Letter to The New Music Connoisseur by Leonard J. Lehrman
Vol. 10, No. 1 -- Spring 2002, p. 21


Nothing Like Being There

To the publisher,

The New Music Connoisseur deserves praise, for being the only publication to send two critics (Joseph Pehrson and publisher B.L.C. [Barry L. Cohen]) who (unlike those from Opera News) actually attended and then published (in NMC's Vol. 9 #4) their reviews of the Marc Blitzstein/Leonard Lehrman opera Sacco and Vanzetti, premiered concertante with piano at The White Barn Theatre in Westport CT August 17-19, 2001.

So much of what you two reviewers wrote was so perceptive. Nevertheless, a few facts do need correcting. Marc Blitzstein left several works unfinished when he died, including three operas: The Magic Barrel, of which only the libretto, a song and a scene were complete; Idiots First, its companion piece, the two to be known together as Tales of Malamud; and Sacco and Vanzetti. David Diamond, William Bolcom, and Elie Siegmeister were not asked to complete Blitzstein's Sacco. Only Leonard Bernstein was. He found it "too fragmentary," but (in 1984) he asked Daron Hagen to consider completing it anyway. Hagen also felt that he could not do it. Earlier, Bernstein, Diamond, Bolcom, and Siegmeister had been asked to consider, and they did consider, completing Blitzstein's Idiots First. After they had given up, I did it, in 1973, and received the approval of all concerned, including Bernstein, Diamond, Aaron Copland, Bernard Malamud, and the Blitzstein Estate. After several extremely successful productions of it, I was then encouraged to try completing Sacco. Another small error in Joseph Pehrson's review: Ronald Edwards is a tenor, who has also on occasion sung baritone or baritenor, but he is not a bass!

In your article, B.L.C., I appreciate your "admiration" and your "wonder about those people's motives" who question mine; and I agree that a discussion of what's involved here could indeed "open a Pandora's box." The February 2002 Opera News printed abbreviated versions of 5 of the 14 letters sent to them, in what the editors accurately called "a storm of protest" over the diatribe against the opera which appeared in the November 2001 issue. (I hope you can make those letters available on line.) A few of them were read and discussed at the National Opera Association's Philadelphia convention panel on opera and discrimination, February 15, 2002, which will be continued at its Washington DC convention next January.

To return to your review, I'm so glad you found "truly magical moments" in Act II, and that they sounded to you like "pure Blitzstein." Blitzstein actually only wrote a few measures for Elizabeth Glendower Evans, a civil liberties supporter (the term "civil rights" comes from a later era). The rest I filled in, often using fragments from Blitzstein's 1955 urban folk opera, Reuben Reuben, from which he himself borrowed liberally, for Sacco and at least one other work. I'm also glad you found Sacco's two arias "outstanding." Sacco's second aria is all Blitzstein, with its first seven measures taken (by him) directly from Reuben Reuben. Sacco's first aria, though, is almost entirely mine: Blitzstein started it 16 times, but though fragments of his sketches for it found their way into other parts of the opera's completion, only seven measures of what he wrote remain in the final version of the aria's music. (This is made clear in The Marc Blitzstein Songbook, vol. 2, Boosey & Hawkes, 2001.)

In your penultimate paragraph, you attribute something to me which I never said. Blitzstein never "felt uneasy about portraying villains." Look at Mr. Mister in The Cradle Will Rock, Mike in No for an Answer, Bart in Reuben Reuben, and yes even in Regina: the Hubbard men sing with forked tongue, in sinister rhymes. All of these were models for the musical treatments of the judge, the prosecutor, and the police chief in Sacco, which Blitzstein started, and I completed. Yes, they are a bit cartoonish, though no more so than Ben Shahn's famous paintings were, and that's how Blitzstein wanted them to be. As for "the bounty hunters" who appear in Act I Scene 3 (and only there), every word and every note of that scene was written by Blitzstein, untouched by me.

