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.

Being Frank: Composing "Shining Brow"

Muldoon and Hagen in 1993.

Muldoon and Hagen in 1993.

In 1989 I  began composing Shining Brow, an opera in two acts and a prologue about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It explored the intersection of Life and Art, self-actuation and selfishness. At the time,  I asked my librettist to make this conundrum one of Wright's foremost concerns. Consequently, our Man asks a question that the actual One may never have asked himself: “Can a man be a faithful husband and father and still remain true to his art?”

My librettist Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and educated in Armagh and at the Queen's University of Belfast. The Times Literary Supplement described him as “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War.” From 1973 to 1986, he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the BBC. Since 1987, he has lived in the States.

I met Paul at the Saratoga Springs artist retreat Yaddo during summer 1988. He was brilliant, ambitious, quick to skewer pretension, and impatient with mediocrity. Already it was obvious that he had every intention of becoming a celebrity poet. His hair back then looked as though it were trying to escape. He did not speak English; he produced it. You could practically hear him listening to himself as he talked. Paul was and is a virtuoso performer of his own poetry. He could read a list of names, or ingredients, and, through line readings alone, move an audience in any direction he pleased. 

In summer 1989 I received a call on one of the MacDowell Colony pay phones from conductor and artistic director of the Madison Opera Roland Johnson asking whether I might consider composing an opera about Wright. Paul was reading the newspaper a few feet away. Without thinking, I leaned out of the booth and quipped, “Say, Paul, do you want to write an opera?” A beat later, he replied, “Sure.”

When Paul and I began Brow, we first read everything we could lay hands on about Wright. We reconvened a few months later to co-author at Paul's home in Amherst, Massachusetts a filmic treatment consisting of a dozen pages describing what would happen in each scene. 

I then determined how long each scene (and each section of each scene) would last, and the sort of musical form I would use to underpin the action of that scene. Giving the outline to Paul, I asked him to create a number of core images and literary motifs that I could then graft to musical ideas, along with some “parallel” poems for related characters, so that when I shared their music, the words would be easier to adapt. At one point I needed a straightforward hymn, and he responded by creating his beautiful Goethe gloss, Hymn to Nature.

Over the course of eight weeks that winter at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I composed the music for the first act. I wrote the most important sections first, beginning with the last three minutes; then the music that would be associated with the four or five most important dramatic spots (what I call the “emotional nuclear reactors”) in the act; after that, I wrote the connective sections, which could and should be the least musically interesting. Each character existed in a “home” key: Wright in B-flat major; Mamah in E major; Edwin and Sullivan in A minor; Catherine in C major. The lovers’ keys were associated, of course, by the tritone, the “forbidden” interval, and the harmonic fulcrum on which modulation depends.

The most affecting, emotionally expressive tool in an opera composer’s kit is the ability to modulate. Aside from being crucial to maintaining large formal structures, it unlocks “gateways” to new emotional states and signals emotional evolution. I did not really learn how to modulate fluidly until I composed Brow, each of whose characters needed to interact with one another harmonically. I have used the modulatory practices used by Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner in their operas ever since I realized just how eloquent they really are, no matter what the surface style of the piece.

When composing opera, my compositional process has changed little since the early 80s. I retype and reformat the libretto to reflect the underlying musical form in which it will be carried, storyboard it on the wall, and illuminate it with various colored pens and pencils—say, red for one character, blue for another, orange for another; musical / poetic themes and motives that I want to “track” also get colors. Standing before the entire opera tacked up on the wall and dreaming on its entirety is as close as I’m likely ever get to understanding how a painter must feel working on a mural. A real sense of the pallet of ideas at hand is literally rendered in the colors arrayed on the storyboard.

Once the entire opera is “on the wall” I decide what the most important dramatic moments (the “emotional nuclear reactors”) are in each scene; I specify what the climactic moment of the opera is, work downwards in triage fashion to the least important moment. I do not compose “from left to right.” I compose the music for the most important half dozen moments in the opera first. The music for the rest of the piece then spreads outwards from these key moments like concentric ripples.

Robert Orth and Brenda Harris as Wright and Mamah Cheney in a concert performance by the Buffalo Philahrmonic released by Naxos.

