Composing Shining Brow
My reflexive response, when asked, one July afternoon in 1989, by Roland Johnson of the Madison Opera, who I wanted to serve as my librettist for an opera they were interested in commissioning about Frank Lloyd Wright, was Paul Muldoon. Back then, the only way you could reach someone at the MacDowell Colony was by way of two telephone booths in Colony Hall, where Paul was seated, a few feet away, reading the newspaper. I leaned out of the booth and asked, ‘Say, Paul, how would you like to write an opera together?’
Whereas I had written the first act of Brow entirely without input, the second act I took several times to meetings with Bernstein.
We had had over the months enough soul-searching heart-to-heart talks about inspiration and authenticity, ewigkeit and the human spirit to fulfill the rankest amateur's most sentimental expectations of what serious composers ought in private to discuss. I was honored at last to be treated like a colleague by Bernstein: the ebullience and exhilaration of craft-what professionals really talk to one another about-Marc Blitzstein once described as "something called the artist's personality, plus the equation of content and form; [they] are part of the story. For the rest, listen to the stuff"-came in due course, and when it did, it proved entirely more useful.
Our ritual: a glass of Ballantine's together, a round or two of anagrams, the Times of London crossword (which he would do left to right, in rows, in the time it took him to write the letters), some light gossip, and then I would sit down at the piano and play for him one of his Anniversaries, which I had memorized for the occasion. At last, I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He'd become tough, all business, focused like a laser beam, speed over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.
"Okay, baby," he'd begin. "Try this." He would "put over" a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he'd stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the manuscript, find something, and say, "Or you could have used this from before, like this." He'd play a few bars. "No, that wouldn't work." I'd improvise a different line reading. "No, no, you can't do that!" he would laugh, "Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?" He'd noodle a few bars. "No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God." Laughter.Around this time, Paul and I spent a week at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Especially helpful in my portrayal of Wright in the second act were the insights that Wright protégés Edgar Tafel and Richard Carney shared with me. In the beautiful recital hall there, Paul read some of his libretto aloud, and I played and sang several arias from the opera-in-progress for the Taliesin Fellowship. I was privileged to stay for a few nights at Taliesin in Spring Green during the fall of 1991, to dine with the apprentices, and to attend a cocktail party in the same room in which Paul and I had set our fictional one. Did I feel Wright’s presence? I did – as strongly as, a few months later I felt Bernstein’s, when Brow was workshopped after his death at his home in the Dakota. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I think I felt in both places as ‘some essence quorum of [their] souls’ intensities.’
After the company accepted the opera, it was time to choose a stage director. I suggested a young writer named Stephen Wadsworth. Bernstein had described to me how Stephen had just helped him to flesh out and extend his one act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, into a two act opera called A Quiet Place – a tricky, thankless job. Stephen masterminded a beautiful, heart-rending first production of Shining Brow which was as much a memorial to Lenny as a meditation on the career and life choices of a famous architect.
Six months of orchestrating – some in New York, the rest at Yaddo. Production. And then it went up: I remember standing during a performance at what is called ‘the rail’ of the house, behind the audience, where the authors traditionally are allowed to pace, fret, enjoy and suffer, performances of their work, with Stephen, as the tragic finale unfolded.
Stephen said, ‘Look!’
‘Eh?’ I said.
‘Look at them,’ he said, sweeping a hand over the audience, who were experiencing the last few minutes of the opera. ‘They’re all weeping.’
‘Yes, that’s where we want them,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s where they want to be. You did that. I did that. Paul did it. The performers did it. Communion. We all did it. Together.’
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