First published: February 2012
A Premiere Catastrophe
In the Pasha’s Garden … “had its premiere at the Metropolitan last week and established an all-time record for dullness and ineptitude.
“Composer Seymour had said that the orchestra described the characters' true feelings in contrast to the words they sang. Perhaps this scheme was too subtle for the literal-minded. The music was never unpleasant, but for 50 minutes it ambled along like a monotonous introduction to something which never began. Unfortunately for the libretto, the Pasha was played by Lawrence Tibbett whose diction is so clear that the audience understood every word he sang. And fortunately for John Laurence Seymour a Manhattan audience will applaud any new opera.”
(Time Magazine 2/4/1935)
The reviews were universally awful. Other notices of the opera, In the Pasha’s Garden, on the morning of January 25, 1935 called the production “just plain silly” (New York Daily News), and “This work impresses the writer as not one of the best but one of the worst American operas produced hereabouts in years. In the Pasha’s Garden is tedious and inept to a degree. It lasts only fifty-five minutes, but that becomes a very long time.” (The New York Times)
I am writing a book on Mormons at the Met. In my research, I came across the name of John Laurence Seymour in the opera house’s archives. I met Seymour while I was a college student and remembered that there was a Mormon connection. As I read articles written in 1934 and 1935 about him and his opera, some things didn’t add up for me. Here was a new opera premiered by the Met, sung by the most important American singers of the era, a score published by the biggest name on Tin Pan Alley. There were literally hundreds of articles written about Seymour and the opera, across the country, in newspapers of every size. The first-hand reports of the performances said that the audiences cheered for the work. It was a hot ticket. The American public followed news of it closely. The month of the premiere, The New York Times ran nine separate articles about the composer and the opera. Seymour was awarded a large prize for the opera on opening night.
There must be more to the story than the bad reviews. Was the opera really as bad as all that? The history of opera is a parade of critics’ misjudgments. What was Seymour’s side of the story? What did it mean for Mormon music? I started digging.
My first task was to find the opera’s score and see for myself what it was like. The piano-vocal score of the opera was published in 1934 by T.J. Harms, the Tin Pan Alley firm that discovered and produced sheet music by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and many other Broadway greats. The score was dedicated to Lawrence Tibbett, the towering American baritone who had already sung 395 performances at the Met by the time he premiered the role of the Pasha. I discovered a copy of the opera at Columbia University library, and thanks to a friend in academia, Claudia Bushman, I had a beautifully bound copy on my piano shortly thereafter.
I’m not a great pianist by any stretch, but I play well enough that I can give an approximation of a score. I opened Seymour’s opera and played through a few pages, first to see what the thing sounded like, and later to understand how he set the libretto to music. My first impression was that the music had an exotic tinge to it. Some of it reminded me of Debussy and early Strauss. I wrote to a couple of talented friends and asked for their help. Could they sing through some of the opera and give me their opinion of it? I asked help from Bryan Davis who is a baritone with a big voice to sing a bit of the role of the Pasha and Bill Atkinson, a marvelous accompanist with a curious mind to match. They agreed to record an excerpt. David Fletcher, who is also a wonderful friend as well as a musician and composer, helped me scan some pages of the score to facilitate things. As the musicians read through the score, I continued research into the history of the opera itself.
The one-act opera—it was originally titled The Eunuch—had been accepted by the Metropolitan Opera a year before its premiere. At the time, very few had ever heard of the Californian Seymour. An article by Talbot Lake in the Berkeley Daily Gazette of Oct. 30, 1934 lays the groundwork of the local public expectation, “Some men have greatness trust upon them, but most have to work long and hard before achieving it. John Laurence Seymour, of Sacramento, Cal., probably thought Dame Fortune was treating him pretty shabbily, but now everything is top hole, for the Metropolitan Opera Company has accepted his opera, In a Pasha’s Garden, (sic) for production this season. Until now Mr. Seymour has been virtually unknown to the public generally, and even among musicians his fame had failed to penetrate. Yet he has written ten operas, besides various instrumental works, during more than half his 41 years.”
The New York papers had a champion of American opera in the music critic for the Times, Olin Downes. More importantly, the music director of the Met wanted to champion them too. His name was Giulio Gatti-Casazza. The Met had a lamentable history performing new operas by American composers in its early days. “In the quarter of a century of the Metropolitan’s existence, from 1883 to 1908, before Mr. Gatti-Casazza’s arrival, not a single American work had been performed.” (NY Times 6/19/1934) The Times took every opportunity to remind its readers of the potential of American, “native” operas. It created goodwill that was rewarded, by the time Seymour came along, of acceptance and excitement for new works that operagoers could call their own.