Paul and I accepted an invitation from Richard (Dick) Carney, Wright protégé and then managing trustee of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, to stay at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a few days. After lunch with members of the Fellowship (during which Wright’s recorded lunchtime conversation from decades previous played on a boom box), Paul and I settled into the little house Wright built for his daughter. The sun set as we traded impressions and prepared for a formal dinner at which I sat beside architect and Wright protégé Wes Peters, with whom I had a long, intense conversation about Wright’s relationship with Olgivanna. “Was Mamah Cheney the love of his life?” I asked Wes. “She must have been,” he replied, “but I can only say that after her death, for the rest of his life, he never allowed her to be discussed in his presence.”

After dinner, Dick and I took a long walk in the desert and discussed the sort of opera I intended to compose. A fatherly bear of a man, he gestured to me to sit down on a boulder with him. Sighing, he said, “Well, Daron, I don’t think any of us here want you to compose a dishonest piece. Mr. Wright could be a bastard. Promise me you’ll try to convey his essential ‘greatness’ along with the rest.” I didn’t tell Dick that anybody who sings is rendered sympathetic. Instead, I shook his hand. “A promise, Dick.” He picked up some dirt and threw it. “Fine. Come and stay with us as long as you want to. Soak up the feel of the place. Make Mister Wright sing. I promise you that we’ll not stand in your way.”

Shortly before Christmas, I finished the vocal score of the first act. I needed a “green light” from the Madison Opera board before beginning the second. The next step was to present it to the commissioners in Madison.

“Just two hours ago,” President Bush began, “allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Ground forces are not engaged.” It was 16 January. The United States had just invaded Iraq. In a huge rehearsal hall customarily used for symphony rehearsals, halfway through playing and singing the first act of Brow for the members of the Taliesin Fellowship and the board of Madison Opera, conductor Roland Johnson asked me to stop at 5:45 so that we could all gather around a portable radio to listen to our President address the nation. “Tonight, as our forces fight, they and their families are in our prayers.”

Carolann Page, creator of the role of Mamah Cheney.

"Shall we continue this another time?” I asked Ann Stanke. She looked to Dick, who asked me, “Do you have a problem with moving ahead with this presentation?” It seemed absurd to me, under the circumstances, but I needed the money, and would not get paid unless, by pulling off this presentation, I fulfilled the terms of the commissioning contract. “No,” I lied, resuming my seat at the piano and picking up where I had left off.

Dick then pledged that the Fellowship would support my creation of the opera, and Roland “green lit” my moving on to the second act. It was my first taste, at twenty-nine, of what the life of a viable opera composer might be like, and I relished it.

I spent some time at Taliesin, in Spring Green. Edgar Tafel, the best known of Wright’s disciples, decided that he was going to see to it personally that I experienced what it was like “really to live in a Wright House—to duck when you pass through doorways, discover your feet hanging over the bottom of the bed at night, feel the rooms flowing from one to the next in the dark.” He conjured for me the poetry that Wright seems to have been able to spin for clients.  His impersonations of Wright’s speaking voice were—aside from being incredibly funny—crucial to shaping my vocal characterization—particularly Wright’s stilted line readings, and what David Diamond, in a letter to me, described as “…the pontification, the affected dress-ugh-y, like Stieglitz.”

My friend photographer Pedro Guerrero’s reminiscences of Wright’s gentler moments also helped me to firm up the conviction that part of his appeal must have been the ability to project immense vulnerability in private. Dick Carney's descriptions of the tenderness that Wright could display also informed my decision to create the gentle music that underpins Wright’s soliloquies. Dick was a humane and generous man. My treasured former pupil and copyist Christopher Hume had a degenerative spinal condition that required his settling in a town with excellent medical facilities. I suggested Madison. I asked Dick to look out for Chris. He took him under his wing. They remained close for the rest of their lives.

Michael Sokol as Wright in the 1993 Madison Opera production.

Michael Sokol as Wright in the 1993 Madison Opera production.

