John Treville Latouche (1914-1956) grew up in poverty in Richmond, VA and moved to New York City in 1932. He attended, on scholarship, first the Riverdale Country School and then Columbia University, where he wrote the book, lyrics and some of the music for the Varsity Show of 1935, called Flair-Flair, the Idol of Paree. Described by John as "Rabelaisan," it caused the University to create a censorship board to oversee future student shows and resulted in John's exit from Columbia after only 2 years. He then contributed music and/or lyrics to a number of musical revues on and off-Broadway, as well as writing nightclub material for a variety of performers, including the notoriously ribald Madame Spivy.
His first great success came with the musical cantata "Ballad For Americans," a 13-minute paean to American democracy for soloist and full orchestra and chorus (music by Earl Robinson). Written to be the finale of the Federal Theatre Project's musical revue Sing for Your Supper, it achieved national success when performed on the radio by Paul Robeson. It led to the opportunity to write lyrics for the hit Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky (music by Vernon Duke, book by Lynn Root), which starred Ethel Waters and was subsequently filmed by MGM. Duke and Latouche followed Cabin with the songs for two short-lived star vehicles, Banjo Eyes (for Eddie Cantor) and The Lady Comes Across (for Jessie Matthews). World War II then intervened in their collaboration. John served in the Seabees, but his major war work was to spend 14 months in the Belgian Congo doing research to write the narration for a documentary film produced by the Belgian government to help the war effort and keep Africa on the side of the Allies. He subsequently turned the film into a photo journal book called Congo (in collaboration with filmmaker/ photographer Andre Cauvin), published in 1945.
He resumed his Broadway career in 1944, writing the lyrics for two unsuccessful operettas, Rhapsody (from the music of Fritz Kreisler, adapted by Robert Russell Bennett) and Polonaise (from the music of Frederic Chopin, adapted by Bronislaw Kaper.) In 1946, he collaborated with composer Duke Ellington on the controversial, critically acclaimed Broadway musical Beggar's Holiday, an interracial contemporary version of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, starring Alfred Drake as Macheath, for which John also did the book. 1948 saw the Broadway premiere of Ballet Ballads, written with composer Jerome Moross, consisting of three one-act dance cantatas combining dance, song and storytelling in a through-composed dramatic form. Moross and Latouche would further refine this form in their next project, with the help of a Guggenheim grant. The Golden Apple, which re-set Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey in 1900 in the small, fictional town of Angel's Roost at the foot of Washington State's Mount Olympus, won the prestigious New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical of 1954 and was recorded in severely truncated form by RCA Records.
In 1955, Latouche's The Vamp was a vehicle for Carol Channing (music by James Mundy, co-book writer Sam Locke), a spoof of the early days of silent films and loosely based on the life and career of Theda Bara. Highly praised on the road, it closed after only 60 performances in the wake of bad reviews on Broadway. But shortly thereafter, John received good reviews for his contributions to Ben Bagley's off-Broadway's The Littlest Revue, which briefly revived his collaboration with Vernon Duke. In July of 1956, The Ballad of Baby Doe, an opera with libretto by Latouche and music by Douglas Moore, opened in Central City, Colorado to rave reviews. Based on the real life story of silver magnate Horace Tabor and his scandalous romance with the lovely Elizabeth McCourt Doe, known as "baby," it was subsequently presented in 1958 at the New York City Opera, making a star out of Beverly Sills. Baby Doe is one of the few 20th-century American operas to enter the standard repertoire. It played at the New York City Opera in the 2000-2001 season.
John Latouche's non-theatrical projects included dramatic scripts for radio and early television; unpublished poetry; script and lyrics for an animated childrens short, The Peppermint Tree, narrated by Carol Channing; and songs for two experimental surrealistic Hans Richter films, Dreams That Money Can Buy (in which he also appeared as an actor) and 8 X 8. He was famous for his artistic salons, where he gathered together such friends as Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, e. e. cummings, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copeland, Jane and Paul Bowles, Gore Vidal, Virgil Thomson, Libby Holman, Katherine Dunham, Frank O'Hara, Jack Kerouac, Lena Horne, Man Ray, Jean Paul Sartre, Dawn Powell, Charlotte Rae, Ned Rorem, George Balanchine, Carol Channing and many others. He died of a sudden heart attack at his Vermont home in August, 1956, at the age of 41, having just completed revisions on The Ballad of Baby Doe and while at work on revisions to his lyrics for Candide (to Leonard Bernstein's music), which was produced posthumously on Broadway in December, 1956. Divorced from Connecticut heiress Theodora Griffis after a brief, early marriage, he was survived by his partner-in-life, poet Kenward Elmslie, who still occupies their Vermont home today.
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