Opera in the Wild West
Although Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del West) is clearly set in the American West, replete with sheriffs and outlaws, the Italian composer never traveled further than New York City during his lifetime. Luckily for him, librettist and playwright David Belasco was born in San Francisco and had personally experienced the California Gold Rush as a boy.
The world premiere of Puccini’s western-themed opera (December 10, 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera) was so successful that it earned a total of nineteen curtain calls for the composer, stage director David Belasco, stars and conductor.
Orchestrating the Wild West
La fanciulla del West is far from the sole piece of orchestral literature, which deals with the American West. In fact, the well-known 20th century composer Aaron Copland created the music for two American ballets: Billy the Kid and Rodeo.
Loosely based on the exploits of the outlaw who gives this ballet his name, the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid explores the numerous landscapes of the American West, sweeping from the Great Plains to a frontier town and on to the desert. Much like Puccini’s Fanciulla, Copland’s work features an opposition of lawful and lawless at its core. In keeping with the western theme of the ballet, Copland utilized a number of cowboy and folk tunes in his composition, most recognizable among these is likely the song “Git Along, Little Doggies”.
Although Copland was initially hesitant to compose yet another western-styled ballet, his Rodeo was an instant hit that received 22 curtain calls at its 1942 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House and has continued to be performed with regularity across the county. Unlike the earlier ballet, the basis of Rodeo is not historic, but rather romantic. Instead of following the life of an outlaw, this ballet tells the story of an American Cowgirl doing her best to hold her own among the cowboys and to win the heart of the Champion Roper. As with much of Copland’s music, the main theme “Hoe-Down” is based on an American folk-tune, but listeners will also find familiar melodies in every section of the work.
Another point of intersection between orchestral music and the American West is found in the use of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini’s overture to his opera Guillaume Tell, or William Tell. Even those unfamiliar with the work of Rossini will undoubtedly recognize the sound galloping horses evoked by the trumpets and brass in this piece—after all, the overture has been famously featured as the theme music for The Lone Ranger television, radio and film series.