2 THE OPERA JOURNAL 29:1 Mar. 1996 pp. 26-46
Transcript of the Symposium on Marc Blitzstein's Unfinished Opera SACCO AND VANZETTI
(originally commissioned by the Ford Foundation and optioned by the Metropolitan Opera)
presented at the National Opera Association Convention Royal Sonesta Hotel, Cambridge, Massachusetts
December 1, 1995 [editing of transcript completed Jan. 15, 1996]
Moderator: Dr. Leonard J. Lehrman
Panelists: Prof. Howard Zinn, Cantor Charles Osborne,
Prof. Paul M. Talley, Mr. Robert D'Attilio
Other Participants: Prof. Leland Fox, Mr. William Miranda,
Ms. Patricia Heuermann,
Cantor Charles Osborne (sang & taped the proceedings),
Mr. Ronald Edwards (sang on tape)
LELAND FOX (Past President of the NOA): In a manner of speaking, the clock is ticking on SACCO AND VANZETTI because the centennial celebration of Marc Blitzstein's birth will be in 2005 and this work, his last work, is to be completed by that time. The architect of its completion is here to talk about it. His credentials are very impressive.
I was impressed to begin with that he had the nerve to succeed Leonard Bernstein in the presentation of THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. Those are big shoes - a big shadow to step into. He's made that more or less the focus of a very distinguished career that includes 8 operas [including a new Malamud opera in progress] and 115 [other] compositions that have been played and performed around the world. Leonard Lehrman is the President of The Long Island Composers Alliance and formerly Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera as well as Associate Editor of OPERA MONTHLY. [He has a doctorate from Cornell University.]
In 1969, at Harvard, he directed and conducted THE CRADLE WILL ROCK in its first Boston production since Leonard Bernstein's of 30 years earlier, and followed it up with two more Blitzstein operas in their Boston premieres, with Mr. Bernstein himself in attendance - so he invited that comparison and apparently very favorably. In 1973, Mr. Lehrman completed Blitzstein's unfinished one-act opera based on Bernard Malamud's story, IDIOTS FIRST, which Bernstein himself had attempted the completion of, and left it in Mr. Lehrman's hands. Together with a companion piece of Lehrman's own composition, based on another Malamud story, the work was presented under Blitzstein's original title, TALES OF MALAMUD, and won the first Off-Broadway Opera Award for "most important event of the season."
The Center for Contemporary Opera presented the orchestral premiere on an NEA (and an American Music Center) grant, and it was staged [in 1992] by Patricia Heuermann, who is one of our NOA Vice Presidents. The production at NYU was made possible because of a contact made by Mr. Lehrman at the 1991 NOA Chicago convention [where Lehrman performed his E.G.: A MUSICAL PORTRAIT OF EMMA GOLDMAN, which had been inspired by a play by Professor Howard Zinn]. So we've come full circle and now we're anxious to hear how this work is going to end.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Thank you. We were talking about this late into the night last night, and I think I've come up with 4 logical questions - to paraphrase the Passover Seder - 4 questions for the panel on Blitzstein's SACCO AND VANZETTI.
1. Why is the Sacco-Vanzetti case important, not just historically but today?
2. Why is Marc Blitzstein's work, especially this opera, important, not just historically but today?
3. How much of the work is complete and how much remains to be finished?
4. Why has it taken so long, and how and why should it be finished and performed now?
In discussing each of these four questions, I'm going to ask each of the panelists to consider the facts (in keeping with the theme of this conference "Lift Every Voice") of bigotry, fear, prejudice, and exclusion, specifically in terms of class, political persuasion, nationality (also sometimes called race), and sexual orientation.
Before I introduce the first panelist, I'd like to mention a member of the original cast of Blitzstein's best-known opera in the traditional sense, REGINA, is here with us today, Professor William Warfield, and I'm really delighted to see you, Bill! (Applause.) There are several of my heroes in this room, actually. When I was at Harvard, one of the greatest speeches that I ever heard took place on the Boston Common as part of the Vietnam Moratorium, October 15, 1969. We had just done excerpts from THE CRADLE WILL ROCK as part of a rally on the Cambridge Common. Then I heard this speech, and I wanted very, very much to get a copy of it, so I called up the man who gave it who told me it had been extemporaneous. Fortunately the local radio station had taped it, and I got a recording from them, transcribed it, and printed it in the program of our production.
