Leonard Bernstein: Soul Mining

10.18.2010

By Eric Wilson

In 1976, the year that Leonard Bernstein shocked no one more than his wife of 25 years when he left her for a male lover, the great composer -- one suspects with a hint of irony -- decided to grow a beard.

There was nothing terribly amusing about the circumstances, recalls Bernstein's oldest daughter, Jamie, who was then in her early 20s. 'It was an awful time,' she says. 'It was one thing after another.' Her mother, the actress Felicia Montealegre, had recently been treated for cancer. Though Montealegre had adopted a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy regarding her husband's private exploits during their marriage, she was devastated by Bernstein's confession. And it turned out that Bernstein, whose trysts were known in music and theater circles, couldn't actually bear to live as an openly gay man. When husband and wife reconciled a year later, the beard came off.

'I think he wanted to live in both worlds,' Jamie says, 'and I guess he did,' but separately.

The guilt that Bernstein felt when Montealegre died the following year, in June 1978, left a mark that never really faded in his remaining years, seeping into late works that were increasingly dark, like the prickly music for the Jerome Robbins ballet Dybbuk and his own Arias and Barcarolles. As Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, noted in a 2008 essay, 'they sound like him, but their prevailing mood is turgid, despairing, even desperate.'

Nowhere does Bernstein's pain come across more plainly than in A Quiet Place, an ambitious but troubled opera about a dysfunctional family that is reunited after the death of the mother, Dinah, in a car crash, a probable suicide. The piece, which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1983, challenged audiences for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its frank depiction of gay character Junior, the son who's 'a crazy queer who skipped the draft' (as we are told in the opening scene). He returns home for Dinah's funeral with his sister, Dede, and her husband, Fran'ois, who is also Junior's lover. 'What a fucked-up family,' the chorus sings.

'To have an opera that has a gay couple in it in 1983 is pretty amazing,' says George Steel, the general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera, 'and that it came from Leonard Bernstein -- and not a sort of fringe composer or somebody just starting out but one of America's most established composers at the time -- is kind of incredible.'

Bernstein had wanted to create a serious opera since he stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969, but projects were abandoned or permanently stalled. He seemed to recognize that A Quiet Place -- a collaboration with Stephen Wadsworth as librettist -- was his last chance to be known as more than an artist of lowbrow, likable fare; he said it was emotionally the strongest piece he had ever written. Bernstein had long hoped to create 'a real American opera with roots in the American musical.'

And yet, A Quiet Place, imagined as a sequel to Bernstein's popular one-act Trouble in Tahiti of 1952, was a flop.

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