The following autumn, in a tiny efficiency apartment at the corner of Amsterdam and 74th Street just off Verdi Square on Manhattan's Upper West Side, over the course of a few months, I wrote in one long delicious stretch the second act. Darynn Zimmer, the soprano who years later recorded the role of Mona in Bandanna under my baton for Albany records, was kind enough to sing through the role of Mamah for me as I composed it.

Like baseball pitchers, most composers have rituals. Mine consisted then of making my world very small and simple when I was writing so that I could keep all of the various motives and ideas suspended in my mind. My scrupulously maintained routine began with morning coffee and a chocolate chip scone from the Korean Market just below my apartment at 303 Amsterdam while reading the New York Times seated on a particular bench in Strawberry Fields. While composing—for exactly four hours by the stopwatch—I drank two bottles of San Pellegrino. Then I would run around the Central Park reservoir (twice: 3.2 miles), and then drink a bottle of San Pellegrino afterwards while walking home. I’d devour two slices of Freddy and Pepper’s pizza (an excellent joint in the basement which is still in business) sitting in Verdi Square, and then spend the evening making a fair copy of the sketches I had made during the day.

Kevin Kees as Wright in the "Fallingwater Brow."

I've written elsewhere about what it was like to consult with Leonard Bernstein while I composed parts of Brow. One example of how he “got” the musical rhetoric of the opera merits repetition, I think. During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the New York, New York rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia.” Bernstein chuckled appreciatively.  “Nice lift,” he said, “very Strauss. But you followed it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s [Ned Rorem] little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. In any event, I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, so you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s Maria. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. Sudden grin: “But he stole it from Aaron!”

The Madison Opera had asked me to suggest a stage director for Brow. I asked Bernstein to suggest one. He suggested Stephen Wadsworth, with whom he had just written an opera called A Quiet Place.

“I’ve written an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright,” I told Stephen on the phone. “I’m looking for someone to bring it to life on the stage. Lenny says that you’re that person. Would you like to come over for coffee and talk about it?” I knew that would get his attention.

That April, we sat cross-legged on the floor of my tiny studio more or less under the piano and in front of the six linear feet of opera scores on the bookshelves and began sounding one another out by pulling scores at random from the shelf and discussing them.

It helped that we both had been compelled to figure out how to work with Bernstein—Stephen as collaborator, me as pupil. Stephen could survive (even enjoy) Bernstein's intellectual death marches; I thrived on his musical pop quizzes. We shared an appetite for conversations that functioned on multiple levels.

I know now that our first meeting was typical of Stephen’s special way with everyone—warm, clever, completely at ease, and intellectually competitive. His probing eyes habitually sought out mine; his compassionate face was extraordinarily expressive. His long fingers moved restlessly when he spoke. I found charming his ability to italicize what he was saying by giving you a hard, quick stare, and then releasing you. He was fun.

The Fallingwater premeire by Opera Festival of Pittsburgh in 2013.

At first, it was the confidence and maturity of his opinions as we stuck our thumbs into scores and played “what’s the most important moment in this scene” that impressed me most. In time, as we grew to know one another better, I realized that what I had interpreted as competitiveness was instead an urgent desire to understand: if an idea intrigued him, he reflexively craved an explanation.

The talents that have served him so well in his illustrious career were already in full play as, over the course of six very long work sessions at the apartment in the Village he shared with baritone Kurt Ollmann, I played and sang through Brow’s score. I was defensive, and needed to be “sold” on every one of the dozen or so alterations to words and music (I had to my mind “finished” the score months previously) that he suggested. I’m not certain now why I fought him so hard—especially since I knew even then that his criticisms were always spot on. Possibly, it was because I wanted to see just how right he thought he was.

Robert Orth as Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago Opera Theater's revival, directed by Kenneth Cazan.

For the workshop, the cast and company of Brow gathered at the Bernstein family’s apartment at the Dakota to give for Madison Opera’s donors and staff a workshop performance (piano and two dozen singers) of the complete score. Ann Stanke, The company's founde and the driving force behind the commission, worked the room as Roland powwowed with the singers.

At my suggestion, the company had capitalized upon the New York press’ interest in visiting the apartment one more time to fill the room with eyes and ears (particularly the national press) that might not otherwise have had any interest in a commission, however laudable, of an unknown composer by a small Midwestern company.

