|About this Recording
8.669039-40 - ALDRIDGE, R.L.: Sister Carrie [Opera] (Zabala, Phares, M. Morgan, Jordheim, Florentine Opera Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony, Boggs)
Robert Livingston Aldridge (b. 1954)
An Opera in Two Acts
Caroline Meeber, later Carrie Madenda – Adriana Zabala, Mezzo-soprano
Florentine Opera Chorus
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(1900) is the great American novel about social status—how it is bestowed, how it must be maintained, and how it can be withdrawn.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 1890s, when Sister Carrie is set, “reinventing oneself” was an economic necessity, and a social good. The 1890s 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 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 20th century, women’s social status was almost entirely dependent on men. Their employment possibilities were few. The US Bureau of Labor statistics for 1900 show that only 18.8 percent of women over 16 years of age were gainfully employed—of these, fully 50 percent were employed in farm or domestic work, 25 percent in factory work, and the remaining 25 percent 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 statusadvancement 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, selfassured: 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 novel 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.
CD 1: Act I
1 – 2 Overture
Carrie Meeber, a poor girl from a small town in Wisconsin, arrives in the bleak urban landscape of Chicago in 1898, where she eventually finds employment in a shoe factory.
3 – 5 Scene 1
A salesman of industrial machinery, Charles Drouet, visits the factory to pitch a new product to the factory owner. On the shop floor he chooses Carrie to participate in his presentation and inadvertently humiliates her.
6 – 8 Scene 2
Drouet waits for Carrie outside the factory. She warms to him, and reveals that her dream is to one day become a professional singer. In a series of scenes that compress time, their courtship is dramatized: he takes her to an upper middle-class restaurant, buys her clothes, arranges to meet her again. Throughout, he earnestly convinces her to take money from him. Finally, she agrees to leave her sister’s home where she is boarding, and to live in a small private apartment he will rent for her. Her sister and brother-in-law receive the news in a letter; they react in quiet dismay.
9 Scene 3
Sometime later, Carrie is comfortably installed in her new apartment where Drouet has seen to it that “everything is paid for.” She reflects on her new life as his mistress—its benefits and its obligations.
10 – 13 Scene 4
The grand Chicago restaurant of Fitzgerald and Moy (in those days called a “resort”) is humming with activity. Platoons of waiters deploy for the evening service, directed by an officious Maître D’, and coolly observed by the manager, George Hurstwood. Hurstwood motivates them by declaring that actors from a prestigious Chicago theater are expected to dine there after their performance. The waiters respond with salvos of masculine enthusiasm as they prepare the resort. Time slips forward to ten o’clock and the actors arrive, followed by Drouet and Carrie who are posing as a married couple. Hurstwood greets his acquaintance Drouet, acknowledges Carrie and then welcomes the actors with an effusive aria. When Drouet promotes Carrie as an aspiring actress herself, Hurstwood suggests a series of stock characters to Carrie and she publicly improvises each suggested character with aplomb, charming the professional actors and entrancing Hurstwood.
14 – 17 Scene 5
Two months later. A series of interlocked scenes, taking place over several weeks, show new tensions in the life of George Hurstwood. At home, he is distant with his wife, Julia. His son George Jr. pointedly mentions that he has seen his father at the theater without his mother; Hurstwood responds vaguely and buries himself deeper in his evening paper. His daughter Jessica then makes petulant demands for a trip abroad and this prompts a chorus of complaints about the family’s lack of proper summer plans.
Hurstwood secretly meets Carrie in a park. They declare their love for each other, but must act discreetly in public. She reports that Drouet has now genuinely asked her to marry him. Without revealing that he himself is married, Hurstwood asks if “one day” he were to come to her and ask her to change her whole life for him, would she do it? She passionately answers, yes. As evening falls, they kiss under cover of darkness.
Back at home, Julia brushes her hair as she prepares for bed. When George enters, she calmly informs him that a letter has come for him, with no return address. He pretends that the letter is work-related, but she challenges him to open it in front of her. When he refuses, she coolly reminds him that their house is held in her name.