Interesting that you find the third-act dance number "sort of early anti-capitalist Shostakovich." Others have called it "ragtime" (and characterized its dramatic effect as "chilling"). It's actually neither, but is, rather, based on a 1938 cabaret number Blitzstein wrote, called "Who Knows?" or "Let's Be Blue." The original is published in the Songbook, vol. 2, and is recorded on the Original Cast Recordings CD, A Marc Blitzstein Songbook. Both the publication and the recording include four excerpts from Sacco as well.

Finally, while I'm glad that Joe Pehrson and you managed to attend the performances of August 17th and 18th, respectively, I regret only that neither of you was able to make it to the final performance, August 19. It was my very strong feeling that only on that night, when the stage crew and the singers finally got all the cues right, did Act III coalesce into the dramatic whole that I knew it could be. That performance is the one on the complete audio recording Theodore Presser is making available for perusal by potential producers. Perhaps if you listen to it, you too will find it as convincing as the audience did on that night - including director E. Randahl Hoey, who characterized himself as "bowled over" by its "stunning intensity."

With all best wishes,

Leonard J. Lehrman
Valley Stream, NY 11580

[P.S. A webpage with photos of the White Barn Theatre production and further critical comments may be viewed at http://www.artists-in-residence.com/ljlehrman/SaccoAndVanzetti.html

Another treatment of the Sacco-Vanzetti story, a 1996 Flemish musical by composer Dirk Brosse with lyrics by Frank van Laecke and Paul Berkenman, which ran for over 100 performances in Belgium and the Netherlands, had a tryout at The Lark Theatre in Manhattan April 4-8 and at the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven April 20. Fourteen soloists, a chorus, and an orchestra of 17, prepared and conducted by Eugene Gwozdz in an English-language version adapted by director Tony Giordano and producer Neil Thomas Proto, received two standing ovations, as the mayor of New Haven and Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura eloquently praised the work for "remembering what the country has tried hard to forget." Before the piece goes any further, however, the general feeling of the cast seems to be that a new lyricist is needed. Are Stephen Sondheim, Richard Maltby, or Michael Feingold available? Leonard Lehrman is.]

Ed. note: More of this controversy has been assigned to the NMC website, at www.newmusicon.org where you will also find links to other websites covering information on Sacco and Vanzetti.

[Some of the responses to the Opera News article, by Stephen E. Davis, Leonard J. Lehrman, Ralph P. Locke, Ann Stamler, and Jerrold Morgulas (first half), were originally posted at http://www.newmusicon.org/v10n1/speakingout.htm but have been taken down. They will be restored soon. Other letters are posted below by Charles Osborne, Richard Marshall, Robert M. Palmer (part of which was printed by Opera News), Maurice Edwards, E. Randahl Hoey, Daniel Felsenfeld, Sara R. Koritz, and Jerrold Morgulas (complete):]

