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Legacy of Anguish: 'Sophie's Choice'

For centuries, opera has been fertile ground for transplanted literature. There are operas based on the plays of Shakespeare and Schiller, on the poems of Dante and Pushkin, and on novels by Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde.

So, when you see the title of Nicholas Maw's opera Sophie's Choice, it looks like a modern example of that longstanding tradition — an opera inspired by William Styron's acclaimed novel. In fact, Maw's work is even more modern than that. Its initial inspiration resulted from a trip to the composer's local video store!

Nicholas Maw was born in England in 1935. In the 1980s, he began dividing his time between Britain and the United States, becoming a longtime resident of the Washington, D.C., area.

Maw's major compositions include an evening-long concert work called Odyssey, and a Violin Concerto written in 1993 for violinist Joshua Bell. He has also written two other operas, both comedies, called One-Man Show and The Rising of the Moon.

He first came to Sophie's Choice when he rented the 1982 movie, directed by Alan Pakula and starring Meryl Streep, and immediately decided the story would make great material for an opera.

The movie led Maw to Styron's novel, and then to the author himself. Maw asked Styron if he might be interested in writing the opera's libretto. Styron declined, but suggested that the composer write the libretto himself — and that's exactly what Maw did. The opera was eventually composed on a commission from the BBC and London's Royal Opera House, which presented the premiere in 2002.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Sophie's Choice in its American premiere production from the Washington National Opera. The cast features three of the same singers who created the opera's main roles in London: Angelika Kirchschlager as Sophie, Rod Gilfry as Nathan Landau, and Gordon Gietz as Stingo. The production is led by conductor Marin Alsop.

And, for any Sophie fans who might be wondering, the opera truly lives up to the searing emotional impact of both the novel and the film, packing unforgettable music and drama.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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