Opera Saratoga Rocks Blitzstein's Cradle

Ginger Costa-Jackson is Moll in Opera Saratoga's production. Photo Credit: Gary David Gold.

Ginger Costa-Jackson is Moll in Opera Saratoga's production. Photo Credit: Gary David Gold.

Opera Saratoga opened a brilliant staging by Lawrence Edelson of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock on 9 July 2017 in Saratoga Springs. The production alone is reason enough to go. But the chance to be a part of the show’s inspiring, fascinating, distillation of American Music Theater History is something that anyone who loves either music theater or opera (or, like me both—and especially the intersection between the two) should witness. For the first time since 1960, the show made famous by being shut down temporarily by the Feds and performed from the house with the composer onstage at the piano is being performed with the composer’s own orchestrations. If the media can be the message, sometimes the venue is the vision.

At the age of seven, small and awestruck in a plush red velvet seat in Uiehlein Concert Hall in Milwaukee, I was mesmerized by the conductor, Kenneth Schermerhorn. He was strikingly handsome, and athletic. He was charismatic, and when he raised his arms it was easy to imagine that he was celebrating the Eucharist. In fact, he radiated the authority of a minister, but his back was to us, and there was sensuality in his movements when he cued the glittering array of brass instruments, sumptuous strings, and bird-like woodwinds that stirred me. But he was more than a shepherd guiding a flock; he was the orchestra’s sovereign—he was the only one who literally knew the score, and the congregation read only their assigned lines. I didn’t possess then the language to put words to what I was thinking and feeling, but I understand now that what I was experiencing was the intersection of aesthetic, political, psychological, and spiritual forces that constitute performance at the highest level. It blew my mind. The concert hall was like a cathedral, the audience like a congregation, and the communion—for me, at least—entirely spiritual.

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that—sitting there trying to decide which of the many instruments on stage I would most like to play—I decided to become a composer first and a performer second. It was because my father had unintentionally taught me that although Power can compel, it does not last; my mother had by example taught me that Authority can inspire, and therefore last forever. Like Love, Authority must be earned. Every time a new piece of music is read for the first time the composer starts with all the Power and no Authority. If the music inspires and moves the performers, then the composer’s Authority grows. If it does not, well, as Virgil Thomson, whose game-changing Four Saints in Three Acts premiered in 1927, once told me, “Don’t worry about withdrawing pieces, baby; they have a way of withdrawing themselves.”

Never has there been a composer who so comprehensively manifested both in life and work the ironic union of opposites than Marc Blitzstein. Son of a wealthy banker, he received a full scholarship to study piano at no less than the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music; but he wanted to compose. Believing in “art for art’s sake,” this tonal composer traveled to Europe and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, dean of modernist atonal composers. Homosexual, he married a woman whose translations of Brecht introduced him to not just his theories on theater, but his politics, and the socially conscious Weimar Composers—Hans Eisler, Kurt Weill, and Paul Hindemith. By 1938, his first “commercial” music-theater work, which was really a numbers opera, The Cradle Will Rock’s "second act" opener was a self-lacerating duet called “Art for Art’s Sake” in which a painter and musician do, well, what Blitzstein was taught to do during Tea Time at Curtis. The apotheosis of this transit? Composing, for the Metropolitan Opera Sacco and Vanzetti, a grand opera about two humble immigrant anarchists convicted and executed for a crime for a crime they may not have committed. Had there been no Blitzstein, there would have been no “radical chic” at the Dakota for Bernstein, no link from Eisler to Bernstein, by way of Boulanger. And we’d all be deprived of the most vital branch of the American lyric theater’s stream.

