20th Century Operas in the 21st Century

by Leonard J. Lehrman

Librettist/director/teacher Stephen Wadsworth had two big debuts in NY this past fall, first at the Met, then at City Opera. At the former, he took over the staging of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov when German director Peter Stein refused to subject himself to the indignities US customs imposes on foreign visitors in the name of security. At the latter, his collaboration with the late Leonard Bernstein, A Quiet Place, finally came home, though staged by Christopher Alden.

[The Met was tackling Boris in Russian for only the second time. (I well remember my own debut there, conducting the chorus backstage on a 16-foot ladder, as part of August Everding’s production in 1977.) René Pape was almost as impressive as the late Martti Talvela in the title role, but the staging was a lot cruder and crueler this time around. Instead of emphasizing the Russian people’s desire for liberation, Wadsworth had them wallowing in Cossack pogrom-like torture. The definitive Boris remains Feodor Chaliapin, whose recordings are worth studying, as they make a strong case for Rimsky-Korsakov’s once-popular and now unjustly scorned version. In the Act II Monolog, for example, the upward scalar motif is a perfect 4th higher (in C-flat, rather than G-flat major), and the climactic high G-flat is saved – by Chaliapin, not Rimsky – for the very end of the aria, rendering it the heartbreaking expression of soul it deserves to be, but usually isn’t.]

The phrase “a quiet place” may have its origins in Morris Rosenfeld’s “Mayn Ruhe Platz,” a favorite Yiddish song used extensively by Howard Zinn in Emma, his play about Emma Goldman. “Quiet,” however, was a perennial theme in Bernstein’s oeuvre, from the trio of that name in Candide, to his song for Phyllis Newman “Walk Right In” - which defines “friends” as “people who can give each other quiet”– and especially in his one-act masterpiece Trouble in Tahiti, which he had dedicated to his friend and mentor Marc Blitzstein, shortly before his own marriage to Felicia Montealegre. Credit Wadsworth with having sketched and then co-written the libretto for a sequel to it, which was then (on John Mauceri’s suggestion) expanded to three acts, with the original one-acter divided into two flashbacks in the middle.

As the late Jack Gottlieb (Oct. 12, 1930-Feb. 20, 2011) [see the excellent obituary of him by George Robinson in Jewish Week] pointed out: There is a quasi-Wagnerian motif that permeates Tahiti: a seven-note theme, of which the first three come directly from the Prize Song in Meistersinger, melting, however, into a very American blues mode. That fourth note, the augmented fourth, and its upward resolution would play an even greater role in West Side Story. (Bernstein called the unresolved augmented fourth added to the major triad “the Tahiti chord,” which Gottlieb identifies as “a cousin of” Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka chord.”) The jazz riff that introduces the commercial quasi-Greek chorus trio is in fact a 12-tone row. All these seeds were developed at great length in the new work, perhaps too great; Humphrey Burton pointed out in a pre-conference lecture that much of the unity was lost when Bernstein found it desirable to make considerable cuts. This had been true of Marc Blitzstein’s Regina also, which Mauceri restored, with Bernstein’s blessing. In both cases, however, less really was more: most of Blitzstein’s cuts were not worth rescuing, and neither were Bernstein’s.

The plot of A Quiet Place was close to Bernstein’s heart, and is a plea for love and understanding of love in all its – and his – heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual expressions and manifestations. The rebellious character of Junior (descended at least as much from Junior Mister in Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock as from Bernstein’s own son Alexander) takes up with a French-Canadian bisexual named François, who later marries his sister Dede. The self-hatred and hostility that permeate this dysfunctional family is seen as pre-existent in the marital strife of their parents Sam and Dinah. (Sam was the name of both Bernstein’s father and Blitzstein’s, Dinah having been the name of Bernstein’s grandmother. There’s also a scat-singing reference in Tahiti to Blitzstein’s mother-in-law Lina Abarbanel.) Wadsworth’s own autobiography also entered in, as his sister Nina was killed in a car crash, as is Dinah, shortly before Quiet Place opens.

Alden’s busy staging had her silently haunting her own funeral as a ghost, and utilized the 9 new characters of the larger work, along with the chorus, to populate – or overpopulate – the intimate indoor and outdoor scenes of Tahiti. Most obtrusive, to this viewer, was the pantomimed blow-job given Sam (Christopher Feigum) in his office by his secretary, after he has, according to the libretto, just told her to leave. But ingenious was the re-use of the three singers playing Junior, Dede and François (Joshua Hopkins, Sara Jakubiak, and Dominic Armstrong) as the commenting Jazz Trio. The most affecting music is still Dinah’s, from the original one-act, sung movingly by Patricia Risley. The tempi were slow enough (conducted ably by Jayce Ogren) to impart at least a modicum of grandeur to her, as Bernstein wanted (he told me, after I conducted the show in his presence, a little too fast for his taste, at Harvard in December 1970).

