William Mayer, contemporary classical composer


Notes for A Death in the Family

William Mayer’s three-act opera is based on two American classics: the Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Death in the Family by James Agee and the play All the Way Home by Tad Mosel. The opera also draws on related passages from Agee’s nonfiction Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Premiered by the Minnesota Opera Company in 1983, A Death in the Family was cited as the best new opera of that year by the National Institute for Music Theater, Mayer receiving the award from Harold Prince at the J. F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Further productions include those by the Manhattan School of Music and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the latter broadcast over NPR with Dawn Upshaw. Scenes have also been presented by colleges and universities, Rutgers University and the Mannes College of Music among them.

“William Mayer’s three-act A Death in the Family held hypnotic sway on the first-night audience ... so beautiful and meaningful is it, not only in its James Agee story but in the setting the composer-librettist has provided for it.”
   — Robert Jacobson, Opera News

“... rich, warm and picturesque.”
   — Allan Kozinn, The New York Times

~ More reviews


William Mayer’s A Death in the Family operates on many levels. It is about a Southern middle class family struck by sudden tragedy—and unexpected reverberations. But it is also about all families and their loneliness, even as they try to shelter their own members from an uncaring universe. “How lonely this family as with every family on this earth,” writes James Agee, “inconceivably lonely, sorrowful and remote, drawn upon itself as tramps are drawn around a fire in the cruelest weather.”

The specific scene is Knoxville, 1915. The New York Times writes: “Its nucleus is Jay Follet, a recovering alcoholic who is a devoted and compassionate father to young Rufus, an innocent taunted by schoolyard bullies because of his name. Jay’s pregnant wife, Mary, is comparatively starchy; her religious zeal is presented as analogous to Jay’s [easygoing earthiness].”

A day after Jay and Mary are beginning to overcome their differences, Jay is killed in a freak car accident. The loss is incalculable, as the young husband and father was a bedrock to three generations of Follets.

Wildly disparate emotions well up: overwhelming grief voiced in the sextet, “Who shall tell the Sorrow?”; laughter, shockingly inappropriate at a time of mourning; and rage on the part of Mary’s brother, Andrew, who hears his sister praying to God for forgiveness when it is she who has been dealt such a cruel blow. “God, if you exist,” Andrew shouts before he realizes what he is saying, “come here and let me spit in your face!”

Adding to Mary’s burden is gossip about the cause of Jay’s accident, which Rufus has heard from boys on the street. Unaware that he would wound her, he asks his mother point blank, “Was Daddy drunk?” Yet, within the sorrowful context of A Death in the Family, there is also joy and “an undercurrent of humor, expressed both musically and in the text, which keeps the work from becoming maudlin.” —Allan Kozinn, the New York Times.

Opera News comments on the sweep of the opera, particularly its music: “Mayer develops a skein of past, present and future—its musical elements disparate but all to a purpose, ranging from folk and pop music through electronics (a nightmare) to an operetta spoof. He has a compelling, economical vocal-instrumental style that immediately creates a mood, an atmosphere for the moment, as he provides a finely etched sequence of set pieces and sung recitative melding into a consistent flow.”

Charles Parsons of American Record Guide notes a similar sweep in the libretto: “This is one of the best, most poetical librettos ever, neatly characterizing the emotional story not just in its own proper time frame, but in the larger context of all Mankind.”

(in order of appearance)

Aunt Hannah, Mary’s aunt (mezzo soprano)
Andrew, Mary’s brother (tenor)
Victoria, Black nurse (mezzo soprano)
Rufus, Jay and Mary’s son (boy soprano)
J. A., standing for author James Agee (tenor)*
Jay, Rufus’ father (baritone)
Jesse, Jay’s mother (low mezzo soprano)
Catherine, Mary’s mother (light soprano)
Joel, Mary’s father (bass)
Mary, Rufus’ mother (soprano)
Father Jackson (bass-baritone)
Ralph, Jay’s alcoholic brother (baritone)
John Henry, Jay’s father (bass-baritone)
Aunt Sadie, Jay’s aunt (contralto)

*J. A. represents author James Agee recalling painful early years when he was burdened with the name Rufus. Though often on stage, J. A. is usually an unobtrusive—almost subliminal—presence behind a writing desk, witnessing once again three life-changing days of his childhood that are being acted out on stage.

Small roles (many can be doubled): Teenagers (non-singing); Bartender and patrons; Great-Granmaw (non-singing); Fantasy Angel (doubled by Father Jackson); Prissy salesman; Voice over loudspeaker; Gruff salesman; Stranger.

2, 2, 2, 2; 2, 2, 2; timpani, percussion; harp; piano; strings (minimum 18)

Published by WillMayer Music.
Contact Music [at] WilliamMayer-Composer [dot] com for more information.

William Mayer

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audio Listen to excerpts:
(from the “Voices from Lost Realms” CD)

~ A Death in the Family: Butterfly Aria (Judith Cristin, soprano; Gregory Mercer, tenor; Steven Mayer, piano) (3:34)
~ A Death in the Family: How Far We All Come Away from Ourselves (James McKeel, baritone) (4:07)

~ Reviews

Published by WillMayer Music.
Contact Music [at] WilliamMayer-Composer [dot] com for more information.

A Death in the Family CD

A Death in the Family
   Albany Records (2000)

~ Order online from Albany Records or from Amazon, ArkivMusic, etc.

Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, David Gilbert, conductor.

“William Mayer’s, A Death in the Family was a success on all counts. Its poignant drama and accessible music made it a favorite with audiences: I repeatedly heard comments like ‘I’ve finally heard a new American opera I can enjoy rather than only admire.’”
   — Edward Corn, General Director,
        Minnesota Opera

About the sextet Who shall tell the Sorrow of being on this earth?:

“... absolutely ravishing music, one of those moments in theater which make up for a lifetime’s worth of less enchanting ones.”
   — Robert Boyd, Station KWMU,
        St. Louis

Review of CD of A Death in the Family produced by the Manhattan School of Music:

“When I first heard this recording [Albany Records] I found it difficult to take notes ... I was surprised to find my eyes welling up with tears at the ineffable beauty of the wedding of text and music.”
   — Charles Parsons,
        American Record Guide

“... faithfully projects the essence of Agee’s masterpiece.”
   — James Wierzbicki, St. Louis

“We [Rutgers University] had the good fortune to perform excerpts from William Mayer’s A Death in the Family. The vocal writing is wonderful and the music is, quite frankly, thrilling. Our most sophisticated doctoral students as well as our undergrads were delighted to work on the piece. We were all touched by its beauty and emotional power.”
   — Valorie Goodall, Director,
        Rutgers Opera Company

“... a deeply moving and uniquely American work.”
   — Henry Orland, St. Louis
        Globe Democrat

© 2009 William Mayer