Tim Petty as Wright in the Tulsa Opera revival.

The boundary between life and death blurred in a familiar—even comforting—fashion as I listened to the music I had provided for the character of Wright—consciously referring as it did to Bernstein’s music at key points—was performed in Bernstein’s home. It had been impossible, strolling around Taliesin with Dick (like me, an insomniac) in the wee hours, not to feel Wright’s presence. It had been impossible at Yaddo not to feel the Trask family’s. It had been impossible to walk through the Common Room at the Curtis Institute as a student without feeling the benevolent spirit of Mary Louise Curtis Bok. And it still felt, at the Dakota, as though Bernstein slouched still in the chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Everyone involved with the April 1993 opening night of Brow knew that it was going to be a success. 25 years and 7 operas later, I now am acutely aware of how rare that is. That night, at “the rail” of the house, behind the audience, where authors traditionally are allowed to pace, fret, enjoy, and suffer, performances of their work, with Stephen, as the tragic ending of Madison Opera’s première production unfolded.

Daron Hagen and Stephen Wadsworth at the premiere of "Amelia" by Seattle Opera in 2010. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Daron Hagen and Stephen Wadsworth at the premiere of "Amelia" by Seattle Opera in 2010. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

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 it. I did it. Paul did it. The performers did it. Communion. We all did it. Together.”

The next morning a telegram from Ned arrived at my hotel, saying, “I always said that you would arrive at twenty.” The reviews were strong, and the consensus was that my career had begun.

"Can a man be a faithful husband and father and still be true to his Art?” In the years since I've come to my own conclusion about the Life vs Art paradigm. Art is to my Life as the MacGuffin is to a Hitchcock movie. While I have become music, my family is my Life. So much so, that I've experienced a parting of ways with most of my colleagues who’ve concluded otherwise. Perhaps Wright came to that conclusion sometime after the point at which our opera left him, pledging to rebuild Taliesin in Mamah Cheney’s memory. Perhaps not. In the long run, it shall probably only have mattered  to the people he loved and who loved him. 

First published in the Huffington Post on 8 August 2016. Read it there by clicking here.

On Marc Blitzstein

This essay was originally published in the Huffington Post under the title "Obsessed: Marc Blitzstein" on 14 May 2012. Click here to read it there.

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein’s music is not exactly an obsession of mine, but I do find the musical DNA of which it is composed indispensable. Strands of that DNA — strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, the belief that music can promote social justice, an abhorrence of pretension — are woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into the music that I compose, and have been, nearly from the start. Here are six dramatic beats about Marc Blitzstein.

One

Marc’s music is powered by the ironic marriage of opposites. A fierce advocate of the poor and disenfranchised, he was born in Philadelphia in 1905 to affluent parents. Determined to write music popular with Regular Joes, he studied composition and piano at the Curtis Institute. Then he went on to Berlin to study with Arnold Schoenberg and to Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. He began as a modernist, but he turned populist in the 1930s, shortly before he (an openly gay communist) married novelist Eva Goldbeck. Three Portuguese sailors in Martinique beat him to death in 1964 after a sexual encounter. In 1937, he entered Broadway history when the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock — an opera presented as a musical. As the story goes, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman walked the musicians, cast and audience from the Maxine Elliott Theater to the nearby Venice Theater, where — in order to evade union restrictions — they performed the piece from the audience, with Blitzstein (not a union member) accompanying from an upright piano onstage.

To some, Marc’s signature gambit of destabilizing tonality by throwing a suspended fourth in the bass was crude. But, like a beat cop’s billy club to the ribs, it got things moving. Minus Blitzstein’s example and inspiration, Leonard Bernstein might have been a very different, possibly lesser, composer.

Two

One rainy November 1980 day Karlos Moser, then head of the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I was an undergraduate music major, and I were working through some songs that I had contributed to a revue he was concocting. My introduction to Marc’s music had come when Karlos cast my older brother Kevin as Ben Hubbard in his production of Blitzstein’s Regina during the late 70s. Karlos mentioned in passing that the State Historical Society possessed the Blitzstein papers. Thrilled, I had sprinted across the street to the archives, filled out a request to see them, and was astonished to be granted immediate access. Within thirty minutes, I held in my hands a Photostat of the manuscript of Blitzstein’s fair copy of the first page of Cradle. I was 17.

