6 American Operas to Listen to on July 4

These operas capture the American spirit and explore its history. When planning your Fourth of July festivities, add opera to your menu with your burgers and fireworks to celebrate our nation’s independence.

Porgy & Bess

Marietta Simpson (left) as Maria and Indira Mahajan (right) as Bess in Porgy and Bess (2007); Photo: Robert Millard

Marietta Simpson (left) as Maria and Indira Mahajan (right) as Bess in Porgy and Bess (2007); Photo: Robert Millard

Last performed by LAO in 2007, George Gershwin’s iconic work is the epitome of American opera. Set in 1912 South Carolina, the plot follows the story of street beggar Porgy, who seeks to rescue Bess from the clutches of her brutal lover and drug dealer. Heavily influenced by jazz, blues and spirituals, the score is a perfect summertime listen. You may even already be familiar with the iconic piece thanks to recordings by Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Stewart and countless other recording artists of all genres, which made its most famous song, “Summertime,” a pop culture phenomenon.

Little Women


Composer-librettist Mark Adamo turned Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale of four sisters growing up in post-Civil War New England into a contemporary American operatic masterpiece.  Premiered in 1998 in Houston with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (LAO’s dazzling 2009 Rosina in The Barber of Seville) in the leading role of Meg, it has rapidly become one of the most frequently performed operas of our time.

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire (2014); Photo: Robert Millard

A Streetcar Named Desire (2014); Photo: Robert Millard

Based on the very operatic Tennessee Williams play, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire begins with Blanche DuBois’ arrival in 1940s New Orleans. Clinging to a masquerade of Southern grace, she moves into her sister’s cramped apartment, creating all the wrong kinds of sparks with her crude brother-in-law. When dark truths about Blanche’s past begin to emerge, her world comes apart at the seams in a spiral of violence and madness. LAO’s 2014 performances starred Renée Fleming, who created the role of Blanche at the opera’s 1995 San Francisco premiere.

The Ballad of Baby Doe

Douglas Moore’s most famous opera, based on true events, chronicles the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Horace Tabor, who made a fortune with his Colorado silver mine, and Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor. The opera follows their lives through five fast-changing decades of American history, from the beginning of their scandalous meeting in 1883 (he was married to someone else) to her death in 1935. Baby Doe was a signature role for Beverly Sills, who sang it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a 1969 New York City Opera tour to Los Angeles.

Nixon in China

Nixon In China, 1990-1991

Nixon in China, composer John Adams’s first opera, was inspired by Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 – a trip was the first contact between communist China and the United States in decades. The opera premiered in 1987 and is a great example of the art form’s ability to tackle – and mythologize – recent historical events.


Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg in Moby-Dick (2015); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg in Moby-Dick (2015); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Herman Melville’s great American novel covers some major themes: fear and prejudice; the limits of human knowledge; fate versus free will; man versus nature; the consequences of madness. For his 2010 operatic adaption, composer Jake Heggie streamlined the novel’s sprawling narrative while remaining faithful to Melville’s big ideas in one of the most innovative contemporary operatic masterpieces.

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