18 – 22 Scene 6
After closing time that night at Fitzgerald and Moy, Hurstwood has a chance to read the letter. He is distraught by what it says. Before he can fully react, he notices a man lurking in the darkened restaurant. It is a detective, who serves him with divorce papers from his wife. In a fury, he reads her petition; it accuses him of adultery and non-support of their children. Calming himself, he tries to go on locking up. He clings to a vision of Carrie as the only good thing in his life. When he gets to the restaurant’s safe in which the week’s cash receipts are kept, he notices the door of the safe has been left slightly ajar. Seeing the ten thousand dollars within as the answer to all his problems, he steals the money.
23 – 26 Scene 7
In the middle of that same night, Hurstwood arrives in a carriage at Carrie’s apartment with an urgent report that Charlie Drouet has been injured, and that she should accompany him by train to the hospital on the outskirts of Chicago. Panicked, Carrie comes along. Hurstwood comforts her, and is seemingly chastened by the letter she sent him. However, once she sees the train leave the limits of Chicago, Carrie discovers that the “emergency” is a ruse, and is furious. He begs her to understand him, telling her that the day has come for them to leave Chicago and to utterly change their lives, but she rebukes him bitterly for lying to her, threatening to tell the conductor and get off the train. Hurstwood can only repeat that there’s no going back for him. Carrie refuses to speak to him, and they sit in silence on the train bound for New York.
CD 2: Act II
1 – 3 Scene 1
Several months later, in their well-appointed apartment in New York City, George and Carrie celebrate a belated wedding party with new friends. Carrie’s socialite mentor, the effusive Mrs. Vance, offers a toast to explain how she and her husband John became infatuated with the younger couple (whom she knows as James and Carrie Wheeler) as soon as they moved into the building. She is throwing this party to compensate for what she believes was their hasty elopement from Chicago. As all extend their congratulations, Mrs. Vance’s cousin, Robert Ames, asks Hurstwood if he has seen the surprise visitor from Chicago. It is Ed, the Maître D’ from Fitzgerald and Moy, come on his own initiative to offer a deal to Hurstwood: if he returns the money, his former bosses won’t prosecute him. Hurstwood, supplying many excuses for the theft, offers to pay back $7000 immediately, and the rest very soon. He even asks if there’s a possibility he could get his old job back.
4 – 5 Scene 2
Later that evening, Hurstwood is doing sums in a notebook while Carrie is heard singing to herself in the bedroom. Ed comes quietly to the door, and George retrieves a satchel full of money and gives it to him. Ed quickly goes. Carrie enters in a seductive peignoir she has bought for this night. George makes an effort to tell her of how a new business partner of his is stealing money from him—how they have to start being careful and may be forced to find a smaller apartment. She will have none of it, and lures him into the bedroom.
The next morning, Carrie is smartly dressed. She will have her first theater audition that day, as well as job interviews in several fine shops. George, still in his dressing gown, claims he will go get his investment back from his partner and start looking for a better opportunity. He and Carrie have a date to meet the Vances and Ames later for dinner. George again voices concern over their expenses, but Carrie heartens him.
6 – 11 Scene 3
At a large and chaotic audition for an operetta called The Wives of Abdul, Carrie meets Lola Sterling, a more experienced young actress. They practice their lines together and then take part in the audition, run by the director and the dance captain.
The scene segues into the dinner that night. Ames finds fault with the ostentatious wealth on display in the restaurant, quoting from Père Goriot by Balzac, and urging Carrie to read that novel. The Vances chide him for being so censorious, given that he is a millionaire’s son, but Carrie takes his words to heart. She then tells her friends the story of how she passed the audition earlier that day, was cast as a chorine in the show and spontaneously invented her stage name: Carrie Madenda. Hurstwood (known to them as James Wheeler) arrives late and claims that he has already eaten with a client. He furtively counsels Carrie not to spend excessively, but she ignores him. On their way home after dinner, they quarrel about money; Carrie alludes to him moping in their apartment every day, but he counters that a famous hotelier will soon open a new hotel in New York—that will be his opportunity.
The next morning, Carrie leaves for her rehearsal, reminding George that it’s rent day. After assuring her that he will look for work that very day, he settles into his rocking chair.
12 – 13 Scene 4
Rocking in his chair, Hurstwood enters a fantasy world centered on his memories of being the manager at Fitzgerald and Moy (“I’m at home in the world”).
14 – 15 Scene 5
Weeks later, at a dress rehearsal of the extravagant operetta The Wives of Abdul, Carrie distinguishes herself by improvising a comedic bit, drawing praise from the show’s stars. The director promotes her to a small solo part. When she returns home with this news, the emotional gulf that has opened between her and George is apparent. He is now virtually a shut-in in their apartment; he can offer her little beyond feeble encouragement.
16 Scene 6
Carrie suddenly moves out one day, leaving a letter that George finds. It says in part, “You sit in that rocker, day after day and look at me just as if I’m a ghost, or you are.” Hurstwood reads these words in disbelief, then flees the apartment.
17 – 18 Scene 7
On the street in front of their building, Hurstwood happens upon a poster for a show featuring Carrie Madenda, billed as “the girl you can’t take your eyes off.” Resignedly, he agrees, says goodnight to the image of Carrie on the poster, then wanders off.
Backstage in the dressing room they share for their new show, Carrie and Lola take childish delight in the attention they receive from their many gentleman fans who ardently send “mash notes” to them after each performance.
19 – 20 Scene 8
Later that winter, in Times Square, homeless men line up, trying to find a bed and a hot meal for the night. They sing restlessly of “goin’ back” to a better time. Taking charge of them is the Captain, a grizzled Civil War veteran who pleads to the well-heeled passers-by on their behalf, invoking the names of the great Civil War battles of Antietam and Shiloh. Hurstwood, now homeless, shuffles in to join the men. On this night, Farley, a noted strikebreaker, stops by to recruit men to be replacement workers for the trolleymen who have recently gone out on strike across New York. He promises the homeless men food, shelter and guaranteed jobs. Most resist, grumbling that they “ain’t no scabs,” but Hurstwood steps forward and is instructed to be at the Broadway Central Depot the next morning.
21 – 22 Scene 9
The next morning, the snowy streets of Manhattan ring with the songs of workers. In front of the depot, strikers have set up a picket line and chant defiantly. Farley leads in the replacement workers who quietly admit their sympathy for the strikers but say “I gotta eat, too.” Hurstwood rallies them with the thought that they are on the winning side—the side of industry.
In a midtown apartment, Carrie is reading to Ames from Père Goriot when she hears the faraway songs of the strikers. Carrie remembers her days as a factory worker and sympathizes; she draws a lesson from Balzac about guarding your true feelings, lest the world destroy you. Ames objects to what he calls her cynicism, but she persists.
Back at the trolley depot, Hurstwood rouses the replacement workers and marches them forward to the picket line, where he engages in a tense standoff with the head striker, who tries to convince him to go home to his family. Thinking of Carrie, Hurstwood says “I’ll show you who sits in a rocker. I’ll show you who gets a job.” And finally, he leads a violent charge across the picket line. During the ensuing melee he is beaten savagely and remains lying bleeding in the snow as the rest of the men disperse.
23 – 26 Scene 10
Carrie and Ames, walking together to her matinee performance, come upon the site of the skirmish. Carrie runs forward to help the injured men. When she and George recognize each other, he struggles to his feet, and she gently offers him money, which he accepts. He asks what show she’s now appearing in, and as he stumbles away he assures her that he’ll try to see it.
Walking away from their encounter, he runs across the Captain to whom he gives most of the money. Then he continues on to the Bowery. At his flophouse he asks for a room with private gas. He uses his last coin to light the flame and then blow it out. As he asphyxiates, he starts to hallucinate about charging into the theater to reclaim his wife, “little Caroline Meeber.” Simultaneously, Carrie is seen in the midst of her operetta’s big production number, singing “Why I’m Single” backed up by a chorus of elegant society women. Hurstwood dies thinking of Carrie, and the homeless men once again flood the stage, singing of their urge toward better times.
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