Monday, November 05, 2001 11:29 AM
From: Charles Osborne
Subject: Opera News
November 4, 2001
I have just read Joel Honig's article from the November 1, 2001 edition of Opera News discussing Marc Blitzstein's opera SACCO AND VANZETTI as completed by Leonard Lehrman, and performed at the White Barn Theater in Westport, CT in August, 2001. As one who attended both the pre-concert lecture and performance which are discussed in this article, I can only categorize Mr. Honig's assertions regarding what took place there as monstrous. I must also question OPERA NEWS shameful decision to publish a review of a work of which the reviewer has never attended a performance.
Dr. Lehrman's passionate relationship with Marc Blitzstein's works, and the social concerns contained in them, goes back to before his undergraduate days at Harvard and is well documented. His affinity for Blitzstein's musical style was praised by no less a figure than Leonard Bernstein after Dr. Lehrman completed Blitzstein's opera IDIOTS FIRST, and it was this highly successful work as well as his 30 years plus relationship with Blitzstein's surviving family that convinced them to allow him to work on SACCO AND VANZETTI. This in spite of Mr. Honig's quotes of Bernstein, Daron Hagen and David Diamond attesting to the impossibility of the task. Mr. Honig's assertion that Dr. Lehrman "dissed panelist Anton Coppola, the eighty-three-year-old composer conductor" is untrue; such an incident never happened. If the statement was meant to imply professional jealousy exists between these two composers, then it does not explain why Mr. Coppola not only stayed for the entire performance, but then praised the work to Dr. Lehrman (and in my presence) afterward. And if the statement was meant to imply that Dr. Lehrman was somehow taking unfair advantage of Mr. Coppola's advanced years, then I must question Mr. Honig's purpose in his cruel caricatures of soprano Brenda Lewis and Professor Emeritus Robert Palmer of Cornell University, artists of contemporary years to Mr. Coppola, and of equally high stature in their own musical spheres.
I have known Leonard Lehrman for over 35 years. He is a musician of the finest training, whose work is based on the highest musical integrity and meticulous research of his subject matter. It was my privilege to star in the title role of the original New York production of IDIOTS FIRST, and through Leonard came to know and love Marc Blitzstein's works. At no time has he ever purported to "sell" his own work as Blitzstein's; everything he did to bring SACCO AND VANZETTI and IDIOTS FIRST to the stage is documented in detail. Lost in all of this was a performance by a gifted and dedicated cast of a highly gripping and moving opera. This SACCO AND VANZETTI is a work of tremendous size and scope, a challenging piece of theater that deserves to be performed. I have been quoted as saying that it is a masterpiece, and I stand by that statement. Having actually experienced this opera, I cannot see how Marc Blitzstein's legacy has been ill-served by its completion. I suggest that the Blitzstein/Lehrman SACCO AND VANZETTI be judged as any opera deserves to be: on the stage.

Sincerely yours,

Charles D. Osborne

Friday, November 16, 2001 5:26 AM
From: Richard Marshall
Opera News
70 Lincoln Center Plaza
New York, NY 10023
Attn: Letters to the Editor
Re: "Dead Man Wrting" November issue/Honig
Dear Sirs:

I can not understand how anyone can write about a performance which they have not attended. I am further disturbed that OPERA NEWS would print an article about an opera performance in which the writer was not present. I personally witnessed the workshop performance of SACCO AND VANZETTI at the White Barn in Westport, Ct. and saw no resemblance whatsoever to what I saw and heard and in what I read in your article.
Whether or not Mr. Honig liked the opera or not is irrelevant. That anyone would actually write about an opera which they had never heard or seen does no service to either the opera or OPERA NEWS. That Dr. Lehrman was able to finish a work that Marc Blitzstein began is only a credit to him. Whether the work is successful or not is not the point here. It is the effrontery of anyone to write about something without experiencing the event.


Richard Marshall
General Director
Center for Contemporary Opera

Friday, November 16, 2001 6:59 PM
Mr. F. Paul Driscoll, Editor

November 16, 2001

Dear Mr. Driscoll,

Mr. Honig's article in your November issue, full of rampant inaccuracies, goes well beyond the boundaries of ethics and common decency, in an apparent attempt to destroy the work and sully the integrity of a number of American musicians. How can he pretend to be able to judge a work he neither saw nor heard? And how could OPERA NEWS be a party to such slander?
I experienced a similar incident many years ago when a work of mine was performed in New York. It was to have been reviewed by Olin Downes, a very well known critic for the Herald Tribune. I was bitterly disappointed when he left at intermission, since my work was in the second half. I was absolutely outraged when a negative review of my work appeared in the next morning's paper under his name.
Having been a consultant and advisor for both Marc Blitzstein and Leonard Lehrman, I was invited to speak at the August 18 symposium on the recently completed Blitzstein/Lehrman opera, SACCO AND VANZETTI, and spoke for all of about 5 minutes. Mr. Honig's insulting characterization of my talk is way out of line. Leonard Lehrman's remarks were both informative and supportive. His assertion that he "attacked" Anton Coppola is outrageous as is the rest of his diatribe. OPERA NEWS should be ashamed of having printed it.