Another classic American opera on the theme of unappreciated love is the 1971 Summer and Smoke by Lee Hoiby (Feb. 17, 1926-Mar. 28, 2011) with libretto by Lanford Wilson after the play by Tennessee Williams. Steven Osgood conducted and Dona D. Vaughn directed a moving student production at the Manhattan School of Music in December, 2010, with the composer in attendance, just a few months before his death. The work had originally been staged at NY City Opera by Frank Corsaro, who then obtained the musicalization rights to perhaps Williams’ greatest play, The Glass Menagerie, for which he watned to write the libretto, and asked Hoiby to write the music for what could have been his best work of all. Hoiby refused, however, to work without his companion and librettist (for such pieces as The Tempest and many others, including his last opera, yet to be performed, Romeo and Juliet) Mark Shulgasser. So the collaboration unfortunately never happened. Once again this viewer was startled by a bit of staging not in the original: the hot-blooded Latina Rosa (Maria Leticia Hernández) simulated fellatio on the hero (Nickoli Strommer) at the close of Act I. (As MSM president Robert Sirota quipped at intermission: “The curtain goes down and she goes down.”) Other than that, the staging was exemplary, with Anna Viemeister a standout as the female lead.

Symphony Space, which had hosted several Hoiby operas in the past, played host to several new operas early this year. Richard Wilson wrote his own witty, prose libretto for Aethelred the Unready, cleverly staged by Drew Minter and conducted by the composer in January. A paean to monarchical failure, it featured a cast of seven in seven scenes and an orchestra of fourteen. Nathan Carlisle as The Publicist nearly stole the show with his yo-yo, while Curtis Streetman was miscast in a role too low for him as The Hypnotist. Robert Osborne sang the strenuous title role and was strongest in the furious sections: his voice is really at its best depicting evil characters like Captain Bristlepunkt in I’ve Got the Tune (on Original Cast Records) and Prosecutor Katzmann in Sacco and Vanzetti (on YouTube).

In March, the venue presented a double-bill of Peter Winkler’s Fox Fables (libretto and staging by Rhoda Levine) and Sheila Silver’s The Wooden Sword, both in conjunction with SUNY-Stony Brook, which also presented two performances of each. Of these, the Winkler was the more successful, as the librettist/director persuaded the composer to pare and cut to exactly the right size and shape. The Silver opera was notable for the lovely singing of Risa Renee Harmon whose soprano soared above the sometimes heavy orchestration that covered most of the other singers. Like the Wilson, Fox Fables’ primary theme seemed to be the foolishness of those who trust in authority, but an ominous reference to the presence of tracks leading into the lion’s den but not out could not help but cause at least this listener to think of Auschwitz.

About 300 operas with consciously Jewish themes are among the listings in Kenneth Jaffe’s 437-page Solo Vocal Works on Jewish Themes: A Bibliography of Jewish Composers, published this year by Scarecrow Press. A 13-year labor of love, it is highly recommended to anyone interested in vocal music by Jews, especially for the Yiddish theater, but also living composers like (to list those most prolific) Miron, Kingsley, Adler, Davidson, Steinberg, Kaufman, Sargon, Schidlowsky, and this writer. The 2006 Merkin Hall premiere is listed of the “video opera” Mosheh by the Israeli-born Yoav Gal (1966- ), presented 8 times in the performance space Here in Jan.-Feb. 2011, and billed as “the world premiere of the original opera.” Danced and sung in Hebrew with English supertitles, the work starred Nathan Guisinger in the nearly nude mostly mimed title role with Heather Green, Beth Anne Hatton, Judith Barnes, and Hai-Ting Chinn as the women in his life, the latter also joining Wesley Chinn in duet as The Voice of God, together with 8 instrumentalists and 8 performers on video, directed by Kameron Steel, conducted from the piano by Yegor Shevtsov. The often high, taxing music generated power, but not much hope, especially in its conclusion concentrating on the Ten Plagues.

Another more hopeful and optimistic musico-dramatic work on a Jewish theme was Korach, a play for and produced at The Living Theatre by Judith Malina with a cast of 26 and music by Steve Taylor, Carlo Altomare, and Sheila Dabney, who also music-directed, Dec. 8, 2010-Feb. 28, 2011. The work begins with a video of Malina herself playing Emma Goldman, extolling anarchism as a great tradition, and Korach as the first Biblical exponent of it. This is appropriate, since Emma’s last portrayal in NY was in fact at The Living Theatre. (See Linda Pehrson’s review.) Solidarity and resistance were the themes throughout, as the cast chanted, among other things, the great Jewish partisan melody by Vilna ghetto songwriter Hirsh Glik, “Shtil, di Nakht iz oysgesterent” – without, apparently, knowing what they were singing! The cast irresistibly inspired the audience to dance with it onstage at the end, much in the spirit of the troupe’s great epic of the 1960s, Paradise Now, though without the nudity of that era.

