Sister Carrie


A world premiere opera from the
two-time grammy award winning duo

Robert Aldridge & Herschel Garfein

OCTOBER 7 & 9, 2016
Uihlein Hall
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

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This world-premiere production and recording is made possible with major support from NEA Artworks and Lloyd Gerlach in memory of Mary Ann Gerlach.

Title Artist Sponsor: Nita Soref

     This world-premiere production and professional recording of Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein’s new opera, Sister Carrie will take the stage of Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts to launch our 83rd season of great opera.
     Based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel (1900), the opera unveils the tortuous path to fame for a small town girl, as America industrialized and large segments of the rural populace flooded into an urban sea of humanity. Through rich melodies and brilliant libretto, Aldridge and Garfein have crafted an opera that brims and bustles with this monumental American moment.
     The celebrated mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala creates the role of Carrie, the young woman born into poverty who defies social and sexual norms to rise to stardom on the New York stage. The brilliant lyric baritone Keith Phares creates the role of Hurstwood, one of the great tragic characters of American literature: the established 

middle-class man who throws away his life in pursuit of Carrie.  The large cast of Sister Carrie includes Milwaukee favorites soprano Alissa Jordheim and tenor Matt Morgan. The author, Dreiser, an ardent lifelong Social Progressive, presented a view of the gulf separating the ‘leisure class’ from the ‘working class’ that was originally condemned as sordid. His bleak and uncompromising depiction is still relevant today.
     Florentine Opera General Director (stage director) William Florescu stated “The Florentine Opera Company is honored to be a part of the creation of a new American Opera, Sister Carrie.  We are grateful for the community support that has driven this company to create and present ‘new opera’ as a part of ‘popular’ repertory, on a level that supports the production of this world premiere, and the recording and worldwide release of this new work.”


On Sister Carrie

by Herschel Garfein

Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) is the great American novel about social status — how it is bestowed, how it must be maintained, and how it can be withdrawn. In its protagonist, Caroline Meeber, Dreiser captured a powerful American archetype, the young person turning her back on where she has come from and who she has been, who continually and almost reflexively strives for ever-higher standing in the world. The currently fashionable term for this is “reinventing oneself” — but it is commonly applied to superficial manipulations of public image by pop stars or politicians. In the United States of the 1890's, when Sister Carrie is set, "“reinventing oneself” was an economic necessity, and a social good. The 1890's were an unparalleled boom time for American industry and for American cities (Edison set up his first power station in lower Manhattan in 1881). The burgeoning economy required an entirely new workforce. Whole generations of men and women had to reinvent themselves as factory workers, as city dwellers; to move from place to place seeking economic opportunity; to discover their skills and to claim as high a place on the social ladder as they could. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, women's social status was almost entirely dependent on men. Their employment possibilities were few. The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for 1900 show that only 18.8% of women over 16 years of age were gainfully employed — of these, fully 50% were employed in farm or domestic work, 25% in factory work, and the remaining 25% in more skilled professions — basically, teaching and nursing. For the vast majority of women, marriage and motherhood were the only life options. The reality was that women could only achieve status-stability or status-advancement through the agency of men. This is the world that Dreiser unflinchingly depicts in Sister Carrie. He created a heroine who instinctively understands the world around her and advances by following her desires and her ambition, reinventing herself exactly as men are doing all around her. Much of the notoriety of the book stemmed from Dreiser's refusal to criticize her or judge her for this. She begins as a lowly factory worker in Chicago, and eventually she carves out a place for herself as a singing star on Broadway. Meanwhile her lover Hurstwood follows a nearly opposite trajectory. He is a man of high, but provisional, social standing (manager of a successful Chicago restaurant) who at first displays to Carrie and to the world all the signs of unassailable social status: he is impeccably well-dressed, socially easy, self-assured, a man's man. But his self-destructive desire for Carrie leads him to throw away all his former life — to leave his wife, to steal from his firm, to lure Carrie away from Chicago under false pretenses — and thereby, to completely unmoor himself from the world around him, with disastrous consequences. If Carrie has an instinctive understanding of social status and the invisible network of bonds that create our identities and buoy us up in society, Hurstwood has a nearly pathological disregard for those bonds. Carrie sings in her first aria, "everything is paid for" and she lives by that. She compromises and sacrifices for everything she gets; Hurstwood merely grabs for it. Once he has attained the object of his desire --Carrie-- he suffers through a helpless despondency (today, it might be diagnosed as agoraphobia) that becomes intolerable to her. She eventually leaves him and he lands among the homeless of New York City. Even as he declines into abject poverty he continues to grab for status, taking a job as a scab worker during a violent trolley strike. Finally, he gasses himself in a flophouse: his grab for death. 

Late in our opera, Carrie is introduced to Balzac's Père Goriot, and finds herself haunted by two unsettling lines, uttered by the aged title character in a spirit of great optimism, just at the moment when all those around him are mercilessly defrauding him: "Money is life. Money can do everything." Carrie understands the irony of these lines, but still struggles to disbelieve their import as she surveys the world around her and considers her own tortuous route into the Leisure Class. Bob Aldridge and I hope that our opera of Sister Carrie has particular relevance for our own times, when the division between the haves and the have-nots of the country has come to seem particularly stark, and when traditional American mores governing the meanings and the purposes of wealth have largely eroded. In rising up the social ladder, Carrie fights battles that all women still fight. Hurstwood's plummet down that same ladder dramatizes a bleak vision of the economic imperative (and its less reputable cognate, the status imperative) at work throughout every segment of American society. And the love story between them is driven by the harsh, at times harrowing, confrontation between two dark, unknowable forces: the force of desire and the force of survival.