The speaker was, and is, one of the great historians of our time, author of A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES and many other works, including the foreword to the reissue of BOSTON, a documentary novel by Upton Sinclair about the Sacco-Vanzetti case. If you live in Boston, if you know anything about American history, or historians, I don't think you need any more introduction to one of my heroes, Prof. Howard Zinn. (Applause.)
HOWARD ZINN: I'll never be able to match that. But I'm here because Leonard Lehrman asked me to be here, and because I've admired his work for years. I guess I'm always impressed when people can do anything with music, and what he's done with music has been ingenious. And when somebody does something with music, and what they do with music also has a connection with our society and with the important issues of our society, then that is something special.
So, I have a very sort of simple, little job to do here, and I'll try to make it simple and little, and that is just to say something about the historical significance and background of the Sacco- Vanzetti case.
Some of you may remember that in 1977, there was a flurry of excitement around the 50th anniversary of the execution, because Governor [Michael] Dukakis declared officially that Sacco and Vanzetti had not had a fair trial. That led to a reopening of the controversy, which suggested that, although it was 50 years later, the issues that were raised by the case were still the kind of issues that arouse people's ire.
I remember that Peter Fuller, the son of Governor Fuller of Massachusetts who had refused to pardon Sacco and Vanzetti - and it's fair to say one of the villains in the case for anyone who was a defender of Sacco and Vanzetti - wrote a letter to the Boston Globe in which he decried Dukakis's action in declaring it an unfair trial, because by declaring it an unfair trial Dukakis was by implication saying that his predecessor, Governor [Alvan] Fuller, had been one of those responsible for the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Peter Fuller wrote: "This is an attempt to besmirch a guy's record that we believe in and love, whose memory we cherish. We're sitting here in the last building my father built, and it's the most beautiful car agency on the eastern coast and perhaps in the United States."
I thought this was interesting. He saw a connection between the selling of Cadillacs and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. And in fact there is a connection. Sacco and Vanzetti were poor. And I think this is the thread that ties the Sacco-Vanzetti case to the political cases that preceded it and the political cases that have followed it in American history - to the case of the Haymarket people, the anarchists who were executed in 1887 in the Haymarket Affair - to all the labor union people, to the black people who were lynched in this country, to the trial of the Rosenbergs and the many other trials that followed World War II and the McCarthy period. Sacco and Vanzetti epitomized so many of those issues, because Sacco and Vanzetti were poor; Sacco and Vanzetti were not "real" Americans [but] Italians who spoke with an accent; and perhaps worst of all, they were radicals. And maybe worse even than that, among radicals they were radicals. They were anarchists - you can't get more radical than that.
So they had these factors working against them in a trial that seemed to be a trial for robbery and murder. But what their trial suggests is that whenever we consider that a trial seems to be for one thing, it's about many other things. Just as whenever a piece of history is presented as if it were just about that piece of history, it's really not just about that piece of history; it's about everything that surrounds it. It's about what's in the minds of people who perceive that history. So Sacco and Vanzetti, when they were questioned by the police, were not just questioned about whether they had committed this crime, but were questioned about other things - were questioned about why they had opposed World War I, were questioned about:
"Are you a Communist?" Obviously if they were Communists or not that had great relevance as to whether they had committed a robbery or a murder.
"Anarchist?" "No." Well, not quite truthful. You know, sometimes defendants think that it's all right to lie to the authorities.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: It is.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: That's an anarchist speaking.
HOWARD ZINN: "Do you believe in this government of ours?" "Yes." Sacco is being very cagey. Does he really believe in this government of ours? No. And then he added, just as a note of honesty: "Some things I like different." Which is the mildest kind of statement anybody could make about the government of the United States.
