Call this an anatomy of a listener. Two recent encounters with people who go to the opera have caused this writer to meditate on her own accrued experiences that have resulted in finding A View from the Bridge with music by William Bolcom and libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Arthur Miller a landmark operatic work. This judgment comes after attending the November 5, 2007, performance presented by Washington National Opera under the stage direction of Amy Hutchison and musical direction of John DeMain. The production and sets originate from the 1999 world premiere production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
VIEW OF THE SINGERS
In three of the main character roles are the original creating singers who made View successful in its 1999 premiere: baritone Kim Josephson as Eddie, soprano Catherine Malfitano as Bea, and tenor Gregory Turay as Rodolfo. Each of these three singers were masterful, especially Malfitano whose music with atonal shading is probably the most difficult portion of this mostly lyric opera. Dramatically Malfitano both broke a listener's heart and got under one's skin as she sung to Eddie, "When am I gonna be a wife again?" Lucky guy Gregory Turay as Rodolfo gets to sing the love song to New York "I love the beauty of the view at home." Without a doubt, this aria is the most beautiful composition of View and Turay rose to the occasion with a soul-satisfying interpretation.
The music Eddie sings is character-driven and although "He's a hit-and-run guy," Eddie's arietta to Catherine (played by Christine Brandes) about Rodolfo, and "Hey guys! It's whisky," a barbershop quartet led by Eddie come easily to mind, no one piece that Eddie sings compares with Rodolfo's New York aria. What Kim Josephson achieves musically and dramatically accrues over the course of the opera and Josephson is credible and strong in this role.
Another singer who performed memorably was Richard Bernstein as cousin Marco. His rendering of "I sailed on a ship called Hunger' was visceral and painfully poignant as he pours out his anger against Eddie for getting him deported and his despair about having failed his starving family back in Italy.
VIEW OF THE STORY
This two-act work based on Arthur Miller's play by the same name, concerns Eddie and his wife Bea who have raised Bea's sister's daughter Catherine. As the story opens, Catherine announces she has a pending job offer that will take her away from her high school studies. This upsets Eddie who insists that he is responsible for Catherine's welfare. The reality is that he is sexually attracted to his grownup ward.
Also the family is awaiting the arrival of Bea's cousins Marco and Rodolfo who are entering New York as illegal immigrants from Italy. As the story progresses, Catherine and Rodolfo fall in love much to the jealous rage of Eddie. By the end of the opera, Eddie has crossed the line by alerting Immigration officials about the cousins, threatening Bea that he will throw her out of their home if she attends the wedding of Catherine and Rodolfo, and finally having his own knife turned on himself in a fight with the desperate Marco who is being sent back to his starving wife and children in Sicily where there are no jobs.
Eddie's lawyer friend Alfieri (played by John Del Carlo) narrates the story and is backed by a large chorus operating in the tradition of the Greek chorus. What makes this verismo story exceptionally compelling is that the audience knows from the beginning of the opera through the voices of the narrator and chorus that Eddie will commit an unforgivable act against his family that will make him an outcast in his Brooklyn community. Dramatically, this opera puts the subject of immigration to the United States and hate in front of audiences who now consider the topic of immigration as important as the war in Iraq, health care, the economy, and terrorism. If Eddie Carbone sounds like a more rabid version of Archie Bunker, an American television character who left the airwaves in 1983 and seems so yesterday, one doesn't have to search hard today to find plenty of people who would report immigrants to the authorities based on their own particular brand of greed and jealousy.
VIEW FROM FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
Regarding the encounters that have caused me to look deeply at what I like in contemporary opera, the first involves two friends who generally venture out to important productions in the short calendar of contemporary opera. They did not enjoy A View from the Bridge, though they acknowledged there were some lovely musical moments, especially Rodolfo's "I love the beauty of the view at home." They said the overall work was too dark and dissonant for their tastes. The second encounter was a nonevent. I recently joined an opera list server that generates hundreds of messages in a week's time with members (some who are professionals in the field) passionately writing about their experiences, views, and concerns. I've sent a few messages, including an introduction saying that I was interested in contemporary opera and creating new audience. After I saw View, I sent a short review. What is remarkable is what did not happen. There were no replies. Apparently this list server with hundreds of members does not have much interest in contemporary opera, although I had noted an occasional post about new work. I do have other friends who saw and liked Bolcom's opera as much as I do, but these friends know the contemporary opera scene and are music academics.
THE OPERAS WHO WERE MY SEATMATES
As I was absorbing the WNO opening night performance of View, the experience of hearing other contemporary operas occasionally entered my thoughts like seatmates giving me nudges over shared epiphanies. For example, Bolcom's powerful use of the chorus made me think of the way John Adams used the chorus in Doctor Atomic, which premiered 2005. In both View and Doctor Atomic, the frequent use of the chorus ratchets up the emotional intensity of these stories.