When Olive Stanton (who was not the neophyte that myth and Tim Robbins in his lovely film paint her as having been) stood up on cue in the audience in 1937 there was Method (though Welles famously hated the Method) in the madness, magic in the moment. “I’m checkin’ home now,” she sang, and our hearts are meant to rush to her, knowing full well that she’s all artifice, Blitzstein’s throaty Lenya. The sarcastic earnestness of Blitzstein’s lyrics embodies his own inner-conflicts. For example, instead of allowing us to really care for Moll when she asks Andy behind the lunch counter for “Coffee and” Blitzstein crafted a joke: “Coffee and … Andy.” His come-hither dramaturgy is smacked down by a Brechtian, distance-making pun. (Similarly, when Paul Muldoon and I wrote the opera Bandanna together, I encouraged him to indulge his penchant for Oxonian wordplay, even though the characters would, by and large, not have expressed themselves thus, and his hand, as an author, would constantly push the audience away as the music pulled them in.) Blitzstein penned broad caricatures not meant to engage us emotionally, yet, in Moll—on whom I modelled the character of Doll in my own Vera of Las Vegas for this reason, and who is portrayed movingly by Ginger Costa-Jackson in this production—he created for the audience a compassionate avatar.

In the Druggist—evocatively sung with vocal slice and clear diction by Keith Jameson in this production—Blitzstein has clearly crafted a Lear figure, but gives his character no satisfactory payoff. We’re meant to be stirred by Larry Forman’s moral authority, yet we meet him two-thirds of the way through the show and, deprived of the personal magnetism of a Jerry Orbach, the role falls flat—Christopher Burchett is a forceful, slightly bemused, ultimately charismatic Larry in this production. Who do we hear about all night long? Mister Mister. He’s more fun to spend time with, after all. We’re not meant to care about Larry. As Everyman, he’s the manifestation of our righteous indignation. Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1933 Inaugural, had put it plainly: “The only thing we have to fear … is fear itself.” We don’t need to know Larry until he, by showing that he is not afraid of Mister Mister, deprives the Trump-ian Monster of his Power by revealing that he has no Authority.

Bernstein told me that Marc had intended to respect “the third wall” up until the offstage trumpets at the end. Only a year after that fateful night in 1937 when Welles and Blitzstein were compelled by circumstance to eliminate the third wall, Thornton Wilder would run with it, eliminating it without fuss entirely in the shape of Our Town’s Stage Manager. That in 1935-36 the season Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, Blitzstein would compose an opera (that is a musical that is an opera—it all begins to feel a bit like the reveal in Chinatown: “My sister, my daughter”) that bites the hands of the people who most underwrite opera is unsurprising—I write operas to speak Truth to Power, too. But that he would score it for an orchestra in the pit and embrace the idea of the extravagant, Welles-designed crystal palace set for the 1937 staging is deeply ironic. The orchestra is, after all, an artistic manifestation of 18th century European society, everyone playing their part, only the benign tyrant on the podium knowing the score. Welles’ masterstroke of an insight (he was, above all, a genius of an editor, dramaturge, and adaptor of found material) was to understand that the Authority, the Authenticity, of the piece would be damn-near apotheotic if the composer was alone onstage at the piano, calling the scenes out as though at a backer’s audition—simultaneously the audience’s and backers’ supplicant and god.

In the theater, there are strict protocols for who may speak to whom during production. I’m well-versed in them and have, in the past, relied on them during moments of high-stress, when one is taking artistic risks and feeling particularly exposed. As a Curtis grad (and composer / conductor / librettist / director of nine operas) who, like fellow-alums Blitzstein and Bernstein, was presumeably schooled during weekly Tea Time on “how to behave” in a Green Room, and who “plays the clarinet in the room, not the one in his head,” I sat in the house during the orchestra dress rehearsal and took the piece’s temperature as a seasoned peer. The forces at play during the performance were absolutely incredible: I could feel the grinding of gears as the (decadent?) European Power Structure Paradigm of the Orchestra (with a capital “O” onstage, not nine feet below in a pit, because of the practicalities of this particular theater) and the Maestro both served and upstaged the document. I thought of the great actor / writer / director Howard Da Silva, veteran of the Blacklist and the original production of Cradle, director of several revivals, including the 1947 one conducted by Bernstein. Suspension of Disbelief was never in the cards, of course; but this was different.