By 1934, under Gatti-Casazza’s guidance, the Met’s record of premieres had shifted, somewhat gradually, from all-European fare to an out and out embrace of American music. In June of 1934, The New York Times announced the premiere by Seymour. Newspaper articles around the country wrote about Seymour’s opera and printed photographs of the composer. The announcement in North Adams, Massachusetts printed this quotation by Seymour, “I am delighted and gratified. It is a testimony to the sincerity of the Metropolitan to promote genuine native American music.” (North Adams Transcript, 7/19/1934) Journalists began to use Seymour as proof that the tide of prejudice against American music was shifting.
An unattributed newspaper article in The New York Times to announce Seymour’s premiere, presumably by Downes, beat the drum for American works, “One of Mr. Gatti’s first acts on assuming the managership was to start a contest for a new American work, with a prize of $10,000 to go to the winner. Mr. Seymour is in California. His music has not been performed in New York before, according to available records. The Metropolitan receives many compositions of native origin from composers who have not been commissioned to write them, and The Eunuch was one of these….” (NY Times, 6/19/1934)
Some speculation as to why Seymour’s work was selected hung over the announcement of the premiere from the beginning, primarily unsettling to New York journalists. Time magazine mockingly imagines the scene, “An obscure California schoolteacher sat down at his desk one day last week, flicked on his pince-nez and proudly put his name to a contract which soon was advertised all over the U.S. In Manhattan a slender Irish girl of 20 bubbled to reporters: ‘I'm thrilled to the ears.’ From his murky backstage office at the Metropolitan Opera, big, bearded Giulio Gatti-Casazza had just announced his plans for next season.” (Time 7/2/1934) For the rest of the country, the presumption was simply that Seymour was American and talented.
Time’s piece is a strangely hateful, gossipy article that heaps skepticism on the unknown composer by attacking him personally. “The California schoolteacher was John Laurence Seymour, 41, a soft-spoken, nervous little man who lives with his mother in Sacramento, teaches dramatics at the State Junior College, wears gloves to keep his hands from sunburn, and composes operas. With little hope he submitted his latest effort to the Metropolitan. It was called The Eunuch. Henry Chester Tracy, a Los Angeles author, had written the libretto from a short story by Harrison Griswold Dwight (‘Stamboul Nights’). The Metropolitan picked John Seymour's opera for its next U.S. production and promptly renamed it In the Pasha's Garden. Gossip was that the Metropolitan judges, pessimistic about discovering a great U.S. opera, had stacked the best of the proffered scores and drawn lots. More likely, John Seymour's opera was chosen because it is brief, inexpensive to produce. It requires only one act for a pasha's wife to philander with a tenor, hide him in a chest which, thanks to a tattling eunuch, the husband orders to be buried.” (Time 7/2/1934)
The speculation in the press about Seymour’s opera did not include that fact that the composer and the great American baritone, Lawrence Tibbett, who would sing the title role of the Pasha, and to whom the published score is dedicated—To Lawrence Tibbett in admiration and gratitude—grew up together. They both attended Polytechnic High in California. Tibbett was two years older than Seymour. They didn’t know each other then, but Seymour writes in his autobiographical papers that while Tibbett was performing Pelleas et Melisande in San Francisco, Seymour met with him after the performance and interested him in his opera score, The Eunuch. At the time, Tibbett was one of the leading voices of his generation, and he had taken a starring role in nearly all of the American opera premieres in the Gatti-Casazza era. He was one of its biggest stars. Tibbett was interested in Seymour’s one act opera, and in short order, the Met promptly accepted it, and the score was published by Tin Pan Alley.
The anticipation for Seymour’s opera vacillated between a public that rooted for anything new and American, and a more skeptical, even insular, critical press in New York. Seymour was not exactly the naif that he appeared to be. Although his music had not been produced before, he had written nine operas—seven before Pasha and two after it—he graduated from Berkeley with a degree in languages, and then went abroad to study music composition with Ildebrando Pizzetti and Vincent d’Indy in Italy and France, respectively.