Robert M. Palmer
Given Foundation Professor of Composition Emeritus
Cornell University

210 Clinton Avenue, #11C
Brooklyn, NY 11205
Tel/Fax (718) 855-3971

November 15, 2001

1865 Broadway
New York, NY 10023

Dear Sir:

I'm sure many of your readers were shocked to find that gratuitously malicious, almost obscenely catty "review" of a work your critic never heard, let alone objectively researched, featured in the November 1st issue of your generally more judicious and reasonable magazine -- namely, Joel Honig's personal diatribe against composer Leonard Lehrman and his long labored over "completion" of Marc Blitzstein's fragment of an opera, "Sacco and Vanzetti."
Why does your so-called critic -- actually, he sounds more like a low level gossip columnist for one of those scandal rags sold at supermarkets -- hate this composer so much that he could travel all the way to Connecticut to attend a forum about an opera he chose not to stay to hear, albeit with only piano accompaniment?
Because Lehrman supposedly "dissed" another panelist on that forum? (The use of that dreadful word in this context makes one wince, and become even more wary of your Mr. Sneer.) Because he resented the fact that Lehrman was able to put together hundreds of fragments that predecessor composers perhaps did not have the patience nor the sympathetic "Mitgefühl" to deal with?
Mr. Lehrman has been very open about how much had been left behind by Blitzstein. He also makes quite clear how he went about filling the gaps and shaping this long, ambitious work into a viable theater work -- partly by using songs and motives from lesser known or otherwise abandoned works of Blitzstein and/or partly by so absorbing the Blitzstein idiom that the listener does not know where Blitzstein ends and Lehrman begins. Moreover, it was because of the remarkable job he did in finishing Blitzstein's Malamud opera, "Idiots First," that the Blitzstein Estate authorized Lehrman to go ahead with this monumental task in the first place. Shouldn't we respect that decision?
Would it not have been more gentlemanly of Mr. Sneer to stay on that night to hear the opera (why else go to the forum in the first place?) and then, if he found Lehrman's "restoration" and "rebuilding" wanting, and not living up to what he considered the Blitzstein level, he could have said so without impunity. Good, constructive criticism is preferable to wanton dismissal of a work never heard!
As we all know, there have been innumerable attempts to finish other composers' unfinished works. Some have been amazingly successful. Most have been failures. But each case is different. For example, whoever would have thought that Berio would be so inspired by the fragments Schubert left behnd of what some scholars postulate was to be his 10th Symphony, as to create a wonderful new work -- "Rendering" ? Would Mr. Honig have had the courtesy to listen to Lehrman's opus if he had called it a rendering of Blitzstein's projected opera?
Maurice Edwards*
*One of the participants in that try-out of a work-in-progress.

Attn: F. Paul Driscoll, Executive Editor, Opera news
FAX: (212) 870-7895
email: FPDRISCOLL@OperaNews.com
RE: Letters to the Editor

Joel Honig begins his first paragraph in CODA (page 88 in Opera News, Nov. 2001) with the provocative journalistic hook "...a worst-case example of what can happen after (a composer) is dead..." The editors of Opera News added a titillating headline, DEAD MAN WRITING, and featured a photo of the aggrieved composer in question with the sub-head "Blitzstein Plays Again?" The implication? The musical completion of the opera in question was dreadful.

Yet, Opera News was fully aware that Joel Honig left after a pre-curtain symposium and never stayed to listen to one single note of the completed opera that followed, SACCO AND VANZETTI.

Opera News and Joel Honig perpetuated an astonishing lapse of journalistic integrity.

I had the pleasure of directing Leonard Lehrman's completion of Marc Blitzstein's IDIOTS FIRST here in New York in 1978. I remember being impressed with Leonard's scholarship and his remarkable desire to be faithful to the composer's musical and dramatic intentions. Peter G. Davis in the New York Times was lavish in his praise. Now, 23 years later, I listened with fascination to Lehrman's completion of SACCO AND VANZETTI in a staged reading in Westport, Connecticut. Once again, Leonard's meticulous desire to remain true to Blitzstein's intentions was astonishing. For over 20 years Lehrman has apparently sifted through thousands of pages of notes and fragments to diligently complete an opera of stunning intensity that feels and sounds like Blitzstein throughout.