When Bernstein conducted that 1948 revival—the first to use Blitzstein’s original orchestrations—he was given a few lines of dialogue, thereby creating what John Mauceri referred to as “provenance” for his own uttering of the same lines last night while conducting the orchestra dress rehearsal of Opera Saratoga’s production—the first to use Blitzstein’s orchestrations since the 1960 New York City Opera radio broadcast featuring Tammy Grimes conducted by Lehman Engel. When we discussed it, Opera Saratoga’s artistic and general director Larry Edelson elaborated,

“I wanted to give Cradle a fully staged presentation, as so often it is done semi-staged or in concert. My one nod to the original circumstances of the premiere is to have Maestro serve as the Clerk. This has become a part of the tradition of the piece, and with our theater and having the orchestra on stage behind the set, I felt we could honor that part of the piece’s history while still maintaining the through line of a fully staged production. (If our theater had a pit, I would likely have made a different choice.) In the libretto, it actually says that Blitzstein played the roles of Clerk, Reporter and Professor Mamie on Dec. 5, 1937 when it opened at the Mercury Theatre!”

Blitzstein, a man of the theater, would have known himself well-served by a maestro who respected and protected the integrity of his notated document as expertly as did Mauceri. (His Decca recording of Blitzstein’s Regina, with Angelina Reaux, Samuel Ramey, and Katherine Ciesinsky is one of my treasured touchstones as a composer.) But would Blitzstein have assigned Maestro lines of dialogue? Did he want to have that conversation? It’s a daring idea, and one I’ve seen put into play in a dozen black box operas and shows over the years. In the context of the Opera Saratoga production, the orchestra and Mauceri onstage, albeit behind the crafty single-piece set painted Rust-Oleum burnt red to match the interior of the theater, it strongly underscored the fascinating Power versus Authority dynamics at play between Maestro and Composer, Maestro and Director, Orchestra and Cast, Document and Production.

In fact, to my ears, the presence of the orchestra in Opera Saratoga’s production serves as the “dramaturgical nuclear reactor” that powered the document—not the least because Edelson’s staging expertly counterpoints with specific choreography and stage a dozen orchestrational flourishes. That Blitzstein’s orchestrations—suave European Weill-isms and an instrumentation similar to Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel—married to sure-fire American commercial-scoring tricks from the 30s by way of vaudeville (read: those wonderful Paramount circuit orchestras all playing Charlie Chaplin’s scores) and tartly Stravinsky-esque doublings by way of Boulanger and Copland. Indeed, biographer Howard Pollack (whose recent Blitzstein biography eclipses even Eric Gordon’s superb Mark the Music) underlined for me just why the orchestrational similarities between Blitzstein and the Brecht-collaborator Weill are so important: “the novel use of accordion, guitar, and Hawaiian guitar ... all enhance the Brechtian distancing effects found in the work proper.” The Eisler-iana is there, too, of course; but the effect is not as chiaroscuro as the European; Blitzstein’s scoring is more fun, and a bit sexier.

Maurice Abravanel told me at Tanglewood that, when he conducted the first Broadway production of Weill’s Street Scene in 1946, he agitated for a “scrappier” orchestral sound, but that Weill insisted that American Broadway audiences wanted “sumptuous strings, plush tuttis.” There are few of those in Blitzstein’s Cradle orchestration—it is quirky, original, edgy, and far more like Little Threepenny Music than a commercial score. Throughout, as one might expect, the effects that Hershey Kay and Sid Ramin would in a few years craft with Bernstein for On the Town, and West Side Story are nascent. In Blitzstein, however, they all are dropped within a few measures, the point having been made. During one sequence for Missus Mister, Blitzstein uses a single maraca to limn what Bernstein would have fleshed out into a fully-scored rhumba; during another, a tender duet for the doomed Polish couple, Blitzstein adroitly adds a dash of menace in a bass drum, stalking away below like a heavy; in another passage, scored for low brass, as Bugs threatens Druggist, Nino Rota’s “Corleone Theme” from his 70s score for The Godfather is thrillingly presaged.

“As the director,” pointed out Edelson, “I didn’t feel the impulse to update the piece or to view it through a particularly 2017 lens, because the piece, written as allegory, speaks to me as if it were written yesterday. I certainly added a few things in the staging to highlight themes that resonated strongly with me, but I also trust the audience. I wanted to set up Blitzstein’s ‘Steeltown, USA’ so that the audience could have their own response to the material—not to force a response on them.”

