Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dominique-René de Lerma: Redefining Opera

Jules Bledsoe

Dominique-René de Lerma:


It is doubtful that anyone in 1927 suspected it might ever happen.  That was at New York's Ziegfeld Theater when, two days after Christmas, Jerome Kern's Showboat opened.  Before it closed in May of 1929, it had been given 572 performances.  Clearly a success, it provided Jules Bledsoe, Paul Robeson, William Warfield, and so many others with that quasi-aria, "Ol' man river."  Serious business, but it was still only a Broadway musical, even if it did involved miscegenation.  It was revived in 1932, now at the Casino, enjoying 181 performances.  And it was back again at the Ziegfeld in 1946, for 418 more performances, at the New York City Center in 1948 for 15 performances, 15 in 1954, and 78 more in 1983, now at the Gershwin Theater, where 958 performances were given starting in 1994. 
With a new text, Bizet's opera was seen as Carmen Jones at the Broadway Theater in 1943 for 502 performances, then at the New York City Center in 1945, 1946, and 1956 for 95 performances, then revived for seven times at the Theatre in the Park in 1959.  Seeming to be musical theater, it used Bizet's music, just as My darlin' Aida (Winter Garden, 1952, 89 performances) was based on Verdi.  Not purely Broadway musicals, but material for the Met.   
As long as these stayed in their place, opera goers need not worry.  They might have been a bit confused (and not just by the libretto) by Four saints in three acts (1934 and 1952, 63 performances), but Virgil Thomson was already an enfant terrible, tolerated by those who indulged him.  Never mind this was not a three-act whatever and there were more than four saints, all of whom were Black.   Perhaps the same audience was among those who went to Kurt Weill's Lost in the stars at one of the 328 productions from 1949 and 1972 (the year Atlanta saw the première of Joplin's Treemonisha, via T. J. Anderson).
But what to do with Porgy and Bess?  As a folk opera, it was no threat.  One hundred twenty-four performances in 1935 at the Alvin Theatre did not break even financially.  And no matter how popular the "arias" became on the pop music scene, one can forget that Gershwin saw the work within the tradition of Wagner's Die Meistersinger.  He was wrong.  It was in the tradition of Puccini, and only eventually came to be realized as such.  That path was followed with four productions between 1942 and 1944 in just over 300 performances.  It toured Europe, the Middle East, and even a bit of North Africa,  with not-yet-known Leontyne Price and William Warfield (and Maya Angelou!). Then there was 1983, when it was staged at Radio  City Music Hall for 67 evenings.
In 1985 it made the Met, despite extended controversies about social accuracy.  Joseph Eubanks, who took a leave from the faculty at Morgan State University to appear at Radio City Music Hall, lamented to me that he was more of King Philip in Don Carlo than a resident of Catfish Row, and when she went backstage after the Met staging, Sylvia Lee told Grace Bumbry (who was Bess), "Honey, tonight you sang Tosca!"
We know now that Porgy and Bess is an opera, not a Broadway musical.   More than that, the repertoire in major houses has been opening up.  P&B has been seen in Denmark in 1943, before the Nazis closed it down. 
Right long side Donizetti, Gounod, and Mozart we are finding acknowledgement that there are "shows" that merit such consideration.  In the coming season, Showboat is being staged by the Portland Opera and is set for four performances by the New York Philharmonic.  My fair lady and West Side story are scheduled by Oper Leipzig.  When I found that the Volksoper in Vienna was producing Hello Dolly, I thought back to 1952 when I was  an actor with a company in Coral Gables.  One morning I met a university undergraduate and inquired what he was going to do with his life.  He replied that he was going to write the great Broadway musical.  "What a foolish dream," I thought.  His name was Jerry Herman, later to be composer of Milk and honey, Hello Dolly, and La cage aux folles. Jerry and Dolly in Vienna!  Is it now time for Still in Chicago and the Met?
Dominique-René de Lerma

Comment by email:
Hi Bill, To Dom’s last comment  ‘Is it now time for Still in Chicago and the Met?’ My reply is that it is ‘long overdue’ and what about Covent Garden and the ENO at the Collisium!  However, I hope that those responsible for the 21st  century ‘adaptations’ of P & B (i.e. Trevor Nunn and Diane Paulus) do not attempt to
‘popularise’ (say) ‘Troubled Island’. Also, may I say that T I does not need any cuts made by producers!

By the way, it is notable that the first complete recording of P&B was not made until 1976 and Trevor Nunn’s earlier 1986 production at England's Glyndebourne Festival and the 1989 recording  (under Simon Rattle) also based on the complete original score is commendable.  Mike  [Michael S. Wright]

No comments: