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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison masterpieces: Lee Hoiby, Summer and Smoke
Hoiby, below, found a niche writing for voices.
Hoiby, below, found a niche writing for voices.

Madison's gift to American opera is Lee Hoiby (1926-2011). He was born in Madison of a musically important family. Educated here, he studied at the UW with Gunnar Johansen. He trained further at Mills College for a career as a concert pianist. But he was gradually drawn into composition.

He produced an impressive array of instrumental and orchestral music, but found his special niche in writing for voices. He became of one of the United States' most admired composers of songs for voice and piano, and he wrote a good dozen operas and theater pieces.

Perhaps his most widely successful and appreciated stage work was composed on commission from the St. Paul Opera, which premiered it in 1971. (The UW Opera has given it two separate productions.) This is Summer and Smoke, based on Tennessee Williams' 1948 play of that name. Williams had resisted requests for his plays to be turned into operas, but in 1964, impressed by Hoiby's efforts to that point, himself invited the composer to pick one of his plays for operatic setting. Hoiby chose Summer and Smoke, having playwright Lanford Wilson create a libretto adaptation.

Hoiby's opera tells the story of sexually repressed Alma Winemiller, daughter of dysfunctional parents in a small Mississippi town. The writing is melodic and richly orchestrated, constituting a readily approachable work of lyric theater. It has found particular favor with school groups as well as commercial companies, and it has recently had its first recording, joining four other Hoiby operas on discs.

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