Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 65:26 December 24, 1999 p.14
On Stage and in Film: Two Revivals of Great American Operas
[orig. title: Two Great American Operas Hit New York
Disappointing Only in What Might Have Been]

A long time coming, this month two great American operas, both by New York Jewish composers, at last reached New York City: William Mayer's A Death in the Family after the eponymous novel by James Agee, and the latest version of Marc Blitzstein's classic The Cradle Will Rock--in the movie [of the same name (minus the definite article)] by Tim Robbins.

Both had been long awaited, and were the occasion of exuberant celebration. Both disappointed only those in the know of what might have been.

[A Death in the Family]

Mayer's opera, first performed in Minnesota in 1983, received a magnificent production at Opera Theater of St. Louis in June 1986, starring Dawn Upshaw, Jake Gardner, and Peter Kazaras--who was in the audience for this New York premiere at Manhattan School of Music. The work is essentially a sentimental childhood portrait of Agee's parents, who were just about to reconcile their religious differences when his father was killed in an auto accident.

Melodic sweep of "A Death in the Family"

The musical characterizations are not terribly distinct, but when sung with the beauty and passion the St. Louis gave it, the work has a melodic and textural poetic sweep that takes it into the realm of and even beyond its operatic models--Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Elie Siegmeister. The orchestral writing, especially the interludes, well balanced and confidently conducted by David Gilbert, was unfortunately truncated in this version, at the request of director Rhoda Levine, which seemed odd since she had also staged the St. Louis version.

Albany Records, which has already presented excerpts beautifully recorded on Troy CD 068 "William Mayer: Voices from Lost Realms," will be issuing a CD of the complete Manhattan production, and some day, perhaps, the unions will allow commercial release of the performance broadcast on National Public Radio from St. Louis.

[Cradle Will Rock]

Unions were seen as the Messiah in Marc Blitzstein's 1936 "play in music," The Cradle Will Rock, a work [(and a composer)] that had a profound influence on Mayer, Copland, Siegmeister, and especially Leonard Bernstein, who conducted its Boston premiere from the piano in 1939. Thirty years later, the second Boston production attempted with some success to bring the work into the 1960s: both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were implied presences in the casting and the backdrop, along with the moon-landing and campus protests.

Attempt to bring in a 90's consciousness

In his film, Cradle Will Rock, Tim Robbins has attempted, on a grand scale, to bring a 1990s consciousness to the work. Although ostensibly using only seven songs from the opera and crediting his brother David with "the music" to the film, Robbins has in fact used--often inspiringly--bits and pieces from every scene but one and every number but one in the original Blitzstein. His topfree rehearsal jab at "Honolulu" and concluding shot at "Art for Art's Sake" are alone worth the price of admission.

"The Nickel Under the Foot," which appears three times--the last time unfortunately in a badly-mangled, unmodulated quasi-improvisation--ought to get an Academy award for the year's best movie song, and probably would have if the wonderful actress Emily Watson had been given the time and the coaching to learn to sing it as well as I think she could have.

Just before the final credits, the camera pans to a modern New York, obviously to provoke the realization that the commercial venality, moral hypocrisy, and political struggles in and about art depicted in the movie have only heightened, not lessened, in our own time.

The film's canvas is large, though the individual portraits of Blitzstein, Brecht, director Orson Welles, and producer John Houseman are less than three-dimensional. Robbins tells the story of Cradle's preparation as Federal Theater Project 891, and its June 16, 1937 opening despite a ban from Washington. He links this narrative with the creation and destruction of the Diego Rivera mural in the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center February 9, 1934 on the orders of the Rockefellers who had commissioned it--because the artist had chosen to include a portrait of Lenin and had refused to change it. (An interesting note, not mentioned in the movie, is that the hard line of Rivera's assistants, including Ben Shahn, whose painting of Sacco and Vanzetti inspired Blitzstein, was catalytic in the breakdown of negotiations with the Rockefellers.)

Connecting these stories of public art, and its problematical patronage in both the public and the governmental sectors, is the delightful, fictional character clearly designed for Vanessa Redgrave: a countess married to an art-purchasing steel magnate, who defies her own class in order to partake of the excitement of rescuing the production of a proletarian play. In locating a piano to accompany Cradle Will Rock in the Venice Theater, after the military closes the Maxine Elliott, she performs the role that was actually performed by the then very young and later quite well-known lighting designer Jean Rosenthal.

Another fictional character serves a double function. The play's male lead, union leader Larry Foreman (originally called Larry Sickle, the counterpart of laborer Joe Hammer, but his name was changed to dilute the obvious Party link), was created by one of the greatest Jewish actors of all time: Howard da Silva. In the film, he is played by John Turturro and given the name Aldo Silvano, along with an Italian anti-Fascist background that fits right in with the militancy of the audience, who took over the unoccupied Venice Theater: their first action, which set the appropriate mood, was to tear down the flag of Fascist Italy.

The director casts his wife, Susan Sarandon, as a Mussolini agent in charge of obtaining Hearst money. Her Italian accent comes and goes as badly as Emily Watson's attempts at American speech. The whole thing seems almost intentionally schizophrenic, with Bill Murray playing an anti-Communist ventriloquist whose puppet insists on singing the Internationale. The ending is both a funeral for the Federal Theater--with a burial for the puppet modeled after the real burial which the project's personnel gave to the lead prop in their production of Pinocchio--and an (improbable) onstage cast party with quasi-klezmer band accompaniment.

Small instrumental group originally envisioned

The use of accordion, clarinet, flute, trumpet, percussion and piano is almost propos: Blitzstein originally envisioned a small instrumental group to accompany his work, as was the case in the 1969 Harvard production. But the WPA forced a larger orchestra on him, and the government ban resulted in only a piano (plus a lone accordionist on June 16, 1937) being used at every other production since[--excepting only the 1947 full orchestral premiere, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and the badly miscast and misconceived 1960 New York City Opera production. (The German premiere, in Recklingshausen, used synthesizers, for better or for worse.)]

For a true understanding of The Cradle Will Rock, listen to Blitzstein telling the story himself on Spoken Arts 717 "Marc Blitzstein discusses his theatre compositions"; buy the Theatre Four production directed by Howard da Silva, available on CD; and get The Marc Blitzstein Songbook, just published by Boosey & Hawkes, in which five of Cradle's songs are once again in print.

Blitzstein's life and work were full of irony. The movie, which couples his greatest moment on stage--playing and singing his opera while actors rose from the audience to join him--with the destruction of the RCA Building mural, will have its soundtrack issued on RCA Victor (09026-63511-2). And though Blitzstein satirized Henry Ford in Cradle, it was the Ford Foundation which commissioned his final work: the opera Sacco and Vanzetti, which will soon be ready for workshopping in time for the 75th anniversary of the death of those two anarchists in 2002, and production in 2005, the year of Blitzstein's centennial.

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