As the date of the premiere approached, Seymour seemed to be in high spirits and conducted interviews that gave no indication of troubles. To the United Press he said that he, “was perfectly charmed with preparations for the premiere of his one act opera at the Metropolitan next Thursday.” After describing the action of the story to the reporter, he said, “It’s tough on the lover, but the motto in writing opera is: ‘Get the tenor.’” (Ogden Standard-Examiner, 1/17/1935)
The world premiere took place on Thursday, January 24, 1935. It boasted Lawrence Tibbett as the Pasha and the debut of a 20-year old soprano, Helen Jepson, a soprano popular in her day because of her performances with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. As an opera star, she would have a rather distinguished career as well, but this was her first appearance at the Met. Another notable debut was the scenic designer, Frederick J. Keisler who would become an influential force in modernism in the U.S. He was a Viennese architect, and articles in the press leading up to the premiere called his concept of projections and abstracted scenic elements “revolutionary”. Ettore Panizza conducted the orchestra. With only one exception, the entire cast of singers was American. This fact was another source of pride commented on in the press. The premiere performance was a benefit matinee, an annual fundraiser for the Southern Woman’s Educational Alliance, an organization that aided rural young women with educational and vocational resources. The 50-minute opera was advertised as a double bill with Puccini’s familiar La Boheme which followed it. According to the Times report, the benefit raised $4,000 for the Society and had an “exceptionally large audience.” All told, Seymour’s opera was performed three times. First, paired with La Boheme on January 24, next with Pagliacci on January 28, and finally partnered with both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on February 13 (with Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson singing roles in both Pasha and Pagliacci). (Metropolitan Opera, archives.metoperafamily.org)
The curtain rose on In the Pasha’s Garden to reveal a series of curved ramps, stairs, a low wall, and a circular platform with a canopy hanging over it. Behind the set—a large chest was its only furnishing—hung a screen 70 feet wide and 40 feet high. Onto the screen was projected three large black and white leaves. The designer described the intended effects to one of the many publications that reported on the premiere, “They overhang the action vastly and seem to brood above it. Those leaves are threatening, sinister, watchful. But…it is not a static decorative setting. The whole movement of the plot is carried on in the movement of the background, the fading out of the microscopic sections of two leaves, the lighter moments of the lovers’ happiness, to their dark retraction during the moments of the Pasha’s vengeance.” (Carlton Smith, Literary Digest, CXIX, 1/1935) Kiesler’s design was calculated to focus on perpetual movement—a spiral always spinning, relationships between objects (and between characters) that are constantly evolving.
The opera is a betrayal story which was represented with an enormous moon that grew in brightness and size as the story unfolded until it was some 20 feet in diameter, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (1/25/1935) The abstract design represented a rise in the garden of a Turkish Pasha. Many in the opera house were confused by it. “An angular, ascending ramp led up to it, and underneath was an object reminiscent of a back-yard tool shed. But it was the sky that kept the audience bewildered. On the left was a stereopticon effect in black and white, like cabbage leaves being devoured by a log of wood. On the right was a similar effect, apparently the microscopic photo of a leaf, or an X-ray of the venous system of a frog. All was very modern.” (The Salt Lake Tribune, 1/25/1935)
The action begins with Helene, the young French wife of the Pasha, inviting the attentions of a young male countryman, Etienne, in the garden at sunset. She flirts, “April’s a gracious month. What do you think? Does not the day itself stand on the brink of some avowal?” He presses her to romance, but she keeps him at a distance, “Well, don’t be vexed but, tell me, after April, what comes next?” Etienne replies, "A bliss is flawed, when once the end of it’s foreseen.” And she counters, “Flawed? Yes; and how could I forget that, truly, when shadows haunt us here, lest, quite unruly, we seize a happiness too great?” She is about to send him away when they hear others approaching. The lovers are nearly discovered by the eunuch, Zumbul Agha. Etienne hides inside a chest in the garden kiosk, but the eunuch hears voices and refuses to leave until the Pasha can arrive and be told of his suspicions. The eunuch threatens Helene, “You can’t deny that…you cannot! You would have your Christian friends, and so by Allah, this is where it ends!” Helene commands him to be silent.
The eunuch, without telling the Pasha what is inside the chest, suggests they open it, “Now if this chest be opened, more, I think, might be confessed than I should care to speak; and it shall show who’s faithful in this house, if you would know.” The Pasha angrily threatens to put him back on the street and into poverty. The eunuch starts to leave as dinner arrives. Seeing that there is no table, the eunuch suggests they place their food upon the locked chest.
Helene asks her husband about the kiosk in which they’re sitting. The Pasha replies that it was built for a beautiful Greek woman, “My grandfather, the Vizier, he’d charm the hours for that fair slave of his…Pomegranate, he called her.” The garden is decorated with the fruit and the Pasha notes how happy she was here. He asks if Helene is happy. She replies, “I cannot say.”
Helene tells him the story of Pandora. “Zeus, in the myth, is angry, and he seeks Revenge, because the Titan stole his fire for men; and so he panders to desire and gives this girl, who’s full of ev’ry charm but brings him sorrow; ev’ry sort of harm and woe is hidden in a certain chest which, woman-like, she opens; and the rest the world knows—trouble sprang like wind from it and seeded all the earth; behind was left but one small waif.” The Pasha asks who would that be, and she replies, “Hope was its name. When she had clapped the lid, it stayed. We never see it, but it’s hid deep down; we cannot lose it, we cannot lose it, while we live.”