This is evident throughout the production. One of Edelson’s crucial, droll grace notes is the surprise appearance on the feet of the members of the Liberty Committee of stylish red pumps that perfectly draw a line from them to the prostitute Moll, who, of course, has had the fashion sense—not to mention the integrity—to sport them from the start.

The opera house is a secular cathedral, the audience a congregation, and the communion celebrated by the actors and audience, presided over by a trinity comprised of Author-Director-Conductor. There is no greater transposable story than that. There’s an old saying: “The ink’s not dry until you die.” At the beginning of the rehearsal, Mauceri, dressed in blazer and tie, about to give the opera’s downbeat, rose from his stool and, over his shoulder, drily announced to the production staff, “I’d like to point out that the paint on my stool is wet.” I cannot think of a better metaphor for “free, adult, uncensored” theater. Thanks to this production, I am ready, as a devotee of Blitzstein’s work, to let go of Marc on the piano stool and allow his authorial Authority to grow, to allow the ongoing struggle to reconcile Power, Authority, and Truth to be carried forward through the lens of a conductor’s vision. I encourage everyone else to witness as Blitzstein’s powerful orchestral Cradle at last begins to earn its rightful Authority by catching this production while the paint’s still wet.

This essay has appeared in the Huffington Post. You can read it there by clicking here.

I've also written about Marc Blitzstein here.

Loving and Losing: Composing "Bandanna"

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on 14 August 2016. Read it there by clicking here.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

In the final tableaux of “Bandanna,” Morales (Othello) strangles his wife Mona (Desdemona) and then takes his own life.

Writing a prescription for Prozac in autumn 1997, my therapist at the time described my condition as “clinically depressed.” Years before, just after my mother’s death, I’d also been prescribed pills—even electro-shock therapy (which I had violently opposed) had been discussed. My family’s appetite for mood-altering substances, and my fear that medication would “blunt my compulsion to create” had kept me from filling the prescription.

I was all too aware that, as Julia Kristeva pointed out in Black Sun, “depression is the hidden face of Narcissus” and that Christian theology, in which I had been immersed since childhood, considered sadness a sin. Dante even consigned the melancholic to “the city of grief” in Inferno. “The loss of the mother,” wrote Kristeva, “is a biological and psychic necessity, the first step on the way to becoming autonomous. Matricide is our vital necessity, the sine-qua-non condition of our individuation, provided that it takes place under optimal circumstances and can be eroticized.”

Came at this time a commission from the College Band Directors National Association (over a hundred colleges ultimately joined the consortium) for a full-length opera on a subject of my choosing (using a librettist of my choice) by way of a phone call from conductor Michael Haithcock.

I chose Othello as my subject matter in order to explore not just the feelings of betrayal and anger that I still felt towards my ex-wife (we had recently terminated a turbulent and nearly entirely disagreeable ten-year marriage) but also the guilt I still felt, and the incomplete mourning in which I felt caught like a fly in a web, as a result of having been called upon by my terminally-ill mother to euthanize her. In other words, I chose to fight my “battle with symbolic collapse” by creating an opera about it.

I decided to recast the Venetian tale of the Moor in a 1968 Texas-Mexico border town. The result was Bandanna, a two act grand opera. The commission required only that I could not use strings (except for basses) in the pit. I asked Paul Muldoon to write the libretto based, as usual, on a detailed co-written treatment in which I determined the exact length of every section of every scene, and mapped out the structural underpinnings of every scene, aria, and ensemble.

I composed the prologue and most of the first scene of the first act at the MacDowell Colony during January 1998 in Chapman Studio, the most remote of the many cabins dotting the property—fully a mile away from Colony Hall. I would have completed the entire first act there but for the fact that there were 26 inches of snow on the ground. For nearly four hours each day, I slogged through the snow in a decidedly non-meditative frame of mind—the walk to and from the payphone, where I was jacking in to check E-mail and to send Muldoon requests for changes, took over an hour each way.

I wrote the balance of the vocal score at home in New York City. Composer Eli Marshall, a former student and friend, stayed with me for much of the time. My work routine consisted of rising at 7 AM, composing until 5 PM, dining at a nearby burrito joint where I spoke Spanish with the waitress, and copying out the fair score in the evening while drinking a bottle of Antinori Chianti. The vocal score was completed in just over four months.