Joel Honig concludes his article with such phrases as "The twice-murdered composer" and "...the gold of Blitzstein'slegacy has been melted down into cufflinks for someone else to display. Poor Blitzstein -- it's just as well he was cremated. I'm sure he would be rolling over in his grave."
This from a journalist who has never heard the opera!! Where is his irrational vitriol coming from? In re-reading the article I noticed that Honig pointedly quotes Leonard as saying that he was the only non-gay assistant conductor on the staff at the Met. OOPS. Perhaps, by concluding his article with such alarming witchy-bitchy swagger, Mr. Honig will now have enough integrity to kindly open the door to his journalistic closet and reveal the source of his true fury.

E. Randahl Hoey, Stage Director
25 Indian Rd., Ste 3B
NY, NY 10034
(212) 544-0007

Tuesday, November 20, 2001 12:25 PM
From: Dfelsen@aol.com
Subject: Honig Article about Sacco and Vanzetti
To Opera News --

The article Mr. Honig published regarding Leonard Lehrman's completion of Sacco and Vanzetti was the work of an author that was not only self-proclaimed as ignorant (as he did not attend the performance), but a bad piece of writing. I was at the opening of Mr. Lehrman's (and Mr. Blitztein's) piece in my capacity as critic, and though I was less-than-praising of the performance (and, like Mr. Honig, of Mr. Lehrman's pre-concert panel demeanor), I found the opera itself to be something truly amazing.
I only tell you this because this is an opinion I was entitled to, as I was actually present.

Of course, I was not present in Martinique on the sad day when Mr. Blitzstein was murdered, so I don't have Mr. Honig's ability to suss that it was because Sacco and Vanzetti troubled him, a suicide of sorts and that he was too-careful of a person to have stored the manuscript in the trunk of his car. No, these are other insights Mr. Honig has that he could not have possibly known. Statements like "Small wonder that Blitzstein had dodged Bing, for there was no opera," are shocking in their presumption.

An intelligent piece could well have been written about the notion of completing unifinished works, but instead you published a sad rendering of a single event from hearsay, and an oddly purple rendering at that. This from the article:

"Perhaps it was the efforts of panelist Robert Palmer, to whom Lehrman-in a ghoulish act of artistic expropriation-dedicated Sacco and Vanzetti. Palmer had played through parts of the score with Blitzstein in Italy forty years ago, and his soporific ramblings were just enough to nudge panelist Brenda Lewis into the arms of Morpheus. After copping a few well-earned z's, the soprano was roused long enough to share her memories of Blitzstein's disciplined and punctual work habits, which she had observed first hand. By then the scam was obvious. A work dissembled as Blitzstein's, which the composer obviously never intended to be seen or heard, and which he ultimately-in the most profound sense-abandoned forever, had been cobbled together by a stranger's hand."

This is simply slanderous, and a distortion of the truth by someone who was not present. Mr. Lehrman was an overwhelming presence on the panel, but this should not dismiss his excellent work, an homage to a composer he holds dear, as do many others. If the piece was not pure Blitzstein note-for-note, it was all Blitzstein in its spirit. But again, I know this because I heard the music. And in a publication centered around an art that is supposed to have music as its core, this seems like hearing the work is the least one would have to know before going into print.

Opera News is supposed to be the leading American source for information about its topic, but when it is frequently so dismissive of American efforts to contribute as composers (or, in this case, as reconstructors) one wonders what it has to fear. In the case of the slanderous accusations against Mr. Lehrman, one wonders in fact at the amount of thought that goes into the publication of the magazine. I urge you to make Opera News as great as it could be by having no such articles published in future issues: reviews can only be done by critics who are present, and I don't think anyone should have to tell you that.

