MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Dinner at Eight Fails to Sate the Appetite

My Musical America review of the new opera Dinner at Eight by composer William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell is now live (behind the MA paywall).

ST. PAUL, MN–Minnesota Opera has long had in place a vigorous program to promote the creation of contemporary works. Dinner at Eight is the latest of these and brings the tally of new operas that the company has produced to 45. For this project …

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Filed under: American opera, Minnesota Opera, Musical America, review, William Bolcom

Buffa from Bolcom

Over at the Aspen Festival there’s a new production of William Bolcom’s comic opera A Wedding — based on the Altman film — starts tonight. Here’s my essay for the Aspen program:

A Perfect Marriage: Comedy and Collaboration in Bolcom’s A Wedding

Throughout his career as a composer and pianist, William Bolcom has broken down artificial barriers between styles, between perceived divisions that separate “serious” music from entertainment. Along with his prolific output in the traditional genres, Bolcom has breathed new life into popular American idioms from the late 19th/early 20th centuries: piano rags, cabaret songs, and show tunes from a vanished era.

He and the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris — his longtime performance partner and his wife — have concertized as a duo since the early 1970s, celebrating the variety of the American Songbook.

All of these abiding interests nurture the vital language Bolcom has evolved — a language he exploits with virtuosic mastery in A Wedding, the third of his four large-scale operas. (The most recent of these, Dinner at Eight, will be premiered next March by Minnesota Opera.)

Bolcom’s first three major operas were commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago: McTeague, based on the Frank Norris novel from 1899, premiered in 1992; an operatic treatment of Arthur Miller’s classic A View from the Bridge, was first seen in 1999; and A Wedding was unveiled in 2004. The Music Academy of the West subsequently commissioned a version of A Wedding scored for reduced orchestra, which was first staged in 2008 in Santa Barbara, California; this is the performance edition being used for Aspen Music Festival’s production.

Referring to the so-called eclecticism that is integral to his style, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bolcom says: “The process of composition, as the word indicates, is about how you put it all together. What will generate electricity when these various planes meet? This is where you have to go by instinct. It helps to have a vocabulary and a theatrical experience.”

Bolcom’s most ambitious work, Songs of Innocence and Experience: Musical Illumination of the Poems by William Blake (which garnered multiple Grammy Awards) exemplifies this sense of coherence amid its abundant mingling of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” stylistic references — and thus looks ahead to his achievement in A Wedding. Songs is a category-defying epic of invention that was more than a quarter century in the making: part song cycle, part cantata, and part theater work.

A Wedding marks the final major project he completed with longtime artistic partner Arnold Weinstein (1927-2005), a leading 20th-century poet and playwright. For A Wedding, Weinstein teamed up with the legendary film director Robert Altman (1925-2006) to adapt Altman’s 1978 film for the opera stage.

“Bob worked out at the scenario, asking, ‘What does a scene have to accomplish?’ and then Arnie would write it up,” recalls Bolcom. With its chaotic cast of 48 individual personalities, the film A Wedding might seem an implausible source for operatic treatment, yet the composer became intrigued by its potential as a comic opera and by the challenge of making this suite of characters musically memorable.

“You have to see the film several times to be able to work out the relationships,” says Bolcom. “It’s a whirlwind. I got to see the shooting script, where [Altman] had written out thumbnail sketches of the secret behind every single one of them.”

The composer’s solution was the musical equivalent of this process: to establish a musical “secret” that unlocks the heart of each character. For the cast of A Wedding, he applied “the same principle” he had used to cope with the variety of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

“Every one of these characters has a voice. Each character required a  song — a music to make them come to life. I have found that most people have at least one song within them. The popular music world is filled with people who wrote one perfect, amazing song and nothing else.”

Still, it took a long time to figure out a way to distill the original 48 characters of Altman’s film down to a musically manageable ensemble of 16 major roles for the opera, each with their own back story. (The four operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle, by way of comparison, encompass a cast of more than 30 distinct characters.)

“One thing Bob and Arnie figured out was to conflate some of the different film characters into one,” Bolcom explains. For example, the opera blends the art dealer who falls in love at first sight with Tulip, the mother of the bride (memorably played by Carol Burnett in the film) and the lecherous physician who treats the grandmother of the groom into the same character.