Odd it was, only a year later, to find myself a student of Ned Rorem’s at the Curtis Institute, composing and practicing on the same pianos Marc once did, passing his graduation portrait (along with everyone else’s — Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Berkowitz, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and on and on) on my way each week to my piano lesson. Odder yet to have landed there in part because of a letter from his friend Bernstein to my mother, telling her I was “the real thing,” and encouraging her to send me to Juilliard (that’s another story) to study with another of Marc’s close friends, David Diamond.

John Houseman tells the story of opening night of The Cradle Will Rock.

Three

John Houseman’s production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks opened on 30 July 1983. I was there, seated in the first row. I still weighed about 160, sported a Blitzstein-esque moustache, and was still a student at Curtis. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened — Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too abashed to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards. “You captured lightning in a bottle, didn’t you?” I enthused. “Yes, my boy,” he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, “I’m acutely aware of that.” I laughed. He was disarmed. “You look like Blitzstein,” he remarked. I flushed with pleasure. He frowned. “He ended badly.” I waited. Beat. “Yes, I know,” I said, “I’m a composer.” He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: “Dear God,” he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. “What does one do with a composer?” I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time. “Not at all,” he said. “Good luck.” He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. “You’ll need it.”

Four

Summer 1985. Saranac, Serge Koussevitzky’s home overlooking the Berkshires across the highway from the Tanglewood grounds. Late one evening, after hearing me improvise at the piano in Marc’s style and a discussion about Blitzstein’s music, Bernstein asked me to have a go at completing Sacco and Vanzetti, the unfinished opera for the Met found in the trunk of Marc’s car after he died. I told him I’d love to have a try, but couldn’t afford to do it for no fee.

A few days later, at Bernstein’s behest, Jacob Druckman approached me on the back patio and put a little money on the table for the project on behalf of the New York Philharmonic, for whom he was then serving as composer in residence.

My instinct was that, as I did when offered by Ellis Freedman and Sylvia Goldstein a job as Aaron Copland’s final amanuensis, I should refuse it. I told Druckman that I felt that if I wanted to establish myself as a composer, then I needed to be known for my own music, not for what I had done for others’. He said that I had a point, and was impressed enough by the professionalism with which I handled the situation to speak to his wife Muriel about a ballet commission.

Having my hands on Blitzstein’s sketches was just too inviting an invitation to refuse. After spending a few days with them, I concluded that the most responsible thing to do was to leave the thing alone-they were just too fragmentary, too raw. The finished score would require the creation of too much original material to make it coherent.

That May, Eric Gordon helped me to find the manuscript of Marc’s Piano Sonata, which hadn’t been performed publicly since the 20s so that I could program it on the concert series I was putting on in Philadelphia and New York.

Five

During spring 1990, I was fortunate enough to work on my first major opera Shining Brow with Bernstein. As Bernstein once did for Marc with Trouble in Tahiti,I did for Lenny: I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He’d amble 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 sketch, 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,” he’d think out loud. 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.)

During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the “New York, New York” rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia,” “Nice lift,” he said, “very Straussian. But you follow it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s 'Maria'. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. “But he stole it from Aaron!” (Generous, warm laughter.)

It still felt, a few years later, at the family’s Dakota apartment (the day Brow received its workshop run-through after Bernstein’s death), as though he slouched in the low chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Six

“Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there,” said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. Life-sized full body portraits of the Trask children loomed over us like gravestones. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.

Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, with whom I had studied, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone’s astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt’s collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears. A few days later, on 13 June, he died.

That day, however, David’s observation was piercingly clear: “Marc cared,” he whispered urgently. “When he composed Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny’s Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?” (When David reminisced, the facts could sometimes be sketchy, but the point was always clear.)

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, the one at which Marc had written Regina, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my breakthrough opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest.

It was the spirit of Yaddo, yes; but it was also the spirit of Marc.

 

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.