The Operas of Alice Parker, Recipient of the 2021 National Opera Association Sacred in Opera Achievement Award
“Wait—what?” you may be thinking, “Alice Parker has written operas?” Indeed, she has four of them, along with eleven song cycles, thirty-three cantatas, and at least eleven works for chorus and orchestra, some of which are also suitable for forms of staging and dramatic presentation. The Sacred in Opera Initiative, recognizing Alice Parker’s lifelong engagement with spiritual exploration and expression through music, unanimously chose her for the 2021 SIO Award and is especially happy to be able to shine the spotlight on her operas.
Although not as widely recognized as the famous Parker-Shaw arrangements, Alice Parker’s four operas have all been published and performed. Three of the four have also been recorded in full or in part. They are attractive and useful works worthy of consideration for the academic opera workshop or for church drama ministries. Each of them features an extensive and rewarding role for the opera chorus. They all employ modest, manageable orchestras of ten or eleven instruments (though sometimes these may include less standard instruments, such as banjo or alto recorder). Their vocal demands for solo characters, whether in range, weight, or tessitura, also tend to be well suited to developing voices.
Parker’s compositional style favors melody. In discussing her early collaboration with Robert Shaw on some of their now-classic arrangements of Christmas carols, she described how Shaw’s reluctance to allow her to change the traditional harmonies undergirding the familiar tunes to something more “interesting” forced her to rely upon linear and contrapuntal interest instead. There is a profound lyricism in all of Parker’s operas (aided by frequent employment of actual folk and hymn tunes) that imparts a quality quite different from many other operas written at the same time as hers, in the 1970s and 1980s. (It is certainly no accident that all of them are historical pieces that look backward, often quite nostalgically, in time.)
The strong melodic nature of her writing might also explain another general feature of her operas: a relative absence of recitative. When other composers might employ speech-like vocal writing for exposition, action, or extensive dialogue, Parker frequently chooses instead to employ actual speech. There are many short passages of spoken bridge dialogue between musical numbers in her operas, three of which have libretti written by the composer herself.
The earliest of Parker’s operas is The Martyrs Mirror, a two-act work completed in 1971 and premiered in October of that year at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. John L. Ruth, an ordained Mennonite minister and professor at Eastern College, fashioned the libretto for The Martyrs Mirror from material in the book of the same name, published by Thieleman van Braght in Holland in 1660. This book was held in great esteem, second only to the Bible in many Mennonite households, and related stories of those who were martyred for their faith in the early years of the Protestant Reformation. The book contains not only narrative but also primary sources, such as letters, hymns, and other poetry by the martyrs themselves. Parker’s librettist drew upon all this material in creating his libretto.
The opera takes place in the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century and centers upon Georg Blaurock (baritone), the leader of a small congregation of dissident Anabaptists who meet secretly in Georg’s home, despite the Emperor’s proscription of all Protestants as heretics. One of their meetings is infiltrated by the town Bailiff (speaking role), who denounces Georg and has him dragged off to prison, along with his wife, Catherina (contralto), and another couple, Jan Wouters (tenor) and his wife, Mayeken (soprano). Despite interrogation and torture, the prisoners encourage each other in song. The four are sentenced to die by fire at the next Market Day, provoking a crisis of conscience in Mayeken, who bitterly reproves her husband for being too willing to embrace martyrdom and leave their baby with no parents.
The second act depicts the execution of the martyrs in the market square. Each offers an individual testimony, and Jan’s is so stirring that the crowd, which only moments before had been jeering at the condemned, riots and demands that they be freed. As the Bailiff and his soldiers put down the riot, Mayeken, newly inspired, offers her final testimony. She, too, is now ready to die for her faith. As the Executioner lights the pyres, the action freezes and the chorus sings of the “destructive, cleansing and regenerative power of fire” (to the stirring but somewhat anachronistic 1832 American folk hymn “When through fiery trials”), as a New Leader (perhaps from a later era) steps forward to pronounce a blessing on all martyrs—past, present, and future. All (including, Parker hopes, the audience) join in a final hymn.
Parker’s score for The Martyrs Mirror is arranged in 26 episodic numbers, which sometimes are connected by spoken dialogue. Just as librettist Ruth used letters and poems of the period, Parker uses eight historic tunes in her score, weaving them into the musical fabric of ten of the 26 numbers. In addition to the 1832 American tune Foundation already mentioned, these tunes include Luther’s Ein’ Feste Burg, Aus Tiefer Not and Tallis’s Third Mode Melody. The Mode 3 plainsong Pange lingua represents the Roman Catholic Church from which the martyrs dissent.
