Opera is Inherently Un-American: On the Bernstein Debut at City Opera

11/05/2010 4:41 PM |

Standout Christopher Feigum in A Quiet Places Trouble in Tahiti Section
  • Standout Christopher Feigum in A Quiet Place‘s “Trouble in Tahiti” Section

Opera is the ultimate expression of Old World pretense. But humility defines the American experiment. So how to reconcile the two? To create an American opera? Generally, you can’t: Opera is inherently un-American. That’s not to say Americans can’t compose operas—John Adams is living proof to the contrary—but that opera written in an American idiom makes apparent an irreconcilable problem, a problem Leonard Bernstein runs up against in his late opera, A Quiet Place.

Working with librettist Stephen Wadsworth, NYC’s pop-icon maestro envisioned what would be his last stage work as a sequel to his 1952 one-act, Trouble in Tahiti. When it debuted in Houston in 1983, it quickly flopped. A reworked version, which incorporated Tahiti as flashbacks during Act II, played other cities around the world to greater success. But the work never came to the stage in the town Lenny adopted as his own—a peculiar absence that City Opera corrects with Christopher Alden’s handsome new production. A Quiet Place has finally gotten its New York debut.

The work begins with questioning chords—the same that end Tahiti—that are quickly stamped out by anxious ones, telegraphing the uneasiness to follow. A Quiet Place is thoroughly neurotic, thoroughly 20th Century American. The opening scene, set in a funeral parlor (Tahiti’s April Wheeler-type has died in a car crash), includes a psychoanalyst, alcoholics, unhappy wives, a homosexual draft-dodger, casual swearing (“hell” this and “hell” that), and gossipy, caviling mourners. It’s an Updikian milieu, with miserably well-to-do whites mired in family antagonisms. It’s so of its place, so of its time…and yet a quarter-century later the cultural signifiers already feel museum-ready.

Bernstein and Wadsworth’s aim is to endow the acrimonious family—the 20th Century’s enduring archetype—with the gravitas of 19th Century tragedy. But Bernstein’s misstep is to do the same with the score. The composer strikes as recognizably an American pose in the music as he does the libretto, inflecting it with jazz and showtune idioms. But, simultaneously, he strives to contain it within an approximation of old opera sound. The American sound is populist, rooted in rhythm and rhyme; when Bernstein strips it of its colloquialisms, wedging it into arrhythmic European forms, it smacks of, well, unabidable pretension. America represents a radical departure from classicism: it’s the New Testament to Europe’s old, and hearing baritones belting jazz melodies in operatic meter is like shoving Leviticus’ dietary rules into the mouth of Christ—like Louis Armstrong straining through “La Donna è Mobile”.

Other American composers have similarly overstepped, with similar results. During A Quiet Place, I was reminded of City Opera’s 2006 production of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, which also smacked of a popular composer stretching into lofty realms he could not comfortably occupy. But there is, of course, an American tradition of combining the Concert Hall with the coffee house, the fancy with the folksy: from Aaron Copland’s “vernacular” music to the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. (Rodgers and Hammerstein emerge more from lowbrow operettas.) And it’s this grand tradition into which Bernstein taps in Trouble in Tahiti.

A Quiet Place’s second act strikingly improves over its bookending surroundings. Not only because it finds Bernstein the composer in his prime—On the Town was three years earlier, On the Waterfront was two years later, Candide two years after that—but because it bears no conspicuous attempt to fuse conflicting styles, a la its preceding act. Trouble in Tahiti forges a new sound, almost as revolutionary as rhythm and blues, of narrative effortlessly embedded in American music without the crass edge of Broadway populism. It’s high-minded, but unpretentious—an American culture we can be proud to call our own.

A Quiet Place plays several more times at City Opera through November 21. Click here for more info.

“There is a Garden” (and more) from a BBC production of Trouble in Tahiti. Prettiest music ever written? U decide: