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Fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of the opera that brought Thomas Pasatieri to fame.

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of The Trial of Mary Lincoln, the opera with which the American composer Thomas Pasatieri (New York, 1945) rose to fame. The Trial of Mary Lincoln is a one-act opera with a libretto by Anne Howard Bailey, based on the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of US President Abraham Lincoln.

The opera was created expressly for television, and its premiere was broadcast throughout the United States on 14 February 1972 on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), the heir to National Educational Television, created by the Ford Foundation in 1954, which sought to offer quality programmes to viewers. In the specific case of opera, it sought to attract viewers who were not interested in the genre, mainly because they did not know much about it or because what they did know was distorted by social and cultural misconceptions. Television was seen as an essential tool to erase those misconceptions, and this work focused on a familiar historical moment: the 1875 trial to mentally incapacitate Mary Lincoln. The death of her son Thomas in July 1871, coupled with the deaths of her two other children and the 1965 murder of her husband, had caused her great depression, and her only surviving son, Robert Lincoln, a young Chicago lawyer, reportedly alarmed by his mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour, initiated proceedings to have her committed. At trial, a jury decided to commit her to a private asylum in Batavia, Illinois, but she later succeeded in proving that her incapacitation proceedings were a ruse by Robert to control her mother’s finances, and she was able to leave the institution to live with her sister Elizabeth.

Pasatieri was then a young composer of 26, but The Trial of Mary Lincoln was already his seventh opera. Since 1984 he has also been known for his orchestrations of soundtracks for films such as Fried Green Tomatoes (1987), The Little Mermaid (1989), Scent of a Woman (1992), The Pelican Report (1993), Legends of the Fall (1994) and American Beauty (1999). In 2003, he moved back to New York to refocus on his career as an orchestral and opera composer, which now includes 24 works. The latest, The Vaudevillian, inspired by the rise and fall of the American soprano Rosa Ponselle, had its world premiere in 2018.