An unusual feature of the work is its orchestration. The ensemble is a small one of 11 players, but strings, usually the foundation of an opera orchestra, are completely absent. Instead, the instruments consist of a brass quartet of trumpet, 2 trombones, and bass trombone that conjures images of the Stadtpfeifer of Renaissance German cities and a woodwind quartet of bassoon, oboe, and two recorders (which, of course, also musically evoke the period). Percussion (2 players) and harmonium complete the ensemble.
Parker’s second opera is The Family Reunion, subtitled “A Back-Yard Opera in One Act,” which was completed in 1975 and published by Carl Fischer in 1976. As she did for all her subsequent operas, Parker wrote her own libretto for this nostalgic work set at a family reunion picnic at any time the producer wishes between 1850 and 1950. In a prefatory note, Parker admits, “There is no plot: the family gathers, eats, plays, sings and departs. The gentle drama is concerned with the things that unite us rather than divide us, personified by archetypical characters and family groups.” Along with choruses of both adults and children, the soloists who represent those archetypical characters are the Great-Aunts Ella (soprano) and Eliza (alto); the Young Couple (tenor and soprano) from the city; hen-pecked Uncle Billy (bass) and his wife (mezzo) and three daughters (SSA); slick-talking Uncle Charlie (tenor) and his picture-perfect family; and Grandfather (baritone), the reigning patriarch. The accompanying ensemble is entirely made up of portable instruments (violin, banjo, guitar, flute, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and percussion) so that the instrumentalists also can take part in the action as family members.
The episodic scenes in which introductions are made, reminiscences are shared, games are played, and food is consumed feature short solos, some spoken dialogue, and gorgeous choral numbers, both lively and reflective. (Surely only at Von Trapp family reunions is the group singing so lush and accomplished!) The musical substance is at once immediately familiar and yet oddly distant—something like recognizing a sibling’s features in the fading sepia tones of the photograph of your great-grandfather. In her prefatory note, Parker explains: “Our musical heritage of the mid-nineteenth century sustains and directs the action: folksongs, marches, dances, children’s games, hymns and spirituals provide a rich variety of moods and rhythms.” In short, the music has been both modeled upon and made out of tunes that used to be the common language of at least a significant segment of American society but which now, like many of the customs and traditions in stories swapped at family reunions, are more fondly remembered than actually practiced by the present generation. Thus, we can smile with wry recognition as the nieces and nephews whine that they are dying of boredom and starvation while waiting for the adults to proclaim it is time to eat—but despite the irresistible charm of the “Games” chorus in which the children distract themselves with Crack-the-Whip, Snatch-the-Bacon, or Drop-the-Handkerchief, it is utterly impossible to imagine that our own nieces and nephews ever could be so thoroughly diverted by any games not involving blowing something up on a video screen. Still, Parker’s warmly nostalgic picture of an idealized not-so-long-ago tugs at the heartstrings, and in the final chorus of goodbyes, masterfully weaving together many of the tunes of the previous numbers, the audience may find parting to be as sweet a sorrow as do the family members bidding each other farewell.
For her third opera, Singers Glen (published by Hinshaw Music in 1978), Alice Parker returned to historical material from the Mennonite community, this time from the American side of the Atlantic. The central figure of the two-act work, Parker’s longest at two hours of running time, is Joseph Funk (1778-1862), a Pennsylvania native who settled in the Shenandoah Valley near Harrisonburg, Virginia, worked as a schoolteacher and farmer, and became one of the most significant musical figures in antebellum America. Active in the tradition of shape-note singing schools, Funk compiled and published an influential collection of shape-note hymns, Genuine Church Music, in 1832 and saw it through several revisions, during which its name eventually was changed to Harmonia Sacra. (Harmonia Sacra is still in print today in its 26th edition.) Funk’s community grew so renowned for its singing school that it became known as Singers Glen.
The principal characters include Joseph Funk; his children Hannah, Timothy, Solomon, and Benjamin; Timothy’s sweetheart, Susan; Aunt Martha; and Brother Peter, the Mennonite Bishop. The large chorus has many opportunities to revel in material drawn from Funk’s shape-note hymnal. The musical forces are completed by 10 instrumentalists.
The opera is divided into a prologue and two acts. The Prologue takes place in 1833, shortly after the publication of Funk’s first hymnal, and depicts the funeral of his second wife. As the community gathers to comfort Funk and his children, Brother Peter suggests that Joseph give up his newfangled musical pursuits and stick to the good old ways.
Act I is ten years later, and the audience learns that Joseph has not heeded Brother Peter’s advice. Rather, he has trained his growing children to help him in his pursuits. Solomon (who later became the first US Postmaster of Singers Glen) is learning the printer’s trade, and Timothy is now a bookbinder and song-leader, although he can be distracted from his tasks by the charms of his girl, Susan. Brother Peter visits, still expressing his disapproval of the family’s musical pursuits, but his words go unheeded as the act ends with Joseph leading a lively singing school that demonstrates for modern audiences the principles of sol-fa singing and a stirring selection of the repertoire.
Act II opens with a solo scene for Joseph in which he reflects on his family and life. The final scene shows Joseph’s children taking up the musical work their father started as Timothy leads another singing school but also allows the young people to dance. (Parker’s score cleverly weaves together CHRISTIAN HOPE, the hymn ostensibly being sung, with the secular tune “The Irish Washerwoman.”) This innovation (which assuredly never actually occurred, Parker admits, but it makes for better theatre!) is a bridge too far for Brother Peter, and he bursts in with a fiery denunciation of the proceedings. Joseph steps in to make peace, but although peace and reconciliation prevail in the action, the resolution of the often-fractious alliance between religious devotion and musical inspiration is inconclusive. The audience is left to ponder, as Christians have at least since St. Augustine, the nature of the relationship between the spiritual call of God and the sensual pull of music.
The story offers opportunities for Parker to employ 25 of the sturdy antebellum tunes of the shape-note hymnals, such as RESIGNATION, MT. CARMEL, and DIVINE GOODNESS. As in her previous operas, the chorus plays a sizable role in the proceedings; however, the solo characters certainly are more strongly developed than those in A Family Reunion. Spoken dialogue continues to retain a prominent role in the work’s exposition and action. In Act II, some of the 10 instrumentalists, previously serving as a more traditional pit orchestra, are encouraged to join in the singing school onstage as the young people holding it challenge the old Mennonite traditions by including instrumental music in their hymn singing.
Parker’s final opera is The Ponder Heart, an adaptation of Eudora Welty’s novella of the same name. First appearing in print in 1953 in The New Yorker, the story won the William Dean Howells medal for fiction in 1954 and was adapted into a successful Broadway play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov in 1956. Welty’s novella is a tour-de-force Southern monologue by Miss Edna Earle Ponder, proprietress of the Beulah Hotel in the courthouse town of Clay, Mississippi, about the trials and tribulations of being the smart one in the family and having to look out for her childlike Uncle Daniel through all the misadventures his guilelessly sweet and impulsive nature bring about, especially his infatuation with Bonnie Dee Peacock, the pretty but vapid teenager he marries on a whim. The marriage is troubled—Bonnie Dee both runs away and throws Uncle Daniel out of the house--but something (though surely no one could be so lacking in Christian charity as to entertain the thought that something is the fact that Uncle Daniel, as heir to Grandpa Sam Ponder, is the richest man in the county) keeps bringing Bonnie Dee and Uncle Daniel back together. However, just as Edna Earle drives Uncle Daniel back to the family estate for his latest reconciliation with his bride (inauspiciously in the middle of the worst thunderstorm in living memory), Bonnie Dee turns up dead on the parlor floor and harmless, helpless Uncle Daniel finds himself charged with her murder.
Act II of the opera is Uncle Daniel’s trial, the event of the century for the chorus who comprise the townspeople of Clay. Much to his discomfort, Uncle Daniel, who loves nothing more than being in the spotlight to tell a tale, has been firmly admonished by everyone to just sit quietly. Eventually, having to silently watch the two grand-standing lawyers and a series of colorful witnesses, including Edna Earle herself, hold forth, proves to be too much for him, and over the strenuous objection of his own attorney, he demands his turn to tell his side of the story. As is often the case, the truth turns out to be even stranger than anyone could have imagined, and everyone’s lives are changed by the comic surprises as Uncle Daniel leaves the courtroom a free, if considerably poorer, man.
According to Eudora Welty herself, Alice Parker worked on her operatic adaptation for four years before it was completed in 1982 and premiered in a series of sold-out performances at the New Stage Theater in Welty’s home town of Jackson, Mississippi in September of that year. Again Parker fashioned her own libretto, with Welty’s approval—which, Parker claimed, was not difficult to obtain because virtually every word was actually Welty’s. The principal characters all were played by professional actors who sing rather than by classical opera singers. (Lenny Wolpe, who played Uncle Daniel, eventually went on to featured roles in Broadway musicals, including Wicked and The Drowsy Chaperone.) It was quite a media event (aided, no doubt, by Welty’s relatively recent winning of the Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter), and even a critic from The New York Times was on hand to review the new work, reporting in part:
But what made the music work was some of what Miss Welty called the Ponder heart—a love of simplicity, good humor and plain speaking. In her libretto, Miss Parker almost always used Miss Welty’s words, even if their rhythms were partly disrupted by some awkward recitative-style singing. Most of the music, though, came out of the traditions and regional sounds of Miss Welty’s own work. There were barbershop quartets, blues, scat-singing, waltzing, gospel, all of it, even without city polish, giving just the right tone of farce and poignancy. The black cook’s sassy ‘Me and Miss Bonnie Dee,’ the District Attorney’s tango-interrogation of a witness, Uncle Daniel’s simple bluesy sadness—if all this had been more sophisticated, less basic and more self-conscious, the beating of that innocent Ponder heart might have sounded unbelievable. (Edward Rothstein, “Opera ‘Ponder Heart’ Has World Premiere,” The New York Times September 13, 1982, Section C, page 18)
The Ponder Heart may be a more secular story than Parker’s three earlier operas, but it shares with all of the others a concern with what it means to live a good and productive life as a member of a community—as Edna Earle repeatedly says, it really all comes down to love. All of Parker’s operas, with their extensive and musically stunning roles for opera choruses, especially celebrate music’s ability to create and sustain a community, whether that community is a town, an extended family, or a musical or faith tradition. For this, as well as her brilliant artistic achievement, the National Opera Association’s Sacred in Opera Initiative is pleased and honored to recognize her with its 2021 Sacred in Opera Achievement Award.
Operas by Alice Parker
The Martyrs Mirror (1971). Publisher: Alice Parker Music Company (APMC). Recording: None
The Family Reunion (1975). Publisher: Carl Fischer (rental). Recording: Melodious Accord CD # MA 1001
Singers Glen (1978). Publisher: Hinshaw Music. Recording: Melodious Accord CD # MA 1003
The Ponder Heart (1982). Publisher: Alice Parker Music Company (APMC). Recording (excerpts): Melodious Accord archival only
“Alice Parker.” Biographical Profile at www.melodiousaccord.org/aliceparker.
Bird, David, and Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. “Notes on People: Miss Welty’s Work, Past and Future.” The New York Times. May 12, 1982. Section C, p. 30.
LaBarr, Cameron, and John Wykoff. The Melodic Voice: Conversations with Alice Parker. GIA, 2019.
Merritt, Susan. “Text and Tune: Back to Basics with Alice Parker.” Choral Journal 25:1 (September 1984), pp. 5-9.
Parker, Alice, and Krista Tippett. “Singing Is the Most Companionable of Arts.” Transcript of 2016 “On Being” interview, available at https://onbeing.org/programs/alice-parker-singing-is-the-most-companionable-of-arts/.
Rothstein, Edward. “Opera: ‘Ponder Heart’ has World Premiere.” The New York Times. September 13, 1982. Section C, p. 18.
Smolko, Joanna. “Shape-Note Hymns as Living History: Music and Community in Alice Parker’s Singers Glen.” American Music Review XLIV:2 (Spring 2015).
About our Contributor
Kurt-Alexander Zeller, DMA, serves as Director of Opera and Vocal Studies and as Coordinator of the Division of Music at Clayton State University in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. He is an active performer of early music and concert repertoire but especially enjoys working as a singer and stage director in all forms of music drama. Dr. Zeller holds undergraduate degrees in music and theater from the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University and earned his graduate degrees at the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati. He has completed further studies at the Seattle Academy of Baroque Opera, the Early Music Institute of Indiana University, and the 1995 National Association of Teachers of Singing Internship program.