A Death in the Family
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A contemporary opera classic in a modern American idiom.

William Mayer was born in New York City. He entered Yale with the notion of becoming a writer and graduated in 1949 with equal affinities for music and language. A tilt toward music became evident as he continued his training at Juilliard and at the Mannes College of Music, studying with Roger Sessions and Felix Salzer, and later with Otto Luening. His magnificent opera A Death in the Family, is based on two contemporary classics: James Agee's novel of the same name, and Tad Mosel's dramatic adaptation, All the Way Home. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, two years after the author's death, while Mosel's play itself received the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Like the book, Mayer's opera had a long gestation period. Completed in 1983, the opera was given its premiere that year by the Minnesota Opera Company, with a libretto also fashioned by the composer. On that occasion, Robert Jacobson of Opera News wrote: "William Mayer's A Death in the Family should immediately become a candidate for regular airings around the country, so beautiful is it, not only in its James Agee story, but in the setting the composer-librettist has provided for it." Shortly thereafter, A Death in the Family was named best musical theater work of the year, Mayer receiving an "Award for Advancement of American Music Theater" from Hal Prince at Kennedy Center. A new production mounted by Opera Theater of Saint Louis was heard nationwide over Public Radio in 1986 with Dawn Upshaw and Jake Gardner as the principals. Yet it was not until 1999, that the opera had its New York premiere. It is this production by the Manhattan School of Music that is recorded here. The Manhattan School productions have been hailed for years, and "are generally at a level where one is rarely reminded that the performers are students," writes Allan Kozinn of The New York Times.
William Mayer, composer
A Death in the Family
Manhattan Opera Theatre, David Gilbert, conductor

"A Death in the Family should immediately become a candidate for regular airings, so beautiful is it." (Opera News)
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