Search form

Scroll To Top
Theater & Dance

Leonard Bernstein: Soul Mining


Leonard Bernstein: Soul Mining

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.

'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.'

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.

Send a letter to the editor about this article.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Eric Wilson