Marc Blitzstein's Magnum Opus At Last
Sacco and Vanzetti

by Leonard Lehrman

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

A shortened version of this article was written for and originally published in THE FORWARD. -ed.

"The Sacco-Vanzetti case united the liberals," wrote David Riesman in the 1960s. "The Rosenberg case divided them."

When Marc Blitzstein began writing his magnum opus, the three-act opera, "Sacco and Vanzetti," commissioned by the Ford Foundation and optioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1960, he was thinking of the Rosenbergs. His sister, Josephine Davis, told me that, when I first met her and looked at his unfinished works in 1970, six years after his death.

Both cases had provoked a worldwide outcry at the injustice of executing people for crimes they had not committed: robbery and murder in the 1920s case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti; stealing the "secret" of the atom bomb in the 1950s case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Jo Davis asked me if I would be interested in completing Blitzstein's one-act opera, "Idiots First," based on the story by Bernard Malamud. Leonard Bernstein, David Diamond, William Bolcom, and Elie Siegmeister had all considered doing so, but abandoned it.

I was intrigued, especially when I found that Blitzstein, who Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein said had virtually invented American opera, had been wrestling with much the same musical language as I: finding the right balance, appropriate to the text set, between simple melody and sophisticated harmony, modal color and serial technique, heartfelt vocal expression and complex contrapuntal textures. Meetings with Leonard Bernstein and others encouraged me, as I analyzed the work with Blitzstein's teacher and mine—Nadia Boulanger—and translated and directed plays by his collaborators, Bertolt Brecht, Sean O'Casey, and Bernard Malamud.

But I think the critical moment came when I was examining his papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and came across this 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 you can, that drove me to spend much of the next 31 years of my life trying to do what Marc Blitzstein might have done.

I adapted and directed Blitzstein's "Cradle Will Rock" in the first Boston production since Bernstein's of 30 years earlier. I produced and starred in his "I've Got the Tune," together with his "Harpies," both in their Boston premieres, on a bill with Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti," which had been dedicated to Blitzstein.

And I completed the opera "Idiots First," wrote two companion pieces for it, and produced the resulting "Tales of Malamud" at Cornell, Indiana, the Bel Canto Opera Company in New York (winning the first Off-Broadway Opera Award for "most important event of the season"), NYU (the orchestral premiere, with the Center for Contemporary Opera), and, in part, at the Long Island Jewish Arts Festival and Hebrew Union College.

In 1978, while working as Assistant Chorus Master at the Met, I received Jo Davis's permission to complete "Sacco." Conductor James Levine expressed interest, but referred me to stage director John Dexter, who refused to see me. At the time it appeared to be sexual politics, I being the only heterosexual man on the music staff. But maybe it was more than that. The Met's announcement of the commission, in 1960, had been met with what Rudolf Bing called "a holocaust" of letters protesting its "un-American" subject.

Having left academia for the Met, and now unable to return, I found employment in Europe--Heidelberg, Augsburg, Basel, Vienna, two years in Bremerhaven, and three in Berlin, where I founded the Jewish Music Theater of that city and produced a radio program for Blitzstein's 80th birthday, in 1985.

Later that year, though, re-encountering Leonard Bernstein, I was queried by the maestro: "Where have you been!?" He had apparently been re-considering (I just learned at the Library of Congress last month) completing "Sacco" himself and, finding it "too fragmentary," had attempted to persuade the young composer Daron Hagen to try.

Returning to the States in 1986, I composed my Rosenberg Cantata, "We Are Innocent," based on the letters of Julius & Ethel, conducted several performances of it and recorded it on Opus One with the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra. I then organized and recorded "A Blitzstein Cabaret," including an aria from "Sacco."

For Marc's 90th birthday, I completed and premiered an aria for Vanzetti. That same year, I organized a symposium on the opera for the National Opera Association convention in Boston, with Howard Zinn and others, the transcript of which was published by Opera Journal and can be found on the internet, both at the Marc Blitzstein website <http://www.lcars.eu.org/john.jansson/index2.htm> and my own <www.artists-in-residence.com/~ljlehrman>.

In 1998, in conjunction with Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock" film, the Blitzstein Estate asked me to edit "The Marc Blitzstein Songbook." Boosey & Hawkes printed volume 1 in 1999; volume 2 is to appear this month, along with the Original Cast Recordings CD of the same name, presenting 19 of the newly-published songs, including four from "Sacco."

Two summers ago, upon completion of Act I, the Blitzstein Estate agreed to give me a contract to complete the vocal score by the end of 2001, based on Marc's thousands of pages of sketches, and other works of his, many of which he was himself recycling for it. These include his urban folk opera, "Reuben Reuben," which takes place in New York's Little Italy, an e.e. cummings song cycle, and an earlier, unproduced choral opera about the case entitled "The Condemned."

Last summer, funded in part by the Maldeb and Puffin Foundations, I visited the families, birth-places, and graves of Sacco and Vanzetti in Italy. In Torremaggiore, thanks to Nicola Sacco's niece Fernanda, there is a monument to the two of them. Engraved in stone on it is the Italian translation of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis' July 1977 exoneration of the two Italian anarchists.

When I spoke to Governor Dukakis about it, telling him of my cantata on the Rosenbergs and our hope that had he been elected president in 1988 he would have pardoned them, he said: "You're a fighter for all the good causes!"

On the encouragement of soprano Brenda Lewis, at whose home Blitzstein did much of his composing, I incorporated part of Dukakis' speech into the conclusion of the opera. Also on her encouragement, I completed the work ahead of schedule, in time for its first performances, concertante, at The White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut, August 17, 18, and 19 at 8pm. Their telephone number is 207-227-3768; website: www.whitebarntheatre.org

Saturday, August 18, at 4pm the theater will present a symposium featuring composer-conductor Anton Coppola, who has written and presented his own "Sacco and Vanzetti" opera, based on incidental music he wrote for a film his nephew Francis Ford Coppola had planned to make but never did; myself; and Joan Peyser, whose 1966 Columbia University Forum article had first acquainted me with Blitzstein's work.

A particularly telling passage in Act III shows the anti-immigrant prejudice, against which Blitzstein fought all his life, in a conversation among the panel appointed by Governor Fuller to advise him on whether or not to pardon Sacco and Vanzetti. Judge Robert Grant, whose luggage had been stolen on a trip to Italy, declares: "It is a well-known fact that all Italians lie and steal." Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, who tried to prevent Justice Brandeis from ascending to the Supreme Court, concurs: "Just like Jews."