modern dilemma. … If you look at it, there’s a template from Little Women, through Mary McCarthy’s The Group, through Sex and the City, through Girls — this notion of these sisters in all but name, who somehow negotiate this bridge between child emotion and adult emotion.

On the “terror” of writing a multidisciplinary work …

[Little Women] has got to work from so many different viewpoints: an orchestral viewpoint, a dramatic viewpoint, vocally, verbally. There were so many ways of getting it wrong. … I thought, what is the one thing to which [all] of these processes pertain? And I thought it was acting, the acted gesture. I thought, what I need to do is dream the “acting score,” direct the piece, and then write the music and the words to fit the direction. And then I will know that there will be a reason for everything there.

On collaboration and releasing creative control to others …

I love that moment. When I’m writing, I’m really dreaming performances. From a technical point of view, that means that I try not to write a line or language or a line of music that I cannot myself sing or count. If I can hear the phrase, that means that when you get it into rehearsal, you get more and more excited. Here’s this performance, and now here are actual human bodies that will embody it for the first time!

Music Credits: “Have peace, Jo” from Little Women by Mark Adamo. Performance by Fayetteville Opera and Sarah Tucker. “Things change, Jo” from Little Women by Mark Adamo. Performance by Houston Grand Opera and Joyce DiDonato.


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