Tornados have been in the news lately, with killer winds scraping parts of Oklahoma clean a few weeks ago. And, of course, Art copies Nature. Funnel-shaped clouds and hurricanes have been popular subjects for films almost from the beginning, with special effects departments churning out high winds on demand. Hollywood magicians seem to do that sort of thing with great ease (not to mention great amounts of cash).

A still greater challenge has to be producing such natural disasters on the stage. But spectacle has been part of theatrical tradition long before the movies learned to dazzle us. A number of examples can be found in just the last century. Judy Garland was not the first Kansas farm girl to be flung across a rainbow into an Emerald City. Or even to sing about it. Frank L. Baum's 1900 story for all us kids was followed three years later by Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery's musical extravaganza, which boasted of its on-stage tornado. Obviously a hit, it ran for 293 performances. In 1925 the Gershwin's brothers' opera Porgy and Bess featured a hurricane that threatened the islands off Catfish Row. And recently WXXI listeners had the opportunity to hear Kurt Weill's fantastical opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny , written in 1927. A threatening Florida storm, probably based on a Miami blow the year before, drives much of the action in that piece. In 1938 New York City's Henry Street Settlement House presented an experimental opera written to be performed by high school students, with parents acting as chorus. Called The Second Hurricane , it featured the title storm as well as a resulting flood. The libretto was by Edwin Denby and the score was a first effort by a young Brooklyn composer named Aaron Copland.

In Kurt Weill's case it must have seemed as if Nature copied Art. On Sunday, September 16th, 1928, the year following his opera, a bit of rain was predicted for the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida, the remnant of a hurricane that had hit Puerto Rico a few days earlier. The local Florida inhabitants had been spared. But still, something didn't seem quite right; the sky looked dull and lifeless, there was an unnatural calm in the atmosphere. A few warning calls began coming in from nearby Palm Beach. Then the telephone lines went dead. And it got even quieter. A dike separated the 730-square-mile lake from the local settlement. A very weak dike. Heavy rains raised the lake's level above its natural height. In the middle of the pitch-black night the full storm struck. Flimsy local dwellings were flattened immediately. The death toll began mounting. Suddenly the dike just ceased to be. And the nightmare began. Those who managed to climb trees to escape the rising waters were greeted by tens of thousands of water moccasins who had the same idea. Some of the snakes would survive. Over 2,000 people would not.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

©1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte