To create this opera, I needed to confront the question: what is Little Women about? So I turned to an unlikely duo: Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss’s longtime librettist, and St. Paul the Apostle.


(…between you and me it flows in silence, trickling, like sand in an hourglass. Oh, Mignon! But sometimes I hear it flowing– Ceaselessly. Sometimes I arise in the middle of the night and take the clocks and stop them every one…)
Hugo von Hofmannsthal from Act I, Der Rosenkavalier



When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
First Corinthians, 13:11


The conflict of Little Women is Jo versus the passage of time. Jo knows adulthood will only graduate her from her perfect home. She fights her own and her sisters’ growth because she knows that growing up means growing apart.

So, Jo spends half the book screaming: “No! Don’t change!”. Jo resents not men but women, women who grow up and abandon their sisters, just cast-off bridesmaids in a deserted aisle. How could she resent men? Laurie adores her; they are best of pals for years. But Laurie’s feelings alter, deepen; he wants her as a man wants a woman. “Why can’t we go on just as we are?” Jo implores. On stage and screen, happy train music and trailing ribbons often herald Jo’s flight to New York. Yet, in Alcott, Jo herself confesses to Marmee another reason why she must leave: “…Laurie is getting too fond of me” (Chapter 32, “‘Tender Troubles”). 

Her logic is quintessentially childlike: All right, Laurie’s changed; she’ll leave for a while, and he’ll change back! 

In this light, scrutinize the events of the latter part of Part I; see how strongly they shape a plot from mere chronicle. Meg’s changed, and Jo’s failed to stop it: she’s had to dance at her wedding. Laurie’s changed, but Jo’s got plans; stay in New York long enough, and Laurie will soon change back. Alas, Jo doesn’t count on Professor Bhaer. Exotic, older, intellectually substantial, he introduces her to Schiller, contemporary German philosophy, mature male company. She begins to look forward to his visits. Who’s changing now? Then, comes the dire telegram; Beth’s taken a turn for the worse. Now Jo’s “Don’t Change!” is directed to the mirror. How could she have even for a moment dreamed of a life outside home? Homeward she dashes.

“Beth, don’t die; I won’t let you:” What is death but the most radical of transformations? But Beth is already gone. Even before she dies, she has become another creature. Dark days. With Beth’s death, Jo’s failed. She’s come home: but the home is changed beyond recall. Distant Meg is nursing two children; sweet Beth is a memory, a piano kept dusted,  manuscripts yellowing on the windowsill. Soon word comes from Italy that Amy and Laurie have “reached an understanding”. A weary Jo accepts the news. She gave up her new life (and love) to save the old. Now she has nothing.

Now Laurie returns home, a glamorous newlywed. Bounding upstairs to the attic, he finds Jo, inert on the sofa. She wakes, and exults; how good to see him! They’ve spoken but little of their great parting of years ago. She will always live in his heart. Laurie begins, but… Jo forgives her friend before he can utter the words. Relieved, delighted, he proposes that they go back exactly to the way it was! To do, in a twinkling, the very thing she’s spent the last bitter years striving for—and failing to achieve. What will Jo say?

I knew what Jo would say; and, now, how she would sing it. Didn’t Jo’s journey call to mind the Buddhist suggestion that a lesson unlearned will reappear over and over again, in a different guise, until at last the pilgrim makes progress and grasps the point? Might that not suggest a score in which, amid a riot of inflection and color, one could clearly hear Jo’s music of stubbornness and resistance tangling with and at last yielding to an ardent but unstoppable music of change? In fact, I wanted two scores: a character music which made the emotional journeys of the characters everywhere clear and traceable, in bold relief against a narrative music as distinct as I could make it from the thematic foreground.

So, Jo’s resistance theme and Meg’s and Laurie’s change theme, among others, are written in a free lyric language of triad and key. But those moments driven by language and story, rather than music and psychology, take a kind of dodecaphonic recitativo secco— crisp and terse, made from the twelve tones of the horn melody in the Prologue. That melody also gave Jo the makings of her exuberant scherzando sections in her Act I scena, “Perfect As We Are.” This long solo, which portrays Jo’s divided feelings by disrupting her long-lined F-major cantilena with careening dodecaphonic comedy, best exemplifies what I dreamed for this piece: a music in which even the most unlike materials could fuse into a single music if the ear is sensitive and the design is sound.

Here, then, is one composer’s aural vision of Little Women, meant to illuminate its buried Straussian—Christian?—theme. Who among us, at the pinnacle of a perfect moment, has not prayed for the clock to stop? Who among us has not feared, fought, and at last forgiven the passage of time? Alcott herself might be skeptical of all this attention paid to her little book. (She also, in Little Women, wrote the paralyzing sentence, “Jo wouldn’t be put into the Opera by any means”—a sentence I did not exactly pin over my desk.) Still, as Rilke once wrote, “An artist selects his subjects; that is his way of praising.” Alcott’s praise of her characters has enriched generations of readers. The opera you hear this summer is but one attempt to return the favour.


Opera Holland Park is delighted to be presenting the UK premiere of Mark Adamo’s Little Women this summer, from 22 July – 5 August. General booking opens on 6 April. For tickets and to find out more, click here