When I co-wrote with Paul the treatment for the last scene of Bandanna I was entirely aware of the agonizing sequence of matricidal, fratricidal, uxoricidal, and suicidal acts that would be ritualistically enacted. Accordingly, in her concluding Willow Aria, the music that Mona sings is written from the point of view that she already knows that she is dead; the strings that accompany her are, throughout the opera, associated with death, inasmuch as they, unlike the wind instruments featured everywhere else in the score, do not breathe.

The transition from Mona’s aria to her murder features three violins, and it tracks Morales as he crosses the stage with excruciating slowness, to her hotel room door. He is Charon, and he is in no hurry. Morales is Orpheus to Mona’s Eurydice. In fact, both Mona and Morales already intuit what must happen and are now just going through the motions: once Morales opens the door, his deputy Cassidy appears. Morales executes his friend. He then turns, as though in a dream, to Mona. He strangles his wife, who does not struggle, with the opera’s eponymous bandanna. Then, without really pausing, except to muse, “Holy Mother of God,” he kills himself by placing his service revolver in his mouth and blowing himself away.

One critic complained later that “the final scene—the climactic murder-suicide—is anguished to a grotesque degree.” If I could have made it even more grotesque, more like a slow-motion nightmare, I would have, so focused was I on capturing my inner state. While composing it, I felt such an intense sense of closure that, at one point, I actually felt as though my mother was standing behind me at the piano, her hand resting on my shoulder. When the chorus crashes in, they sing “Dona nobis pacem” (pun intended: my ex’s name was Donna) to anything but comforting music. The trombones, in fact, are marked, “blaring like the horns of an approaching semi.”

In those days, I used to send a copy of the vocal score of whichever opera I had just finished to Jack Beeson, who would go through it and make marginal comments very lightly in pencil like “You buried a plot point here. This is an intrinsically slow word: why did you set it fast? Courageous! This is the Nieces from Britten’s Grimes! Watch the passaggio!”

Jack, exclusively published by Boosey and Hawkes and ensconced with tenure at Columbia University, was a major behind-the-scenes power broker during the years that I was coming up. I respected his opera Lizzie Borden and particularly liked Hello, Out There, a trenchant one act. Jack’s knack for setting American English in a way that was understandable across the footlights I admired. His operas rarely blossomed into full-fledged song—something I found as a colleague regrettable. Jack, like the many other powerful old guard colleagues I knew then, never did anything for me, and it never occurred to me to ask him to.

During spring 1998, Jack and I played and sang (and argued) our way through Bandanna one afternoon at his spacious Columbia University faculty apartment while his wife Nora kept the tea coming. “You’re going to take a pasting from amateurs for the male ranges,” he predicted. “The men are slung high. I get it: they are all being macho. I know you want them to sound that way. Moreover, I see you are saving up the sound of the female voice for the final scene. However, you are pushing the limits of verismo writing. Maybe too much.”

A page from the Hagen-Muldoon treatment for "Bandanna" with Daron's hand-written notations.

When Jack asked me a few years later to join him as a trustee of the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera I asked him why. His answer was cheerfully truculent: “Because you’re not one of my former students, threatening to kill yourself if I do not throw a Pulitzer your way. Also, you are sane, you happen to write good operas that get produced and your expertise is required.”

I orchestrated the first act of Bandanna by hand at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts during June 1998. The second act I orchestrated mainly at Yaddo the following month, completing it in New York that July. It is the last of my operas whose full score is still in manuscript form. I switched to engraving all of my own music shortly after the farrago that correcting vocal score proofs of the vocal score for Carl Fischer became—an incompetent engraver whose work was so slipshod and inaccurate that I was forced to work through five sets of proofs had been engaged.

Bandanna’s first staging, which served as the centerpiece of the College Band Directors National Association’s national convention that February was a calamity. Upon arrival I learned that the University of Texas graduate students serving as lighting and set designers were unequal to their tasks. The student singers struggled with the roles. A few days into production, the poor fellow singing Kane simply stopped showing up. I watched, like impotent Madam Racquin, as tempos shifted wildly from rehearsal to rehearsal, student singers made up music as they went along.