“The libretto is very skillful in how it negotiates all these characters,” observes stage director David Schweizer, who began his career as a protégé of Joseph Papp in New York. “The structure is a little surprising from time to time, which is part of the fun of it. It has a cinematic, fluid structure that makes it natural for me to think of simple, imaginative ways to move from moment to moment that are not dependent on big, physical sets. When I direct I like to think of how people move through space and how they would behave.”

Schweizer points to the congruity between Altman’s methods as a film director and Bolcom’s own background in the theater. “Altman was famous for the improvisatory approach he used with a group of actors who knew him very well. There was always something creative happening on the set. But that improvisatory quality was based on consummate technique. That’s very similar to what you find with Bolcom. He has the confidence of a mature artist who is unconstrained, who feels free to do what his instincts tell him to do as a composer.”

Schweizer remarks on the connection between Bolcom’s extensive background in improvisation and his musical style. He believes it’s a key to the composer’s ability to juggle with the myriad stylistic reference points that populate the score for A Wedding: madcap Rossini ensemble, Copland’s Americana, jazz, rockabilly Elvis, Broadway pizzazz, and a touch of Gershwin. Yet for all of its references, A Wedding “is not a pastiche. It has a voice of its own which is a contemporary musical voice — and that voice is also quite touching sometimes. The opera involves a tricky tone that hovers between farce and pathos. It can’t be too cartoonish but it also can’t be devoid of a sense of humor.”

“The language of A Wedding contains a lot of Americana, which is fitting for a summer in which we are looking at the mid-20th-century symphonists,” says Asadour Santourian,  Vice President for Artistic Administration and Artistic Advisor for the Aspen Music Festival. “Bill Bolcom — who is an alumnus of Aspen — is one of their descendants. This is an eminently American work in its musical syntax that hearkens back to a sound world all its own, quite different from what we find in Copland or Barber.”

Bolcom’s musical sleight of hand corresponds to A Wedding’s dramaturgy, which unpredictably mixes satire and farce with very serious situations. “There’s an almost musical Chekhovian quality in this group of people and what is happening to their spirits,” Schweizer observes.

If Chekhov is part of the equation, so is the effervescence of opera buffa as exemplified above all by Mozart’s innovative masterpiece — a work that similarly involves a wedding: The Marriage of Figaro. As an American corollary to Figaro’s fault lines between the aristocracy and the servant class, explains Bolcom, A Wedding pits “the nouveaux riche [the parents of the bride, Muffin] against old money [the groom Dino’s family background].” And, like Figaro, the very confusion of A Wedding’s story line is essential to its effect.

“Comedy is infinitely harder to do than tragedy,” according to Bolcom, whose first two operas were firmly rooted in the ancient Greek understanding of tragedy — particularly A View from the Bridge, for which playwright Arthur Miller explicitly had the model of Greek tragedy in mind when molding his drama set in working-class Brooklyn of the 1950s. The challenge of comic opera involves not only the timing but also motivation. “With tragedy you are talking about people who are the victims of forces that they may have unleashed themselves, pointing toward something spectacularly self-destructive. How many great laughs are there in opera?”

“Comedy requires its own skill,” says Schweizer. “What it has in common with music for the theater is timing. At the same time, opera singing is so emotional by its nature that to turn that to comic effect requires a real deftness that is not necessarily a province of singing.” Santourian believes this inherent tension poses a fascinating challenge for the young cast in Aspen Music Festival’s production.

“It’s not only about singing but about acting choices as well. Although it’s a comedy the performances must be delivered as seriously as possible.” He especially admires “the singability of this score. You see what a master Bolcom is at setting texts, so that even though the music flavors and colors what is being said, he always makes sure the text is not obscured.”

Because of these challenges — comic timing, the correlation of singing and acting, the ensemble coherence of the while — A Wedding is particularly well-suited to showcasing the talents of young, emerging singers. “With a young ensemble you can use their physicality to create a whole world,” Schweizer explains. Referring to a previous student production of the opera, Bolcom’s wife Joan Morris notes with amusement that “the kids were getting the jokes before their teachers did.”

“I’m glad that A Wedding hasn’t yet become part of that treadmill of conservatory operas,” says Santourian “This gives our singers an opportunity to tackle an American work that will be very fresh for them.”

(c) 2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Aspen Music Festival, William Bolcom

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