But it should be also noticed that the trial took place in the 1920s - it began in the years right after World War I - 1920, 1921. The superpatriotism of World War I, the jingoism of the war spirit still pervaded the country. And immediately preceding the Sacco- Vanzetti case, immediately preceding their arrest for this robbery and murder, there were the Palmer raids [by] Attorney General [A. Mitchell] Palmer - attorney general for one of our "liberal" presidents [Woodrow Wilson] - well, "liberal" unless you consider that he was also a racist and a segregationist - but it's interesting how liberalism is peculiarly defined very often in this country. Attorney General Palmer organized raids that took place against foreign-born people, aliens, people who were not citizens, the supposition being that radicalism was essentially a foreign thing, and that if you'll round up enough foreigners, you'll round up enough radicals. There was no question of due process, no question of trials, no question of guilt or innocence. Rounded up, very often beaten, 500 aliens were shackled together and marched through the streets of Boston just before the Sacco-Vanzetti case started. These people were put on boats and deported back to where they had come from. The Sacco-Vanzetti case was going on at a time when the bodies of soldiers were still being returned to this country. Patriotic parades were taking place. There was an atmosphere of Fourth of July, an atmosphere of Memorial Day, yes, the atmosphere of war still pervading the Sacco-Vanzetti case.
So think about this. When we talk about the Rosenberg case many years later, you cannot talk about the Rosenberg case without talking about the context - about the Cold War, about the atom bomb, about the Korean War, about the Chinese Communists winning power in China. And so the Sacco-Vanzetti case to me is a very critical marker telling us so much about American society. Of course it's not only true of American society.
It's true of societies in general. What purport to be trials of ordinary criminals turn out to be much more than that. And in those trials are compressed the prejudices of a society - the racial prejudices, the anti-foreign prejudices, the anti-radical prejudices. And so the result, the outcome of those trials is a trial that reflects what the society is like. And therefore to reconsider that case, to reconsider it as Dukakis did in the 1970s, to reconsider it in our time, to put it to music, to bring it alive, is to my mind to bring alive the ideas, the values embedded in that case. That's why I think it's important. (Applause.)
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Thank you, Howard. I just want to tie up a couple of threads you mentioned: Blitzstein was in fact thinking of starting the opera with a Memorial Day celebration, with the opening of the trial. Then he decided he'd probably use that at the beginning of Act II. The first act begins with a chorus that states:
"This is the end of the opera. After this it begins. ...Guilty of being strangers in a strange land, holding strange ideas. Innocent of the charge itself, robbery and murder. Were they executed for their guilt or for their innocence?"
I think that puts that in context. Now I want to set a little bit of context for the aria that you're about to hear. Blitzstein told the Met [October 9, 1961] that as per the contract that he had, he had completed 75% of the libretto and 40% of the music. That was an exaggeration. You can see the pile of music over there, and in sheer bulk there probably is about 40% of the music. But it contains multiple drafts of many, many scenes. I would say that he had completed parts of 40% of the music and 75% of the libretto. The only thing that the Met ever saw was one aria he sent them, which I'm going to play for you. This aria was performed with orchestra in an orchestra commissioned by Leonard Bernstein and written by Hershey Kay, at a Blitzstein Memorial concert in 1964 and then again at a Blitzstein 80th birthday concert in 1985. Both times, the tenor who was singing it got lost in the middle, so I'm not going to play you those tapes. I will play you a CD we made called "A Blitzstein Cabaret," which has this aria on it, with piano. It's sung by Ronald Edwards. But first I'm going to ask Cantor Charles Osborne to sing just 6 measures from an earlier work of Blitzstein's called REUBEN REUBEN, which he wrote in the early 1950s. It's called "With A Woman To Be" and he's just going to sing that part of this song which Blitzstein used in REUBEN REUBEN and then you'll hear he reused this part in SACCO AND VANZETTI. Charles, by the way, was the original title role in the New York City premiere of IDIOTS FIRST.
[Charles Osborne sang mm. 1-6 of "With A Woman To Be" from REUBEN REUBEN.]
