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Something to sing about: fish, bait and blondes

Experimenting with contemporary themes in opera, the University of Iowa staged an absorbing production involving a construction crew and a fishing camp. But would you fish with these characters?

American opera lovers, dismayed by the news that the Metropolitan in New York, will not open this season on schedule, can take heart from recent developments in music and fishing in Iowa. The University of Iowa has produced an opera called $4000, which is unquestionably the only opera in existence in which the characters sing about fishing, bait and the horrors of life in a place where fishing supplies are sold. First shown last month to startled audiences, $4000 so far has racked up four performances, accompanied by a 60-piece orchestra and enthusiastic notices.

Among its other distinctions, $4000 is the first opera since Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, back in 1910, to be set in the great outdoors. Comparisons stop there, however. The Girl of the Golden West comes to a climax with a poker game. This new venture into outdoor opera begins with a poker game. The game in Puccini's opera is crooked: the heroine plays cards with the sheriff, with the life of her boy friend as a stake, and wins by plucking three aces from her stocking, where she evidently carried them for just such emergencies. The poker game in $4000 is on the level, but the money is no good. The scene is a construction camp in a Southern swamp, with the workmen using company scrip, not knowing the scrip is worthless.

Al, a surveyor, has been winning steadily, despite the fact that his mind is not on the game. Or on his work, for that matter. As he rakes in his winnings he sings about his girl, Sally Anne:

I only think about her all the time.
I see her in my transit when I'm sighting.

No wonder the construction company officials have decided to give up the project. To make matters worse, Pill Donovan, the villain, leading baritone and foreman, is equally absent-minded about the game and his work. He too sings about Sally Anne. He sees her with him at the races, drinking juleps.

At the first performance of $4000 at the University of Iowa the orchestra played so loudly it drowned out the singers' lines. Whether this was an unmixed blessing is still in dispute. In any case, the other poker players become so incensed at Al's continued good luck that he takes the $4,000 in scrip that he has won and goes to his shack. It appears that employee relations in the construction company are in pretty bad shape. Pill persuades the losing workmen that Al has cheated, and they start after him with shotguns. The first scene ends when the paymaster arrives from the company headquarters and sings that it is all over: the company is busted.

But Al and Pill do not know that, and throughout Scene 2 they run through the swamp, to the accompaniment of music that one critic said "strongly suggests slithery, slimy, crawly swamp creatures." Al means to get away with his $4,000 and marry Sally Anne. At dawn he appears in a tiny hotel-and-bait-selling establishment. The wife of the owner befriends him, thinking he must be a fugitive from the law, which indicates the kind of fishermen who patronize the place. Al sings:

Can I buy clothes and shaving stuff in town? I mean, when things open?

She sings in reply:

What town? When things are open here the town's still closed.

Al sings that it is true; worms don't do much to liven up a place. This inspires Mrs. Applegore (that's her name) to an aria about the tedium of selling bait to fishermen:

Place? A penitentiary for bass.
A crazy house for addled bream.
A prison where they lock up gars.
Look at me. Have I started growing scales?

Mr. Applegore, overhearing, thinks Al and his wife are having a love affair. Mrs. Applegore lends Al money to telephone Sally Anne. But Pill, meanwhile, has emerged from the swamp and is snuggling with Sally Anne in her room and planning how the two of them can trap Al and the $4,000. In the final scene Al is momentarily overjoyed when Sally Anne runs into the bait shop and calls on him to leave at once. (Pill is waiting outside with a knife.) Mrs. Applegore sees him and warns Al and gives him her husband's gun. Disillusioned by Sally Anne's treachery, Al refuses it, singing that Pill can take the money and Sally Anne and go. As Pill enters, Mr. Applegore grabs Al, pushing him toward Pill, who stabs him, as Mrs. Applegore, shooting wildly with her husband's gun, kills Pill also. At this point the workmen with shotguns who have been looking for Al make their entrance. They find the bodies and the scrip on the floor and force Sally Anne to pick it up, singing:

It's two cents on the dollar that
they're paying, girl. Easiest
eighty bucks you'll ever make.

No opera in history has ever been so intimately connected with bass fishing, trout streams and duck blinds as $4000. Ten years ago Vance Bourjaily, then 36, was a visiting lecturer at the University of Iowa, where he met Tom Turner, 45, the son of an Iowa governor and head of the department of music theory in the university's school of music.

A novelist who also has been active as a television and outdoor writer, Bourjaily mentioned that he was going trout fishing, which aroused Turner's skepticism, as he did not believe there were any trout in Iowa. The result was that he and Bourjaily went to a stream about 60 miles north of Iowa City that actually contains trout, and a hunting and fishing collaboration began which eventually developed into their opera with a fishing and poker-playing background. "I get damned sick of operas that always seem to be about 15th century peasants," Bourjaily said.

In 1962 while he and Turner were hunting pheasants, they began to discuss an opera with a native setting and plot. "Even after we decided to do it," Turner said, "I just couldn't bring myself to make the commitment. You know, something like this ties up a lot of people and money over an extended period of time." Once the decision was made, Bourjaily turned out the libretto in three weeks.

The Daily Iowan, the student newspaper, praised the chase through the swamp, its critic saying it reminded him of Eliza crossing the ice in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Other reviewers praised the orchestral brilliance of the score and the novelty and originality of the venture. With bold staging and lighting, the opera played to capacity audiences in its first four performances, and now Bourjaily and Turner are looking around for another production. "Maybe opera can be made to appeal to the contemporary man," Bourjaily said. "We're trying to take it out of the drawing rooms. I would much rather have seen the review on the sports pages, where it more properly belonged, than on the society page."

Be that as it may, a few more operas that present fishing in such a deplorable light as does $4000 might galvanize the Izaak Walton League to underwrite the Metropolitan's productions of Tosca and La Bohème. Not to mention construction companies.