Leonard Bernstein: Soul Mining

10.18.2010

By Eric Wilson

'To call the result a pretentious failure is putting it kindly,' wrote Donal Henahan in The New York Times, suggesting the characters were derived from discarded episodes of All My Children. Alan Rich, in Newsweek, described the plot as a 'slog through a dreary psychological quagmire toward the unenlightening reconciliation that any watcher of soap opera could have predicted at curtain's rise.' Originally shown in Houston as a double bill with Trouble in Tahiti, the piece was withdrawn, then hastily reworked by fusing the two operas into one, incorporating the earlier work as two flashback scenes in the second act of the latter. The production moved to La Scala in Italy and then the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which had cocommissioned A Quiet Place with Houston, to a more favorable reception, but it was never the triumph Bernstein had imagined.

''It really has not had a fair hearing in the United States in 25 years,' says Steel, who studied under Bernstein at the Tanglewood Institute and was a production assistant on his revival of Mass, in 1981. He had followed the saga of A Quiet Place from up close. Last year, Steel, who has sought to draw in younger listeners, was recruited by the City Opera to turn around the financially struggling institution. He immediately championed Bernstein's forgotten opera. A new production, by the director Christopher Alden, will open its fall season at New York City's David H. Koch Theater on October 27.

'Now, I think people are ready to hear the piece and fall in love with it,' says Steel, who thinks A Quiet Place was too ahead of its time (certainly in Texas) to be appreciated when it was first shown. 'We are dealing with a very difficult opera, which is about dysfunctional American families. It touches on a lot of other issues that would not have found a happy reception in many places in the mid'Reagan '80s.'

The story of the opera may actually make it more compelling to contemporary audiences, given the intriguing parallels to Bernstein's life, as well as to that of Wadsworth, now the director of opera studies at the Juilliard Opera Center. Wadsworth's sister had died in a car accident, as does Dinah in the opening of A Quiet Place, but the themes of family difficulties and overcoming the death of a wife have a sense of heartbreak that is personal to Bernstein. The earlier work, Trouble in Tahiti, about marital discord in a 1950s suburban family, also struck an autobiographical note, as Bernstein had talked about the frequent fights of his own parents. It features a couple named Sam (Bernstein's father was named Sam) and Dinah and introduces references to Junior, the gay son who is then 10 years old. The fact that the composer wrote the opera on his honeymoon, Steel notes, makes it all the more astonishing.

Alden, who won raves for his modernized and beefcake-laden production of Don Giovanni at the City Opera last year, was a New York City theater kid raised to a soundtrack of Bernstein. His mother, Barbara Gaye, was a dancer in On the Town. (His twin, David, is also an opera director.) It was Bernstein's Young People's Concerts at Carnegie Hall that first turned Alden onto Mahler. Like Steel, he blames the onus of failure haunting A Quiet Place for its lack of a fair hearing.

'It had a terrible birth, a very painful birth,' Alden says. The burden was such for Bernstein that you can hear his agony in the music. 'I remember Stephen Wadsworth talking about it some years back,' Alden continues. 'Bernstein would come to his house and stay there. He would drag himself out of his room to have meetings and then just go back to bed.'

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