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Blitzstein used only that much in REUBEN REUBEN, although he had written a little bit more about a walk in Central Park, which then became Milford Park when he moved it into SACCO AND VANZETTI. But that was all that he actually used in REUBEN REUBEN, except for a little bit of a fragment at the end of an ensemble, where the Street-Vendor is singing:
"With a woman to be and not be lonely. I ask her to be mine.
She say she don't know. She say she need time to think.
What she need to think? I don't need no time to think.
All I need to see
how it is good for me
with a woman to be."
So this has now become an aria, the only part of the opera he sent the Met, sung by Sacco in his cell, in Act II. On the CD it's sung by Ronald Edwards.
[The excerpt from Premier CD #1005 "A Blitzstein Cabaret" was played.]
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Now I'd like to introduce the author of the first full-length study of Marc Blitzstein, "Social Criticism in the Original Theater Librettos of Marc Blitzstein," written in 1965 [as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin]. The Director of Academic Theater and Actor Training at Millersville University in Millersville, PA, he credits the original production of Blitzstein's REGINA for his career choice in 1949, Professor Paul Talley. (Applause.)
PAUL TALLEY: Listening to the recording I was struck again by the clarity of Blitzstein's lyrics, the ease of understanding which comes from giving the singers words and speech rhythms very close to the idioms of spoken American. Blitzstein usually wrote his own lyrics to his own music. In doing so he may have maintained better control over the simulation of true-to-life speech than did other pioneers who were attempting to bring realism to the musical stage. He cut his teeth on the same grounds as Rodgers & Hart - in the Garrick Gaieties with TRIPLE SEC, a small opera which was part of one of the Garrick Gaieties shows. Kern, Hammerstein, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart made important efforts in that direction and were just about to make others when Blitzstein's THE CRADLE WILL ROCK rocked the theatre world.
Although CRADLE presents a collection of archetypical stereotypes, the bulk of the lyrics have the simplicity and richness of "real life." The opening scene between the Moll, the Masher and the "on-the-take-or-on-the-make" Cop still plays like something one might encounter around the nearest corner.
Blitzstein's work was frequently greeted with the question, "Yes, but is it opera?" If Singspiel, Melodrame, Opera Comique and Opera Buffa are accepted as forms of Opera, the answer is definitely "Yes." My answer, however, is "Who cares?" Blitzstein has been important to the American musical theatre in several ways. In addition to setting a standard and an American model for musical dialogue, he was a major figure in transplanting into the American theatre the theories of Bertolt Brecht.
More importantly, as he became more accomplished at applying Brechtian theory, he moved farther from the Brechtian model. He began to accomplish what I like to call "The Americanization of Brecht," that is, the welding of alienation (or distancing) theory to the content and dramatic tensions of American Realism.
Before he could move from the Brecht model, he had first to move toward it. In the beginning he really didn't understand Brecht, nor the related musical theories of Hanns Eisler. He didn't like Kurt Weill's music at all, and wrote some rather nasty articles in his early role as a music critic.
On the other hand, Blitzstein's wife, Eva Goldbeck, was one of the first American intellectuals who did understand Brecht. Blitzstein was slowly won over. His left-oriented revue sketch, "Send for the Militia," was performed by Eve Arden in PARADE, the so-called "Red Revue." (It is recorded on the Premier CD "A Blitzstein Cabaret.")
By the time they gave a party to welcome Brecht to America, Blitzstein had, ready to perform, a song of a prostitute, "The Nickel Under the Foot." Brecht suggested as a theme for a theatre-work "the prostitution of the middle class." Several sketches had been worked on when Eva became victim to a strange wasting disease (possibly anorexia nervosa) and died. Blitzstein isolated himself and completed the work known as THE CRADLE WILL ROCK.
Turning toward the work of Hanns Eisler, Blitzstein scored several films, wrote music and sketches for radio, and incidental music for plays. He developed a radio music-drama, I'VE GOT THE TUNE, and began work on NO FOR AN ANSWER, an opera with a somewhat more orthodox storyline structure and a semi- autobiographical base.