The Pasha decides to leave the chest closed. Helene retires for the night, but before leaving, she gives her husband the key to the chest. She calls to the eunuch who has been hiding to join the Pasha and says to him, “Who loses burdock heads must throw them far… ‘Tis well: one bears with dignity the things that are.” She leaves without knowing the fate of Etienne. The eunuch asks to have the key and take care of what he finds. Instead, the Pasha dismisses him and calls for a more trusted servant. Alone, he holds the key in his hand and walks to the chest. He listens to it and considers what to do. Shaban, his servant, arrives with a pistol. Instead, the Pasha asks him to go and get a shovel. They will bury the chest. As they dig a pit, the Pasha says, “Until this night, I have not cared to do the work of slaves; but now I think I will not shirk the weight of this. I see that all are slaves to something bigger; diggers, too, of graves.” They hoist the chest and deposit it in the hole. The Pasha blows out the garden’s candles. The sole illumination is a gigantic moon. He bows down to listen for sounds from the chest. He hears nothing but the nightingale’s song in the distance. He buries the chest and flings its key into a distant pool. The curtain falls.
The audience reaction to the opera is difficult to gauge. It certainly did not go off without a hitch. The audience was surprised by the modernist set. The costumes were also updated (the character of Helene wore a flowing, white gown with a bejeweled chiffon cape created by a Fifth Avenue couturiere; Etienne donned a blue coat and white flannels, and the Pasha wore a dinner jacket topped with a crimson fez.) Laurence Tibbett struggled, at one point, to light a cigarette onstage. He tried three times, his hand snapping more vigorously each time, until finally, a couple of weak sparks emerged. That is, I suppose, an apt metaphor for the reception in the opera house.
One newspaper wrote about the muted audience response, “At its conclusion, the audience for the most part sat silently for a minute or so. Then came a long round of curtain calls…” (Oakland Tribune, 1/25/1935) The audience applauded and gave numerous curtain calls to performers, conductor, and composer. Seymour was presented onstage with the Bispham Memorial Award. Presented by the American Opera Society of Chicago, the medal was given annually, beginning in 1921, for operas written in English. It was named after David Bispham a Wagnerian baritone from Pennsylvania at the turn of the twentieth century who championed the performance of operas in English. Upon receiving the medal, Seymour said, onstage, “I thank first Mr. Gatti-Casazza for his sympathetic support and fine production, and Maestro Panizza for his preparation and reading of my music. If I single out one among the artists, it is not because I am ungrateful to all the others who graced my little work. To Lawrence Tibbett I am grateful especially, since I believe him to be the foremost exponent of American opera active in its behalf at the present time. And last of all, let me thank the Metropolitan audience, because we folk who choose to labor in the theatre do it all in the hope of pleasing you. Thank you!” (NY Times 1/25/1935)
Seymour must have been pleased at the amount of attention the opera gathered. The premiere was covered across the country. The Times, for example, wrote nine separate articles about the opera in the month of January 1935 alone. After opening night, papers printed follow-up reviews for each of the performances of the opera. After the January 28th performances, the Times noted that the opera was “warmly received” and that the composer joined in one of the curtain calls. It published a letter from Seymour to Gatti-Casazza, “Permit me to thank you cordially for having produced my little opera (too little, it must be admitted, for your vast stage) at the Metropolitan. The adventure of this production has introduced me to the great public which seemed to be well disposed toward In the Pasha’s Garden. I venture to predict that this little work will win the sympathy of the public more and more this season. But whether it does or not, please accept the assurance of my sincere gratitude.” (NY Times 1/29/1935). After the final performance of the opera on February 13, the Times ran the last of its articles leading up to and reviewing the work. For the first time, it added a modifier to the opera, calling it, “…Seymour’s modernistic episode of the Near East.”
Although the audiences responded, mostly, with enthusiasm, as the critics’ reviews appeared in print, it was clear that the critical reaction was decidedly less ambiguous. The set design merited mocking analogies, particularly the projections of the leaves. “Just plain silly”, "A magnified clam…uncooked tripe,”, "A slightly mildewed butterfly climbing a twig the size of a liner’s smokestack.” (New York Daily News, New York World Telegram, and New York Herald Tribune, all 1/25/1935) Time magazine wrote, “The kiosk resembled the turret of a battleship topped by an old-fashioned lampshade. To suggest the garden a lighting arrangement projected on the backdrop a horizontal stem and four big embryonic leaves. A moon was suspended in the sky like a bruised alligator pear.” (Time 2/4/1935)
And the music? The New York Times review begins by citing again Gatti-Casazza’s goodwill toward American composers, “…which he has shown year in and year out, by his production of their works. It would be particularly pleasant, under these circumstances, to agree with complimentary remarks made on the stage by Dr. Henry Hadley to Mr. Seymour after the performance, but it is quite impossible to do so. This work impresses the writer as not one of the best but one of the worst American operas produced hereabouts in years. In the Pasha’s Garden is tedious and inept to a degree. It lasts only fifty-five minutes, but that becomes a very long time.” The Times review continues by adding something that the other critics ignore: the reasons why it didn’t work.
“One listens, hoping to find something eloquent, distinctive, worthy of remark. The conclusion is forced that the work has little or no virtue for the stage, or as a musical score. It is dramatically ineffective. The music says nothing, either as melody without relation to the stage, or as means of characterizing the dramatis personae, or publishing their emotions. The style is post-Debussy with admixture of various influences. The writing for the voices is uneventful, monotonously rhymed, oblivious of laws of prosody or accentuation where treatment of the English language is concerned.” (NY Times, 1/25/1935)
Thoroughly humiliated, John Laurence Seymour returned home to Sacramento and stopped composing.
Life After Pasha
“The newspapers and musical magazines attacked the opera ferociously. Musical America later stated that nothing so violent had ever occurred before in the city’s musical history. All of the criticisms were of the most mendacious and inappropriate source.”
John Laurence Seymour, unpublished papers, 1980
I met Seymour once, briefly, before he died. I had a job as an English tutor in the library at Southern Utah State College when I was there as a student. I saw an old man in the library from time to time coming and going from an office in an isolated corner of the building. He was a frequent subject of wild stories of his eccentricities and history. At the time, I was more curious about his collections of things than his musical exploits. It was rumored that he had thousands and thousands of seashells that he gathered from his travels around the world. For those of us raised on farms in close proximity to the college, Seymour’s tales of travel and accomplishment were tantalizing peeks at the possible. Somehow, he had ended up in Cedar City, Utah and had set up a special collections department in the college library in honor of his mother. I was told that he had an opera performed many years earlier at the Metropolitan Opera. When I eventually spoke to Seymour, I found him to be gentle and a bit more than a little peculiar. I never broached the subject of opera with him. He didn’t bring it up either.
I have not thought about John Laurence Seymour for many years. It is only by chance that I come across his name one day on the Metropolitan Opera database. I am searching for American operas—with an eye toward any opera by a Mormon composer—when I see Seymour’s name and start making connections. I discover that Seymour moved to Utah after placing a lucky bet on the Las Vegas real estate boom in mid-century, which left him and his mother well off for the first time in their lives. They had happened upon the small town of Cedar City and its 15,000 residents on a drive to the region’s National Parks. There they settled. Seymour converted to Mormonism, and he began to form relationships with colleges in the state of Utah that would later perform his old compositions and premiere new works, including some with Mormon themes. In gratitude, he later endowed the libraries in Cedar City, now known as Southern Utah University, and at Brigham Young University in Provo.
As I try to dust off the opera In the Pasha’s Garden and tell its story, I start at the beginning, with its score. The piano-vocal score was commercially published in 1934 by T.J. Harms Inc. At the time, Tin Pan Alley had a stranglehold on Broadway show tune sheet music, as high as a 90% monopoly. In 1929, Max Dreyfus who had bought out Harms but retained the name, sold the company to Warner Brothers. At any rate, Seymour’s opera must have been considered valuable enough to publish in 1934. I wonder what they saw in the score that the critics didn’t.
The volume itself is 97 pages long. On the title page, the one-act opera is listed as opus 17. On the dedication page is a photograph of Seymour—young, handsome, with dark hair combed back away from an oval face, his dark eyes behind pince-nez spectacles (old-fashioned, wire framed glasses that sit on the bridge of the nose rather than wrap over and behind ears). He looks slightly away from the camera, unsmiling. He reminds me of a young Robert Downey, Jr. He is wearing a dark suit and with a high-collared white shirt. The volume lists characters of the opera, gives the setting and the time (“Early Twentieth Century”), and it gives a brief synopsis which is called, “The Argument.”
It’s beyond my abilities to sight-read the piano accompaniment and sing at the same time, but I spend a few hours slowly making my way through the opera at my piano. Seymour doesn’t make the sight-reading easy. The score is mostly in the key of B Major, with five sharps. That’s a lot of black keys for my fingers to navigate, and there are plenty of accidentals too, notes that deviate from the key signature to cancel the sharps. This key lends itself to an unusual sound, I think. There are plenty of ornamented figures in the score, also trills, runs, turns, slurs, triplets, and interesting rhythms. Occasionally, the composer has indicated an instrument playing—a flute, for example, piccolos, or a violin—and as I play I try to imagine the opera’s orchestration. The texture of the music is not thick. There is a shimmering transparency to it, like a harp’s glide that colors the music without burdening it unnecessarily with too many layers of sound. The music itself feels modern to me. The chords are surprising, the colors of them constantly shifting around underneath a base of melody. It is filigreed music and creates an atmosphere right away of orientalism and exoticism. I’m probably not explaining it very well, but I am certainly intrigued by it. At the same time, there is a melodramatic quality in the score. This is less subtle. Bass notes bound upwards in octaves as if to proclaim something dramatic is about to happen. When the voice parts arrive, their melodies are not doubled in the score, that is, they are harmonically related to what’s happening in the accompaniment, but the piano part is not duplicating exactly what the singer is singing. That aspect feels modern to me too.
Having read the plot already, I am aware of what is going to happen in the story. I keep looking for these narrative signposts, but I find them difficult to locate. I’ve imagined that I’ll encounter an aria by Helene or a duet between the lovers. These never arrive. Instead, it is all a sort of musicalized banter. It rolls along without a particular cadence to it. This strikes me as weird because the text itself is sing-songily rhymed to a fault. The libretto is printed in the score with uppercase letters to designate what would be the start of a line of poetry if it were printed in stanzas. For example:
How should I venture or how dare
To utter all—and yet, how could I care
To say the lesser, when I would confess
The greater things that on my spirit press?
The iambic pattern of syllables—unstressed/stressed—is really obvious when it’s written out poetically, but in the score, Seymour mellows it out and doesn’t set it so routinely. The story of the opera is supposed to be in the twentieth century, but the style of the libretto is old school, and I don’t mean that as flattery. The composer wisely, I think, emphasizes the syllables that suggest something rather than mechanically following the librettist’s archaic rhyme scheme and rhythms. Some words in the score are set stretched out in time and others are clustered together. The sense of the text isn’t lost, but the musicality of the libretto, however predictable, doesn’t seem to inspire the composer to follow suit. To me, the result is a bit of an artistic struggle that is at cross-purposes.
I think the plot of the opera is kind of cool. There’s a mystery about it that I respond to, and I admire that the libretto isn’t obvious. Does Helene love Etienne? Is Helene betraying Etienne or her husband, by leaving the key behind? Anyway, I’m happy about the choices made that give the audience something to think about. In fact, very little is on the page. I’m left to guess about motivations and consequences, and I find that more satisfying that being presented with a melodrama of heroes and villains. By the end, is the Pasha a good guy or a bad guy? I like the fact that initially, I can’t say.
About halfway through the score, it starts to bother me that there haven’t been any big moments yet for the singers to shine. It’s all polite background music. All the same tempo, and mostly the same dynamic level of mezzo forte. Maybe the collaborators were going for subtle, but ultimately, it comes off as passive. I do like the story of—I wish I could call it an aria, but it feels nearly shapeless to me—Pandora’s box, sung by Helene. It’s a good conceit, but as the drama moves toward the end of the opera, I’m finding it all not particularly dramatic. The musical sound has stayed almost entirely in the same key with a brief excursion to C Major that my brain and fingers enjoy, like a vacation from rarer climes.
Finally, the Pasha hears a sound in the locked chest, and the action turns murderous. That’s a problem though, because the sound isn’t represented in the score. At that moment and later on as well, including the scene in which dirt is heard falling against the buried chest, the stage directions indicate that the Pasha hears something, but the audience doesn’t get to hear it musically. Another lost opportunity, it seems to me. And by the way, if I were a composer writing an opera that I knew Lawrence Tibbett was going to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, I’d be sure to write him something amazing to sing, something that showed off his voice and gave him a spotlight to wow the audience. Even if I had composed an opera before he was attached to its production, I’d rewrite moments to give his role some extra zing. I sing through his final pages of the score, which are almost entirely devoid of emotion in the vocal parts, and I am left scratching my head. No big notes, nothing held out, or loud, or high, or—I should just say it—of interest. There is a lot of emotionality in the accompaniment, however. Still, it’s the characters that audiences relate to, and I am left wondering if the character of the Pasha cares at all about his wife’s indiscretion. And as a result, I imagine that Seymour’s audience didn’t really care either.
Seymour died in 1986, shortly after I met him. Before his death, Seymour wrote a document about his life titled, “Foreword to a Life Story: Suggestions for a Biography by John Laurence Seymour.” He deposited it with a portion of his scores and papers in the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. He placed a restriction on the autobiography. It was to be sealed until 2010. In early December, I write to some friends employed at BYU, Michael Hicks, Jeremy Grimshaw, and Janet Bradford, to investigate the possibility of getting access to Seymour’s papers. They generously open doors for me. My request travels quickly through the necessary channels, and a package arrives at my door from the L. Tom Perry Special Collections of the Harold B. Lee Library about one week later. It is a photocopy of a 65-page document, written out longhand by Seymour, beginning March 28, 1980. That is six years before his death.
The act of reading an account like this is uncomfortable to me. It has been a sealed document, and I suspect that I might be the first person to look at it. It’s an intimate thing looking over a document that is essentially a last will and testament, and to some degree, in Seymour’s case, it’s a settling of scores. I guess that attorneys encounter this all the time, but I’m unfamiliar with the burden of having admittance to a man’s final thoughts. As Seymour neared the end of his life, he responded to the urging of friends and librarians who wanted him to tell his life story. He had been a life-long diarist. He was aware that those documents would be preserved but also reserved for only a few scholars. Instead of writing an autobiography, he begins to make notes for some future biographer who might want to tell his story to a broader public.