Nudity, of a sort, featured in the Transport Group’s revivals of Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello Again, his 1994 musical adaptation of Artur Schnitzler’s 10-character 10-scene play Reigen, aka La Ronde. That is, if bare male assholes turn you on, as they seemed to, for about 3/4 of the audience. Schnitzler’s original 10 heterosexual overlapping couplings have been re-cast here, with 6 men and 4 women, and the most affecting music sung by two gay men in bed, transitioned to and from by bisexual individuals sandwiched by straight couples. No lesbians, though you’d think they’d be there, for symmetry. In Jack Cummings III’s direction, the action all takes place between and on ten tables at which the audience is seated, thus giving a literal in-your-face feeling to the sex acts being performed (the most amusing of which was yet another blowjob—this one embellished by popcorn). Except of course they’re not being performed, but simulated, with breasts, genitals, and in fact all but the male anuses quite covered. Programs were not handed out until the end, so it was hard to follow who was who, which was I suppose part of the point: sexual partnering as impersonally interchangeable. Not very satisfying, however.

A more satisfying performance, even though the work is still unfinished, was experienced at Turtle Bay Music School Dec. 17, 2010, in Judith Sainte Croix’s Visionary Dance performed by the Sonora Trio, Mark Degamo, projections and dancers. Students became part of the performance, and an ecstatic mood prevailed. More when the work-in-progress is complete!

Also satisfying were the eloquent performances by Amanda Crider and (on short notice) baritone Michael Kelly of songs by David Sisco and Elie Siegmeister, sensitively accompanied by Liza Stepanova, Feb. 17, 2011 at the Lincoln Center Library (postponed from Jan. 27 due to the snowstorm). Two of the 3 Lorca Elegies by Siegmeister were transposed up, slightly disturbing the tonal unity of the set, but the singing of both soloists was nearly flawless and so much in the spirit of MC Paul Sperry’s “Joy of Singing.”

Meanwhile, Howard Pollack, definitive biographer of Piston, Copland, and Gershwin, now at work on a book on Blitzstein, came out with a lengthy review in MLA Notes reviewing the Siegmeister bio-bibliography which I co-authored with Kenneth Boulton, published in 2010 by Scarecrow Press. Pollack called the work “a landmark in American music scholarship that deserves to be a part of any serious music library’s collection”. The inaugural issue of North American Opera Journal also includes a lengthy article on Siegmeister. Subscription details (and the opening pages of the articles from the first issue) can be found here. Access is free for subscribers (including libraries) to the magazine Opera America.

Other song recitals of note included the NYFOS series at Merkin Hall, Beth Anderson’s Women’s Work series at Greenwich House, and LICA’s “Love of the Art Song: Art of the Love Song” at the Steinway Gallery in Melville.

The first of these was the most accomplished, introduced by Steven Blier, alternating with Michael Barrett accompanying Sari Gruber, Liza Forrester, James Martin and (briefly) Christopher Tiesi on Feb. 15 & 17, 2011 in a collage of American songs by Bernstein, Ives, Weill, Bolcom, Rorem, Hoiby, Cole Porter, Paul Fujimoto, Michael Sahl, Hugh Martin, Hall Johnson, Leiber & Stoller, and Steven Marzullo. Ms. Gruber progressed from a growly chest voice to a lovely high soprano, while Ms. Forrester impressed with a wide vocal and dramatic range throughout. The texts were especially well chosen, to reflect a kind of cycle of NY life from morning ’til night. “Love, Lust and Longing in Poetry and Song” was the title of soprano Eileen Strempel’s Greenwich House recital, accompanied by pianist Gilya Hodos Mar. 24, 2011. The promising program opened with Pauline Viardot-Garcia’s Pushkin settings (in German) and continued with settings by women composers of texts by Margaret Atwood and E.E. Cummings, all composed for Ms. Strempel over the last 6 years. Judith Cloud (1954- ), who had a song in each group, was there to talk about her music. So did Libby Larsen, along with Lori Laitman, Elisenda Fábregas and Amanda Harberg in the Atwood; Christine Donkin, Regina Harris Baiocchi and Jocelyn Hagen in the Cummings. Applause from the small audience was scant, as many of the songs ended buttonlessly, fading out on a dominant chord, or otherwise unresolved. The program is to be streamed and available for viewing, and certainly worth watching, at least in segments.

It seems almost unfair to critique the Feb. 11, 2011 LICA concert honoring Valentine’s Day this year, since one of the performers tapped at the last minute is still an undergraduate. But a full house responded well, especially to soprano Michele Eaton’s performances of songs by Jane Leslie, Patricia King, Joel Mandelbaum, Herbert Deutsch, this writer, and impresario Laurence Dresner, accompanied variously by Stephanie Watt, Paul Hefner, and Ms. Leslie. Even more unfair would it be to come down harshly on the ambitious Airheart, a musical (really a play with music) about Amelia Earhart by Roslyn High School vocal music teacher Brad Frey, sumptuously produced at that school in a production to rival the technical proficiency of his first musical on Tiananmen Square, 15 years ago. Only this time the dialogue and lyrics were written by a student. When they didn’t rhyme, they sounded as though they should; when they did rhyme, tritely, one wished they didn’t. An original cast recording is available for the curious.

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