I contacted Paul Kreider, with whom I had recently performed, along with Carolann Page, selections from Shining Brow at the Guggenheim Museum at the invitation of House Beautiful magazine. Paul had initiated the Vera of Las Vegas opera commission, written his doctoral dissertation on my songs. He was a fearless performer, and a trusted friend. If he couldn’t save this situation, it couldn’t be saved. Paul flew in, and learned the role of Kane in three days. With relief and gratitude, I paid his fee myself.

The premiere production did not represent the work I created. Its first performance (half a dozen players were for some reason absent from the pit for much of the first act) was greeted with what seemed to me to be defensive, uninformed distaste by most of the conventioneers.

Since the band and opera worlds are mutually contemptuous, the constituencies most inclined to produce Bandanna cancel one another out. As Tim Page wrote, “neither fish nor fowl—as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care, [Bandanna is] a melding of church and cantina and Oxonian declamation.” Catherine Parsonage expands upon this assessment: “[it] is wholly convincing as a modern opera, ranging stylistically from the music theatre of Gershwin, Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to traditional mariachi music and contemporary opera of Benjamin Britten. Hagen, who served his apprenticeship on Broadway, acknowledges that holistically the piece falls between opera and music theater. Hagen’s style encourages audiences to be actively involved in constructing their own meanings from the richness of the textual and musical cross-references in his work.”

From the start there were also other colleagues who really got it, like Ukrainian-American composer, pianist, and conductor Virko Baley, who had for years conducted the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and was professor of composition at UNLV. A dynamic, thrilling pianist, tough-minded thinker, and musical swashbuckler, Virko and I had had some great adventures together. I admired him: he knew life, and he wasn’t afraid in his music to offend. He had entirely grasped the fact that Bandanna’s score meant to push people’s limits. “These characters are at the end of their shit,” he told me. “They’re in extremis. That’ll make people who like their opera tame uncomfortable. The whole damned score is unsettling. You got what you wanted, baby.”

The partitura from "Bandanna's" Act I, scene 1 "fistfight" sequence.

A few months before the premiere, presenting the great conductor and promoter of the wind ensemble as a performing group Frederick Fennell with a copy of Bandanna, I asked him how he thought the piece would go over in the band world. Eyes twinkling, he told me that he felt that there were three kinds of band conductors: “First, you have what I call the Educators: they teach high school band and play simplified arrangements of pop songs and movie themes. Then there are the Spit and Polish Men: they play marches, and for them music history stalled around the time of Holst. Finally, there are the Maestros: they could have been orchestra conductors but chose to conduct bands because they love them. These men and women are hungry for new repertoire, and can have a better grasp of the symphonic repertoire than their colleagues can in the orchestra world. Almost none of them know anything about opera, my boy, so your opera is doomed.”

The music of Bandanna, to my mind, not only successfully evoked the morally bankrupt world in which it’s Touch of Evil-infused characters lived, but also gave voice to my own inner world at the time: I was an unhappy fellow at the end of his rope, in a dark place, and looking for a way out. Bandanna addressed and expressed what was then my “truth”—that Life was a shadowy, Conradian “horror” glimpsed during flashes of lurid Malcolm Lowry lightning over Cormack McCarthy landscapes. The music was aggressively at odds with the words that it carried much of the time, like a horse that will not be ridden. Even if I removed the band world from the equation by re-arranging it for orchestra in the pit, Bandanna will never find its niche, perhaps because people like categories and the music draws equally from jazz, musical, and operatic idioms.

Thanks to the efforts of Michael Hitchcock, Paul Kreider, Thomas Leslie, and (owner of my former exclusive publisher, E.C. Schirmer) Robert Schuneman, among others, I was able in 2006 to conduct a complete recording of Bandanna (available on the Albany label) that I felt invalidated the criticisms the score had received.

