AUGUST 17, 2001 | current issue | back issues | subscribe |

A Case of the 'Prophetic Imperative'


When Marc Blitzstein, whom Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein credited with virtually inventing American opera, began writing the three-act "Sacco and Vanzetti" for the Metropolitan Opera in 1959, he had no way of knowing that half a century (and his death, in 1964) would pass before his magnum opus had finally been completed and produced. The finished product, about the execution of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for a robbery and murder they had not committed in the 1920s, will be performed for the first time, concertante (the singers holding their scores) with piano, on August 17, 18 and 19 at the White Barn Theatre in Westport, Conn.

The story of its completion begins in the summer of 1970, when I was looking over the composer's finished work with the idea of completing his one-act opera, "Idiots First," based on the story by Bernard Malamud. Bernstein, David Diamond, William Bolcom and Elie Siegmeister had all considered doing so only to abandon it. I was intrigued, especially when I found out that Blitzstein had been wrestling with much the same musical language as I was: finding the right balance for the text between simple melody and sophisticated harmony, modal color and serial technique, heartfelt vocal expression and complex contrapuntal textures. Meetings with Bernstein and others encouraged me, as I analyzed the work with Nadia Boulanger, who was Blitzstein's teacher as well as my own.

The critical moment came, I think, that fall when I was examining Blitzstein's papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and came across these lines in a letter from a student of his: "You are the finest teacher who has ever taught me and the greatest man I've ever known.... Somehow because I knew you, I had something to live for. Because your courage and integrity, which was in everything you did and said, taught me that there are good people left and things to live and fight for."

It must have been what my father calls the "prophetic imperative" — to make the world better in whatever way one can — that drove me to spend much of the next 31 years of my life trying to do what Blitzstein might have done.

I completed "Idiots First" in 1973, wrote two companion pieces for it and produced the resulting "Tales of Malamud" at Cornell University, Indiana University, the Bel Canto Opera Company in New York, New York University and, in part, at the Long Island Jewish Arts Festival and at Hebrew Union College.

In 1978, while working as assistant chorus master at the Met, I received permission from Blitzstein's sister to complete "Sacco and Vanzetti." In 1989, I organized and recorded "A Blitzstein Cabaret," which included an aria from "Sacco." In 1995, to commemorate what would have been Blitzstein's 90th birthday, I completed and premiered an aria for "Sacco and Vanzetti." After I completed Act I in 1999, the Blitzstein Estate offered me a contract to finish the entire work.
For further inspiration, last summer I went to Italy to visit the families, birthplaces and graves of Sacco and Vanzetti. In Torremaggiore, thanks to Sacco's niece Fernanda, there is a monument dedicated to the two of them. Engraved in stone is the Italian translation of then-governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis's July 1977 exoneration, part of which I was able to incorporate into the conclusion of the opera.

As pleased as I am with the mounting of this production, I am hopeful that this is only the first step toward the fully staged production, with orchestra, that this opera deserves. Perhaps such a goal is attainable by next year, the 75th anniversary of the execution and the 25th of the exoneration, or at least by the Blitzstein Centennial in 2005.

Mr. Lehrman has composed seven operas and 140 other works, as well as several Blitzstein completions.

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