Two aspects of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998 premiere) occurred to me. In Streetcar, sexual tension is played out between the main character Blanche DuBois and her working-class brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Stanley's music, unlike Eddie's, shortchanges the baritone performing in Previn's jazz opera. Although Bolcom's opera cannot be classified as a jazz opera, there are jazz elements such as Rodolfo's "I sing jazz, too" in which Bolcom provides a mix of Italian opera and jazz styles. This number is based on "Paper Doll," a song made popular by the Mills Brother in 1943 and later by Frank Sinatra. Although I tend to find new operatic work that veers more toward American jazz and leans less on European operatic influence more satisfying, what Bolcom does sparingly in the context of a story about Italians in America seems entirely logical and interesting.
Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (2000 premiere) came to mind in a couple of ways also. Heggie has a scene where teenagers, much like the scene between Rodolfo and Catherine, are listening to the day's pop music. Unlike Bolcom, Heggie creates original music that pours out of the car radio that the teens are listening to. Is Heggie's creation of original music better than Bolcom's appropriation of a well-known pop song? No, in both cases the choices made by these composers blend with the circumstances of their work. Heggie's pop songs make you wonder if you have ever heard these tunes before. Bolcom's use of "Paper Doll" with its connection to Frank Sinatra, almost a god in the Italian-American communities around New York, provides a subterranean anchor for this story with one foot in America and the other in Italy. Most surprising to me about Dead Man was how a story concerning a brutal murderer offers such lyrical music devoid of stridency. Because the story's narrator is a nun, I can accept the compassion in the music. Conversely View, a story narrated by a lawyer supports a fair measure of dissonance. Fortunately for my tastes, Bolcom's frame is lyric.
Before I leave that issue of stridency and dissonance, I should say that I heard Catherine Malfitano sing the role of the Kostelnicka in Washington National Opera's production of Leos Janácek's Jenufa (1904 premiere). Here's another dark opera about working class people in which Malfitano made an indelible mark of singing and dramatic artistry on me. I had seen Jenufa once before and I won't say I loved my first experience of it, not that the first production was as masterful as the WNO production. However, a performance by a gifted veteran singer can make the difference in hearing and understanding difficult music.
The bad news from the rumor mill is that Malfitano will not be singing after her final performance as Bea. She is moving on to direct operas as the chatter on the underground whispers.
One other recently premiered opera that reverberated with View is Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy (2005). Like View, Picker's opera about Clyde, a working class boy who lets ambition and uncontrolled sex bring him down, serves up some memorably fetching vocal numbers. Although "My future is as bright as polished chrome," Clyde's song about wanting to own an American car, is in no way equal to Rodolfo's aria paying tribute to New York, both of these songs are loaded with yearning for a future that betters where these two characters originate. At some subconscious level, songs of yearning like these set up certain expectations in a listener.
What combination of music, poetry, storyline information, singer inflection, and dramatic action does it take to transport a listener? Or what prior experience does a listener have to have had to appreciate certain works of opera? In the case of my preparation for hearing An American Tragedy, a work commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, which had not premiered a new opera since its 1999 presentation of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, I made it a point to listen to Picker's earlier opera Emmeline. Because I enjoyed Emmeline, I expected to like An American Tragedy. Although I liked some of the songs, overall I found the opera lacking and disappointing. In the case of Doctor Atomic, which got a huge amount of hype, I prepared by listening to Adam's prior operatic works Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. I enjoyed both, but was ecstatic upon hearing Doctor Atomic, which exceeded my expectations by its various innovations in musical style and storytelling. And just because an opera is done in jazz idiom does not mean I will enjoy it. I couldn't wait to flee Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. I loved the jazz orchestration, but found the vocal music painful. I also loved Bolcom's orchestration which has a richness built on brass instrumentation that I found unusual.
HOW WAS THE VIEW FROM MY BRIDGE?
Bolcom's A View from the Bridge got its seventh production at the Kennedy Center by Washington National Opera. It was singly commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which means no other opera company had any investment in this work that would obligate them to produce View. In the world of contemporary opera, any productions beyond the premiere indicate a significant success. In an interview with Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post, Bolcom described Arthur's Miller play as an "opera manqué," meaning the play had unrealized potential as an opera, meaning that Bolcom thought it was work that wasn't hard to turn into an opera. Bolcom also said in that interview that he hoped his opera would have a future. Come again? A View from the Bridge is creating its own future with eight and ninth productions, albeit students productions, already line up.
What did I do to prepare for the experience of hearing A View from the Bridge? Did I have any expectations? Sorry to say I did nothing to prepare except carry into the performance the prior experience I have had with other contemporary operas. There is a recording of A View from the Bridge, but I do not believe there are recordings available for his other operas, McTeague and The Wedding. And since I did not prepare in advance, I had no expectations except a gut feeling it would be good. But I always go into an opera house thinking a new opera will be exciting. I know from working on Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, my opera with composer William Banfield, how many resources are required, not to mention the trouble and expense. Am I easily pleased? Not really and I do think A View from the Bridge would be better if the first act was cut by 15 to 20 minutes. So there, dear Reader, I have built a bridge into my experience of Bolcom's first opera. How did you like the dissected view?
Photos - Karin Cooper