William Mayer's A Death in the Family operates on many levels. It is about a Southern middle class family struck by sudden tragedy—and unexpected reverberations. But it is also about all families and their loneliness, even as they try to shelter their own members from an uncaring universe. “How lonely this family as with every family on this earth,” writes James Agee, “inconceivably lonely, sorrowful and remote, drawn upon itself as tramps are drawn around a fire in the cruelest weather.”
The specific scene is Knoxville, 1915. The New York Times writes: “Its nucleus is Jay Follet, a recovering alcoholic who is a devoted and compassionate father to young Rufus, an innocent taunted by schoolyard bullies because of his name. Jay's pregnant wife, Mary, is comparatively starchy; her religious zeal is presented as analogous to Jay's [easygoing earthiness].”
A day after Jay and Mary are beginning to overcome their differences, Jay is killed in a freak car accident. The loss is incalculable, as the young husband and father was a bedrock to three generations of Follets.
Wildly disparate emotions well up: overwhelming grief voiced in the sextet, “Who shall tell the Sorrow?”; laughter, shockingly inappropriate at a time of mourning; and rage on the part of Mary's brother, Andrew, who hears his sister praying to God for forgiveness when it is she who has been dealt such a cruel blow. “God, if you exist,” Andrew shouts before he realizes what he is saying, “come here and let me spit in your face!”
Adding to Mary's burden is gossip about the cause of Jay's accident, which Rufus has heard from boys on the street. Unaware that he would wound her, he asks his mother point blank, “Was Daddy drunk?” Yet, within the sorrowful context of A Death in the Family, there is also joy and “an undercurrent of humor, expressed both musically and in the text, which keeps the work from becoming maudlin.” —Allan Kozinn, the New York Times.
Opera News comments on the sweep of the opera, particularly its music: “Mayer develops a skein of past, present and future—its musical elements disparate but all to a purpose, ranging from folk and pop music through electronics (a nightmare) to an operetta spoof. He has a compelling, economical vocal-instrumental style that immediately creates a mood, an atmosphere for the moment, as he provides a finely etched sequence of set pieces and sung recitative melding into a consistent flow.”
Charles Parsons of American Record Guide notes a similar sweep in the libretto: “This is one of the best, most poetical librettos ever, neatly characterizing the emotional story not just in its own proper time frame, but in the larger context of all Mankind.”