The reception accorded the staged premiere was counterbalanced by the recording’s accolades from major magazines like Opera News and industry experts like Henry Fogel, who understood what Muldoon and I were trying to achieve. “Bandanna,” Fogel wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “is a poignant, dramatic, and moving new opera, one that belongs in the repertoire not because it deals with the politically hot topic of illegal immigration, but because it is powerful music theater.”

Among my operas, Bandanna shall always have been for me that problem child—the one that was too much like me to get perspective on; the one I listen to even now, 20 years later, through rueful tears as it gallops off into its own, self-immolating sunset of love and loss.

Learn more about Bandanna here.

The Great Dream: an American Opera

This essay appeared originally in the Huffington Post on 18 July 2014. Read it there by clicking here.

“If you live long enough you can write four operas,” wrote composer and music commentator Virgil Thomson.

Philip Glass has penned at least 17; the fecund imagination of John Adams has so far brought forth two operas, a numbers musical, and an oratorio. Dominick Argento’s 14 operas are a model of elegance and emotional integrity; William Bolcom’s 10 are stylistically fearless and suave. In the near past, Gian Carlo Menotti created more than 25 “giovanni scuola” operas, two of which were awarded Pulitzer prizes.

Broadening the definition of lyric theater from opera (and operas which dip into “music theater” conventions — another article about that sometime) to “shows” that dip periodically into operatic conventions, the living American champion has to be Stephen Sondheim, with his 16 shows (including his work as a lyricist), each one shot through with streaks, and sometimes great veins, of genius. John Kander, deeply sophisticated in his musical and cultural reference points, has created over 20 shows, each of which has a musical personality that springs directly from the characters in them and their musical era.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the wildly successful creative juggernaut, has written 20 shows. It intrigues me that the young theater composers I run into never cite him as an influence. When I worked as a copyist on Broadway we used to quip that somewhere in the world, at every moment of every day, Cats were singing.

George M. Cohan, “the man who owned Broadway,” was an early pioneer in what became the “book musical,” and was wildly prolific in every genre. Richard Rogers built on Cohan’s legacy, and deepened it, with forty shows to his credit. Even my folks, when they attended a performance of the original production of “South Pacific” on Broadway during their Honeymoon, intuited that the through-composed (the ghost of Giuseppe Verdi’s “parola scenica!”) scene that blossoms into the seize the moment masterpiece, “Some Enchanted Evening” was a genre buster.

But it was, of course, George Gershwin, whose 18 shows all burst at the aesthetic seams, who fathered the Great Dream: the first truly American Opera. “Porgy and Bess” remains the benchmark, no matter how many European conventions one finds holding it together, no matter how much Ravel-esque noodling connects the set pieces, no matter how fraught our current culture’s relationship may be with the libretto, it remains the home run with bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth.

No wonder Virgil hated “Porgy and Bess” so much. It caught lightning in a bottle, and he knew it.

The sketch above will doubtless insult the intelligence of aficionados of both genres of lyric theater who know that it’s all much more complex and subtle than that. So many great composers left out. (Some of them friends — sorry.) I’ve left out Marc Blitzstein, master of agitprop, painfully sophisticated, tilting at windmills, someone whose career during the Depression every ambitious young opera composer here in the States should examine closely for examples, both positive and negative. 

I’ve left out the Disney mega-musicals that now dominate what was once the Great White Way and is now Main Street USA, crafted with the precision of spacecraft, ruthlessly manipulative, and sometimes ecstatically tuneful, of course. They’re incredibly innovative, technically amazing, and, at their heart ... corporate.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a copyist, a proofreader, an editor, an orchestrator, an arranger, and as a ghostwriter, for Disney, Menotti, Bernstein, Webber’s “Really Useful,” and others. During the early ‘80s, before versions for small pit forces were commonly available, I did “pirate arrangements” for various productions of legitimate musicals, only to find, when I worked on Broadway during the ‘90s, that the producers themselves had begun paying for the same thing for their revivals of big orchestra shows. I conducted shows, and played piano in dozens of shows, and operas during the ‘70s-‘90s.

I count myself among the group that includes Menotti and Adams. I have written (and seen through workshop, production, revision, and multiple revival) eight operas, a numbers musical, and am at work on my ninth and tenth.