In many ways, his is an ordinary and happy turn-of-the-century childhood. He is an only child to parents who love him and encourage him. After he shows early promise, they provide violin lessons for him and expose him to great music, literature and nature. He is gifted with languages and music. He sees his first opera, Faust, in 1907, and he sees more and more operas and is deeply affected by them, until by 1912, he determines to become an opera composer. He had already started composing an opera in high school, writing in full orchestra score (rather then just the voice and piano accompaniment). Although he abandons and destroys his first effort, he begins what would become his first completed opera, Antigone, in 1916. (In old age, he will call Antigone his masterpiece.) Seymour graduates from the University of California at Berkeley in 1917 with a degree in languages. His father dies of pneumonia; he cares for his mother; and he ends up teaching at Sacramento Junior College. All the while, he writes music.
The tone of Seymour’s document is surprisingly free of bitterness. That said, he notes how closely and repeatedly he came to success--the opera star Mary Garden was set to champion him, Pasha was originally going to be published alongside Porgy and Bess, his operas were commissioned and then managements changed and the projects fell apart, etc. Things outside of his control often scuttled his ambitions. And then there are his critics. It is not that he was criticized that bothers him, but the savagery of the antagonism. He is a mild-mannered gentleman, at least that’s the sense I get from his recollections. Although he is aware that he is smart and able, Seymour doesn’t seem to expect the world will open its arms to him. He is not entitled, I guess I want to say. And I wonder, as I read, whether he was entitled to a fairer appraisal of his music than he received.
The public interviews and letters written by Seymour at the time of the Metropolitan fiasco show no bitterness at all. I find them to be gracious and self-effacing. He repeatedly had used diminishing language when referring to Pasha: “my little opera,” “my little work” he said. It is as if he is grateful for any attention afforded him. But in his “autobiography”, he tells a fuller tale.
When Seymour arrives in New York in December 1934 for rehearsals, he is immediately told to expect trouble. A colleague on the board of the American Society of Composers and Conductors warns him that certain writers in the New York press are indignant at Seymour because they had submitted works to the Metropolitan and were passed over in favor of an unknown composer from Sacramento. Seymour writes, “…they organized the press in a body to handle the upstart from the ‘sticks’ in such a manner that he would never get back on Manhattan Island.”
It is his naiveté, essentially, that causes as much trouble for him as the problems with the score itself. He blunders his way through a few crucial social gatherings and upsets members of high society, he handles the press awkwardly, and he had signed a contract that gave the Met the rights to stage the opera however they wanted, without his input. This last problem becomes especially acute when Seymour discovers to his horror that the design of the opera ignores the stage directions in the score, “…with complete disregard of the requirements of the libretto and with every evidence of a conceit amounting to mental disorder.” Seymour’s only options are to do nothing or to cancel the production. He is told that the Metropolitan is in bad financial shape and had ceded design to the Juilliard Foundation in order to finance the season. In return, in part, Kiesler would design the production of the new opera. “We rehearsed under a cloud because everyone in the production was disgusted and discouraged.”
Then, the reviews come out. Seymour writes, “The newspapers and musical magazines attacked the opera ferociously. Musical America later stated that nothing so violent had ever occurred before in the city’s musical history. All of the criticisms were of the most mendacious and inappropriate source.” To add a blow upon a bruise, Seymour discovers that his hometown newspaper sent a journalist to cover the premiere who knew nothing about music and failed to get a reaction (or a rebuttal) from the composer. Seymour arrives home to find his reputation is destroyed. Other than a glee club performance of his Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1937, Seymour’s music disappears from view for the next 30 years. He suffers a mental breakdown, loses his job, and stops composing.
Why do we treat our creative artists this way? I immediately think of Samuel Barber and his own fiasco at the Met, the premiere of Antony and Cleopatra which opened the new house in Lincoln Center in 1966. After it’s critical denunciation (again, triggered by an overwhelming set design, this one by Franco Zefferelli), Barber, who is surely one of the great American composers of the 20th century, fell into depression and alcoholism, and died a broken man at the age of 70.