One summer, Blitzstein and his sister Jo set out to improve living conditions for some immigrant workers in a New Jersey seaside resort by educating the Greek restaurant workers. According to Jo, they experienced some embarrassment and some degree of self-criticism as they discovered that their "students" knew the classics of their (Greek) literature better than the privileged Blitzsteins knew their own.
NO FOR AN ANSWER revolves around the unionization of the workers in just such a town. The idealistic couple, who would seem to be drawn from Marc and Jo, are not the driving force in the union quest, just volunteers. Paul (who would seem to be Marc) is a highly neurotic intellectual unable to take orders from the union organizers. One of the problems in this sprawling tale is the difficulty involved in caring for Paul who is given to pouting and tantrums.
Blitzstein was given to sprawling canvases. He liked to start big and contract. For that reason it is safe to say that, with the exception of THE CRADLE WILL ROCK [and even in that he made minor changes for revivals - LJL], none of his musical dramas was ever completed in a finalized form. REGINA, based on Lillian Hellman's THE LITTLE FOXES and ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST, and JUNO, based on Sean O'Casey's JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, may seem complete, because they tell established stories in a more or less chronological fashion.
Following a rule of thumb that it takes approximately three times as long to sing a sentence as to speak it, one might naturally expect the librettist, adapting a play, to start by pruning. Starting with THE LITTLE FOXES, Blitzstein began by adding material found in or suggested by ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST which introduces us to the main characters at an earlier age. Then he began pruning and rewriting so successfully that the listener can easily believe that Blitzstein has just set pages and pages of Hellman's dialogue directly to music.
The three times time thumb rule tends to cause the lack of believably well-rounded characters in musicals: we don't as a rule get much background information. Blitzstein gives that information, and also provides signals as to what we should think about and what to think about it. Now, of course in traditional opera the orchestra provides much of the emotional information. But the increased verbal information, the increased richness of characters seems to me to create the kind of tension Brecht was working for, but doing it by different means.
We are prepared (if we have not been deprived of musical theatre in our youth) to accept singing from caricatures and two- dimensional characters. We haven't been taught to deal with "real" people singing their ongoing experience. When this happens you have Brechtian distancing happening simultaneously on two levels. That is, the more "real" the verbal characterizations become, the more distancing becomes the fact that they are singing.
Following the first production of REGINA, Blitzstein's adaptation of the Brecht/Weill THREEPENNY OPERA established the importance of the Off-Broadway theatre movement and triggered an appetite for Brecht both in academe and in the professional theatre. Also triggered was a bitter debate over the distinction between translation and adaptation and over the value of such a distinction.
Blitzstein's THREEPENNY was unquestionably an adaptation and so came under fire from translators eager to establish a corner on the academic market. Brecht made clear that he preferred Blitzstein's adaptation to then existing British/American translations. With Brecht's approval, Blitzstein wrote an adaptation of MOTHER COURAGE and began one of MAHAGONNY.
His own original works moved a little farther toward realism - in a strange original story, REUBEN REUBEN, and again in JUNO, based on Sean O'Casey's drama, JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, set against the seemingly endless "troubles" of Ireland.
His notes for SACCO AND VANZETTI reveal Blitzstein very consciously doing Brechtian things; he experiments with a number of devices: at one point - how many people would it take for the choirs he had? You have several of the characters in the show, and each has their own chorus - in one version of the projected opera.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Would you like me to talk about that now?
PAUL TALLEY: Yes, I think so.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: OK. The list of characters includes: 4 sopranos, 1 mezzo/alto, 4-5 tenors, 4-6 baritones, 2-3 basses, 8 silent males + 9-10 unassigned males. Now this is assuming that each part of District Attorney Frederick Katzmann, Police Chief Michael Stewart, Judge Webster Thayer, and Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell and his committee (including Judge Robert Grant and MIT President Samuel W. Stratton) would each be represented by one person, whereas in fact he had in mind that they would each be represented by a chorus. So that would make it even larger, and that's what I think you were referring to there. And my question of course when I was starting to work on this was: How practical is this use of the Chorus?