I have followed inspiration where it (by way of the characters) demanded to go. This has resulted in a catalogue of operas that, listened to superficially, may seem wildly eclectic in musical style, in much the way that American operas in general seem to be all over the map. This misses the forest for the trees. The common ground between them all is a respect for the characters, and a fierce determination to enable them to sing the music that they demand to sing, not what might be determined to be “just pretty enough, and just ugly enough” to fill the time honorably, but not threateningly, between pre-theater drinks, and post theater supper.

My operatic rap sheet is pretty long. In “Vera of Las Vegas,” set in the leisure-suited ‘70s, the characters required a cheek-by-jowl mash-up of ‘70s pop culture conventions and styles with 19th century operatic tropes. In “Amelia,” they required music of greater poetic subtlety — post-Barber, infused with late 20th century American regret.

For “Shining Brow,” which took place at the beginning of the 20th century, I reached towards Barbershop Quartet, the blues, jaunty Protestant hymns, and the aching melodic leaps of Benjamin Britten. In “The Antient Concert,” James Joyce and John McCormack faced off in a singing competition: naturally they used Irish folk songs as their beginning point. Jim’s private music, however, was flinty, modernist, and clever, like the opera’s librettist; John’s music was warm, sentimental, and emotionally accessible.

In “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” a “magic opera” sung by young people, introducing them to opera, I rang changes on the domestic, yet sophisticated theatrical language of Bernstein and Sondheim. “Bandanna” was set on the Texas-Mexican border, and featured illegal immigrants, Vietnam veterans, and a nearly pagan Catholicism who required a mélange of mariachi, agitprop, music theater, and Puccini-esque lyricism to come to life.

In “A Woman in Morocco,” the characters commandeered the late Romantic melodramatic gestures of Korngold, and crossed them, unapologetically, with the over-ripe, unsettling sensuality of late Bessie Smith recordings. 

What a journey these characters have taken me on, and how grateful I am to them all for giving me the opportunity to sing with their voices! As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “I have learned by going where I have to go.” For, it is their stories that inspire my music. I believe that it is the collision of opera producer’s (in many cases) European attitude toward what constitutes the composer’s voice and the quintessentially American (certainly more provocative) commitment of many American opera composers to let the melting pot of people that make up our culture sing the sort of music they need to sing that makes the current contemporary opera scene so exciting.

We’re in an era of enormous “churn” right now, with funding and support flying into “second stage” initiatives, alternative venues, as well as main stage, non-commercial venues. For every Peter Gelb who sees the sea rushing out, there are dozens of innovative producers whose conception of what constitutes opera raises the tide. A lot of the new stuff is dross, of course; that’s inevitable, and healthy. Many of the composers handed the keys to the family car think that they’ve invented the wheels on which it rolls. Some survive by dint of professional associations and politics. No matter: it’s all good.

“A Quiet Place,” Leonard Bernstein’s opera, in which he combined “Trouble in Tahiti” with newly-composed material, aptly reflected the vast changes that swept through the American cultural and musical landscape between the ‘50s and the ‘80s. Slaughtered by the critics the first couple of times out, it flowed smoothly and didn’t seem particularly eclectic when the (sorely-missed) New York City Opera revived it during their final (2010) season. In a review of the opera that uses the word “sublime” at one point to describe Bernstein’s score, Anthony Tommasini wrote of it in the Times: “The lingering criticism of “A Quiet Place” is that the piece is an awkward hybrid both musically and dramatically. This reflects the general criticism of Bernstein as a composer: that his head was so full of all kinds of music he could not find his own voice.” Tony closes with the observation, “If only Bernstein could have been there to see the reaction to his opera.”

I was there. The audience wept, and the ovation was a lengthy one. Bernstein never lived to see the Great Dream come true. But it’s obvious now that Bernstein’s voice did not elude him. Like Whitman, he understood that America is comprised of many voices. Like Whitman, he, during his brief time on the planet, tried to encompass them all in his creative, aesthetic embrace. The fact that composers like Bolcom, Adams, and others (I include myself) juxtapose styles and idioms with equal and due respect for each is now taken for granted. 

We’re in for a wild ride the next few years. Some really great operas are going to be produced. The Great Dream is coming true.