Leonard Bernstein: Soul Mining

10.18.2010

By Eric Wilson

It weighed heavily on Bernstein, whose health was failing by that stage, that A Quiet Place was his last shot. Whereas the sitcom-length Trouble in Tahiti was widely applauded as a light satire of the postwar, white picket fence vision of the American dream, the grand sequel was becoming heavy and funereal. The composer Jack Gottlieb, a former assistant to Bernstein, wrote in his recent book, Working With Bernstein, that the music of A Quiet Place 'was no longer ironic commentary (on pop conventions), but sui generis, tortured, even atonal at times.' It was a potentially unpopular direction, lost on neither conductor nor librettist. One night, Bernstein slipped a note under Wadsworth's door:

'One more thing I know:
our opera's a thing
of beauty and truth
which no one can sing!

It's also a thing
of despair and of fright
which no one will love
on opening night!'

Alden's unconventional approach, combined with the passing of years, may give the show new life. One senses in his youthful work the dark influence of films like The Ice Storm and American Beauty and a cynical take not always appreciated by critics. His hypersexualized treatment of Rigoletto in Chicago, for example, infuriated audiences a decade ago. Describing his plans for A Quiet Place, Alden says he wants to wipe away some of the campy suburban dystopia aspects from Trouble in Tahiti in order to blur the distinctions between the '50s and the '80s. For the opening scene, set in a funeral home, Alden says he uses the HBO series Six Feet Under as a reference point.

'The funeral of the wife in the first act is pretty much to me about the funeral of the American dream,' he says. 'The fantasy of finding bliss in suburbia is pretty much smashed in this piece.'

Before the Kennedy Center opening in 1984, Bernstein himself told a reporter for The Washington Post, 'It is about what has happened to the American dream.' It has been argued that, because of the time he lived in, Bernstein felt it was incumbent on him to have a wife and children and the little house with the picket fence. But those close to him suspected he longed for something more.

'You feel all of that in this piece,' Alden says, 'those pulls in different directions, the guilt and the fear and the drive to let the world know who you really are.'

A Quiet Place opens October 27 at New York City's David H. Koch Theater.

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