I am happy to see, as I read his papers, that John Laurence Seymour is luckier than that. He happens onto a real estate deal in Las Vegas and moves there in part to escape a life of working at Sears and Roebucks and caring for his elderly mother. His timing is perfect; he sells his parcel of real estate and becomes, for the first time in his life, able to travel the world and to endow libraries. He also joins the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Utah’s universities offer him opportunities to hear his old music performed as well as to write new works. BYU produces his early opera Ramona in 1970. He participates in the Mormon Arts Festival at BYU in 1972 with two ballets, The Maid, the Demon, and the Samurai, and The Closed Gate; he writes a musical folk play, The Lure and the Promise on a Mormon theme for possible pairing with the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, and an operatic work based on the Book of Mormon, Nephi, The Tender Bough, for BYU (although it appears that neither of the later works was produced). There is a rebirth of confidence, and he forges additional connections with producers in South America who premiere a string of his new operas in Peru. As occasional barriers and disappointments block his path, Seymour seems able to sidestep them and continue on.
He ends the writing of his truncated autobiography on April 3, 1980 with the following statement of purpose, “I believe that each of us is here in this imperfectly explained experience to discover for himself and realize a divine mission. All our powers and all our longings and impulses are bestowed upon us in order to realize through what we term externalization the intentions of God, Divine Mind. I am convinced that my mission is to realize my potential—which is God’s design and endowment—to be an international composer and educator. If I am correct in this conviction, it is not conceit.” (“Foreword to a Life Story,” unpublished manuscript, 1980, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Library, BYU)
Ultimately, Seymour divides his compositions, papers, and collections between four institutions. His own musical manuscripts end up at Brigham Young University. There are nearly 100 works in a variety of genres including works for orchestra, chorus, chamber music, and songs. Most striking, of course, are the operas and theater works. There are 22 of them, not only in a wide range of subjects and styles, but in English, French, Spanish, and German languages. (A list of the works follows in Acknowledgements and Further Study.)
John Laurence Seymour’s body was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. His grave is adorned with a large, black granite stone marker. On the back, it reads, “Dr. John L. Seymour, devoted son of Herbert W. Seymour and Rose Anne LaPointe, lifelong educator of drama, music, literature and language, prolific opera composer, international philanthropist, metaphysical practitioner, renaissance man, beloved friend of mankind.” On the front, beneath an arch of engraved flowers, appear his name and birth and death dates, “Jan. 18, 1893 and Feb. 2, 1986”. A verse from Job 19:25 is given, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, some musical notes are shown on a scroll, and at the bottom sits a farewell in German, “Alles liebe.” At the top of the stone is engraved his name, which is misspelled.
Acknowledgements and Further Study
© “Digging Up the Pasha’s Garden” Glen Nelson, 2012
This article is an excerpt from a book I am writing about Mormons at the Metropolitan Opera. I happily acknowledge the individuals who assisted me in the research and production of this multi-media document--all are my friends and share an interest in Mormon fine art music: William Atkinson, Murray Boren, Janet Bradford, Claudia Bushman, Bryan Davis, David Fletcher, Jeremy Grimshaw, and Michael Hicks. I am especially grateful to the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, an invaluable resource on LDS music; its archive of music by Mormon composers is one of the Church’s great treasures.
Upon his death, John Laurence Seymour divided his collections between various institutions that had supported his career. BYU received his compositions, among other things. For anyone curious about his work, the following titles of his operas and theater works are a tempting look at what remains mostly undiscovered:
Antigone, Heroic Opera in Prologue and Three Acts, op. 4;
The Snake Woman, Romantic Opera in 5 Acts, op. 5 (discarded version);
Les Precieuses Ridicules (The Affected Maids), Musical Comedy in One Act, op. 6;
The Devil and Tom Walker, Fantastic Opera in Three Acts, op. 7;
The Bachelor Belles, an Operetta in Three Acts, op. 13;
Vospitannitsa (A Protegee of the Mistress), Opera in 4 Acts, op. 15;
In the Pasha’s Garden, An Opera in One Act, op. 17;
Rudens of Plautus, Opera Comique in 5 Acts, op. 18;
Ramona, Lyric Opera in Five Acts and Epilogue, op. 34;
Ming Toy, A Musical Comedy in Prologue and Two Acts (1949);
Two Gentlemen of Verona, An Operetta in 2 Acts, op. 38;
Golden Days, A Comic Operetta in Two Acts, op. 40;
The Maid, the Demon, and the Samurai, op. 43;
Tom Walker’s Bargain, Fantastic Opera in 4 Acts, op. 66;
Measure for Measure, Lyric Drama in 5 Acts, op. 69;
The Lure and the Promise, a Musical Play in Three Acts with a Prologue and an Epilogue, op. 70;
Aureng-Zebe, Heroic Opera in Five Acts, op. 71;
Nephi, The Tender Bough, A Music Drama in a Prologue and Five Acts, op. 72;
Ollanta, el Jefe Kolla, Opera Eroica en 4 Actos, op. 73;
Atahuallpa, Opera Eroica en 5 Actos, op. 75;
La Vida es Sueno, Opera Romantica en 3 Actos, op. 77;
Sappho, Romantische oper in 5 Aufzugen, op. 78.