Reconsidering Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Few pieces in history have the distinction of being damned not just by music critics but also by right-wing demonstrators. Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place is one of them.

The opera was commissioned from Houston Grand Opera, the Kennedy Center, and La Scala, and premiered in Houston on June 17, 1983, from the man who by then was America's most famous classical musician. He was also a controversial figure. He completed the opera in the emotionally turbulent years that followed his wife Felicia's death from cancer in 1978, the death of his parents, and his own sexual identity crisis.

A Quiet Place was meant to be a sequel to his 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti, a gentle satire of 1950s American suburban life, and become Bernstein's defining statement for the opera house. It began as a collaboration with a 30-year-old writer named Stephen Wadsworth, who had approached Bernstein with a similar idea of writing a sequel, and one that would draw on both contemporary classical aesthetic and the popular traditions of musical theater. Tracing the story of a dysfunctional family that reunites for a funeral, the semi-autobiographical plot was unusual for the opera stage [see slideshow].

On one level, the premiere was a triumph. Bernstein received a seven-minute ovation at the end and Andrew Porter wrote in The New Yorker that the score was "one of the richest Bernstein has composed" and The Village Voice wrote of "the birth of a powerful new opera." But critical verdict was mixed, to say the least.

Donal Henahan, then the senior music critic of The New York Times, was deeply critical. “It continually rings false,” he wrote. “It occasionally shudders on the edge of sounding more than cosmetic, but more frequently its portentous and epic tone is wildly inappropriate.” Demonstrators picketed outside the opening-night performance, objecting to its gay content.

Christopher Alden, the stage director who's overseeing its New York premiere at New York City Opera, has no doubt about its worth. “During that era, the critics were always down on Bernstein,” he says. “As a conductor, he was too animated, too out there. For his composing, classical music critics could never accept his music because he wrote successful Broadway musicals. That seems ridiculous to me, especially in retrospect."

Jamie Bernstein Thomas, the composer's daughter who lived in Los Angeles at the time, agrees. "Audiences were not ready for A Quiet Place both musically and culturally, in terms of the subject matter," she says. The work's stylistic ecclecticism was only part of the issue. "You had two gay characters. Not only was [the character] Junior gay but mentally ill. These are themes that come up all the time now and people are much more comfortable with them than they were then."

The bad reviews did have an impact. After the premiere, Bernstein and Wadsworth made extensive revisions, essentially inserting the 40-minute Trouble in Tahiti into the new work, as two flashback scenes, while trimming other portions of the opera.

Although not everyone agreed that the revisions were a complete success, the June 1984 production at La Scala garnered favorable reviews. It was subsequently performed in Germany, the Netherlands, and Vienna, from which a recording and a telecast were made. Bernstein conducted the latter production in 1986, and the reception was also positive. Bernstein, ever self-critical, grumbled at how difficult he had made things for the singers.

On a musical level, the piece requires singers to be extremely versatile, able to navigate Straussian romanticism, Broadway-style razzmatazz, and some darkly dissonant atonal writing. "I think there’s a lot of appealing stuff in it," says Louis Otey, a baritone who plays Sam, the family patriarch whose strained relationship with his son is a crucial plot point.

“If anyone’s done Berg, this is very tame stuff really. [Bernstein] uses so many different genres. There’s that undercurrent of jazz all the time, which as an opera singer, is not as comfortable as other things. It may not be as satisfying as singing a Puccini aria but it tells a story in a different way.”

Sara Jakubiak, a soprano who makes her New York City Opera debut as Sam's daughter, Dede, finds that her character is better developed than many soprano roles. “I think if there was ever a character role for a soprano – and we have a lot of character mezzo roles – the spectrum of colors and emotions that you go through with this character are really immense,” she says.

Jakubiak also disputes the critics at the Houston premiere who found the characters unsympathetic and the story line too dreary. “I don’t think people were ready for it in the '80s,” she says. “Maybe it was just a little too hip.”

This revival comes just as one of Bernstein’s other problematic works has enjoyed a major rehabilitation in recent years: the 1971 Mass. Like A Quiet Place, that chaotic, pop-inflected work had a birth clouded by controversy (both political and artistic) and later, neglect. In recent years, however, it has toured the world and been the subject of high-profile new recordings.

Bernstein Thomas believes that A Quiet Place stands a better chance in an era when audiences are accustomed to dark television dramas like HBO's Six Feet Under and the phrase "dysfunctional family" has become commonplace.

"It’s so personal and so intense,” adds Alden. “It’s not easy for an audience to take some of that in because it is so personal and so fraught. It’s also fantastic for that reason.”

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