Best, Daniel Felsenfeld

56 W. 22nd St.
12th Floor
New York, NY 10010
212 366 9232 ex. 112
212 366 9304 (fax)

Tuesday, November 20, 2001 10:20:14 PM
From: sarasuek@aol.com
To: fpdriscoll@operanews.com
Subject: Why did you print J. Honig's diatribe vs. Leonard Lehrman's work on Sacco & Vanzetti? During my life as a union activist, the songs of Marc Blitzstein gave strength and spirit to workers at meetings or on picket lines.
I am an active member of the Community Church of Boston, founded in 1920. The Church took an active role in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti until their execution in 1927.
These two strands of my life merged into exciting expectation when I learnt that Leonard Lehrman's work on the opera, SACCO AND VANZETTI, based on Marc Blitzstein's notes, had been completed. I immediately made arrangements to be present at the opening performance. We were elated by the concert, by the beauty of the music, and the clarity of the opposing positions expressed in the lyrics.
I hope backers will be found to bring this opera to a wide public.
I believe you owe an apology, not only to Leonard Lehrman, but to opera lovers for printing such a hostile review by a "critic" who did not hear any of the concert.
Sara R. Koritz
77 Bigelow Street
Quincy, Mass. 02169

Opera News
70 Lincoln Center Plaza
NY, NY 10023

Attn: Letters to the Editor

November 13, 2001

Re: "Dead Man Writing" November issue / Honig

I have just finished reading Joel Honig's appalling article "Dead Man Writing" in the November issue of "Opera News". As character assasination the piece is grotesque and border-line actionable. As a piece of critical writing, it is absurd. Mr. Honig has undertaken to write an article about Leonard Lehrman's completion of Blitzstein's "Sacco and Vanzetti" without having heard a note of the music and without having examined the printed score. The entire article is nothing more than a waspish expression of Mr Honig's annoyance with Mr. Lehrman personally. If Mr. Honig had actually listened to the music and didn't like what Mr. Lehrman had done he would, of course, be entitled to express his opinion, albeit not in the kind of ad hominum terms he employs in his article. But to have written a piece for the sole purpose of attacking Lehrman personally is scandalous. One notes with almost equal alarm Mr. Honig's vicious, satirical descriptions of Brenda Lewis and Professor Palmer. Shame on Opera News for having published such a thing.

Worse yet, and completely inexcusable, Mr. Honig has his facts substantially wrong. Had he taken the trouble to consult the "Sacco" score, he would have noted that the sources of the music are minutely described, down to the last measure - what is Blitzstein's, where it came from, and what is Lehrman's. This information appears printed at the head of each act and is precise even down to changes in text for purposes of musical scansion. Mr. Honig's accusation that Dr. Lehrman is trying to pass off his own work as Blitzstein's is absurd.

But the question, ultimately, is not the percentage of Blitzstein's material that is incorporated and worked out in "Sacco" but whether the opera is a good piece of musical theatre or not. If it is, then does it matter whether the work is 80% Blitzstein and 20 % Lehrman or the other way around? I think not, any more than the degree of Cooke's contributions to the Mahler Tenth, or Mahler's to "Die Drei Pintos" are relevant. Surely the effectiveness of the opera itself is the only important matter.

Dr. Lehrman's completion of Blitzstein's "Idiots First" and its performance by the Bel Canto Opera some years ago was hugely successful and a work of discriminating scholarship and scrupulous loyalty to Blitzstein's memory and art. I have known Dr. Lehrman for many years and despite our occasional differences I have nothing but respect for his musical ability, scholarship and integrity. It is not my purpose here to praise Dr. Lehrman's score not to criticise it but simply to protest vigorously Mr. Honig's having written an article about the opera without having heard a note of it. Honig could easily have done what I did, that is request of Dr. Lehrman a tape of the opera and/or the score and libretto. Had he done so, his article would at worst have been an example of bad taste; as it is, it is a shameful example of critical hubris.

"Opera News" owes Dr. Lehrman a public and prominently printed apology.

Very truly yours,
Jerrold L. Morgulas, Esq.
(formerly General Director, Bel Canto Opera Company NYC)