There was a work written in 1928 by Blitzstein called THE CONDEMNED, which was never performed. It had multiple choruses. He had thought he might be able to get it put on as a large spectacle in the Soviet Union, but it never did get produced. It was also inspired by Sacco and Vanzetti, but very very different from the later work.
I think our next panelist will speak a little bit about that:
Robert D'Attilio is a native South Medford. He's also an historian of Italian-American radicalism and operations manager for the Pro Arte Symphony - so he's in both music and politics. He organized the 1979 Sacco-Vanzetti Conference: "Developments, Reconsiderations" and co-edited the book of those proceedings, which is still available published by the Boston Public Library.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: Thank you, Leonard. Leonard asked us to comment on the relevance of the Sacco-Vanzetti case today, and, I think, why Blitzstein himself found it relevant. [The increase in xenophobia and the reinstitution of capital punishment in many states today might be mentioned - either here or elsewhere.]
It's one of those political cases - the politics now I think are somewhat vague for most people - But the case itself shows that there is not one America, but many Americas. This is something that keeps recurring again and again in American history. I think Professor Zinn's book, A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, brings this out. Usually American history is written within the context that America is a great country; it's a great experience; and we must do our best to, you know, at most reform it, correct it. But the Sacco-Vanzetti case, as John Dos Passos said so tellingly in his book [The Big Money, vol. 3 of USA]: All right, we are two nations. I think it's more than two; there are many nations, many countries. "Many Americas" is perhaps the best way to put it. I think the Sacco-Vanzetti case is a perfect example of this kind of case.
Blitzstein of course always felt that politics was part of life and should be part of his music. And SACCO AND VANZETTI seemed for Blitzstein to be "the perfect marriage of politics and art," or in this case politics and music. Blitzstein, as we've heard, accepted wholeheartedly the idea that music shouldn't be separated from society and politics. He wanted to reach a mass audience through the popular stage. He had been criticized about this because sometimes his music was "too popular." This is why we have trouble with his categories - whether he wrote opera or what he wrote - musicals, etc., etc.
In SACCO AND VANZETTI, I think undoubtedly there's got to be some personal element: He may have felt aliens fighting against a hostile society as not too wild a metaphor for a composer or an artist in America.
I must confess that at one time I had one small common interest in connection with Marc Blitzstein: I too began my interest in the Sacco-Vanzetti case with the idea of writing a libretto. Within a short period of time I became aware of the complexity of the case and the history - there were still many areas unexplored - and it was rather overwhelming. And so the history attracted me much more at that time than the libretto, which seemed to be quite a problem. Blitzstein never abandoned his attempt, but he too discovered some of the same problems that I had: He once complained that he had enough material to write not one but six operas on Sacco and Vanzetti. "But never fear. I will write only one." [Herald Tribune article by Don Ross, February 29, 1960]
And even at the end, as he'd been working on the Sacco- Vanzetti case, he once complained, always a severe critic of himself [to his sister Jo, January 20, 1961]: "The main trouble is that I keep getting new ideas that throw out the old: a sure sign of amateurism. Forget it; I'll get it right." [This is the full quote.]
What I want to discuss just a little bit, and perhaps the panel can comment on this, is how politics and music in his case stretched out the whole attempt of Blitzstein to write the opera SACCO AND VANZETTI until it unfortunately was brutally cut short by his death, which left us with this fragment - which we hope that Leonard will bring to a close, within the next 6-7 years?
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Three.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: There are various topics: there's the politics of the artist, Marc Blitzstein, versus let's say the politics of the subject matter, as Professor Zinn indicated. Blitzstein himself was a committed Communist, and he was writing about anarchists. There was a very strong difference between the two. Sometimes it was a deadly difference.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: In the '20s.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: Well, the '30s, '40s....
LEONARD LEHRMAN: But in the period when he was writing?
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: Well, for instance, in New York City there was the murder of an anarchist, Carlo Tresca [January 11, 1943 - "The evidence indicates that Carmine Galante, a Mafia leader, shot Tresca on behalf of his friend Mussolini, though various vicious rumors circulated that Tresca was the victim of a Communist thug, a jealous husband, or even" his former lover "Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's brother or father - both of whom were already dead, although that fact did not seem to matter." - Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, Words on Fire, p. 45]. World War II was going on and this dealt with Italy - his murderer has never been found, but one of the suspicions is that the Communists may have wanted to bump off Tresca because he was too troublesome in the future of Italian politics.
At any rate, I think without getting too much into that kind of politics, we should know that Marc Blitzstein was a committed Communist, and he also supported Stalin, let's say, as long as Lillian Hellman did. It's very interesting that he picked Lillian Hellman['s THE LITTLE FOXES] as the basis for his opera REGINA.
There was this kind of problem. Leonard mentioned his opera THE CONDEMNED which was based on the idea of Sacco and Vanzetti, even though they don't actually appear in the work itself.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: That's correct.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: But the whole idea was agitprop in the sense of Brecht - pretty straightforward: two anarchists, two men, who were facing a hostile, capitalist society and who were destroyed. I think it's very interesting to see how he progresses from THE CONDEMNED to SACCO AND VANZETTI.
I think what happens is that Blitzstein himself changes as a man and as a composer, and this affected his attempt to deal with the materials - as I said, there was so much material, there was enough for six operas. It's interesting that at one time, well, Blitzstein, like every theater composer had his jealousies, and he was a little upset that Menotti had had such a tremendous success with THE CONSUL, which was another opera written for Broadway that dealt with politics.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: But from the right, rather than from the left.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: Right. Anyway, Blitzstein remarked about Menotti [in a 1956 review of Menotti's THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET] that "he rarely writes about themes which have been his life-long convictions." Now I think this statement in a way turns onto Blitzstein himself. I mean his life-long convictions, starting as a Communist, starting as a supporter of Stalin, and so forth, gradually began changing. And when he began dealing with the Sacco-Vanzetti case, I think this was part of the problem that he had in conceptualizing. This is why we have so many stops and starts.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: I don't agree with you. I'm sorry. I know that you share an opinion with [the composer] David Diamond, who was a very close friend of Blitzstein's, and whom Marc visited in Rome in the 1960's. Diamond said to him, "Now you can see with the Khrushchov revelations, and so forth, don't you think that Stalin was wrong, and it was wrong to support Stalin?" One would think from what you had said that Marc would say, "Yes, I was wrong." But no, he didn't say anything of the kind. He said, "David, it's such a beautiful day; it's a beautiful place here in Rome. Why don't we just enjoy it?" He did not want to talk about that. And the thing about Sacco and Vanzetti is, as David Riesman has said:
"The Sacco-Vanzetti case united the liberals; [although] the Rosenberg case divided them" (and they're still divided). The Sacco-Vanzetti case really was a kind of a united front in many ways. Although there were rifts in the front, between the anarchists and the Communists, which you've mentioned, the fact is that Blitzstein was embracing the united front when he was writing this opera.
Now, in the interests of leaving time for the audience to participate and ask questions, I would like to present to you - and please feel free to interrupt me; Bob is our expert on the details of the case - I'm going to talk about both the case and the opera, in chronological order.
This is how the opera goes:
After the opening chorus I mentioned before, the Second Scene is in Sacco's home in Stoughton, May 5, 1920. The beginning of the scene is entirely in Italian. Sacco and his wife Rosa are rehearsing for a strike-fund performance of Ibsen's DOLL'S HOUSE. This is a beautiful scene; there are several versions of it - 8 pages of music, 74 measures. In the version that I like best, at the end of this climactic scene in Italian, all of a sudden Rosa whispers (in English): "Nick, please, you are stepping on my toe."
They fall into each other's arms, laughing. Dante, their seven-year- old son applauds.
At that moment Vanzetti enters and we have exposition of what has been happening in New York: Andrea Salsedo, an anarchist printer, has fallen to his death from the 14th floor while being interrogated by police. This is taken as a warning by the anarchist that they'd better act now, hide their literature, and "take guns." There is a beautiful aria for Vanzetti, only 19 measures of which are sketched, though there are several versions of the text: "It is the human's way to torture No beast would ever dream of."
The problem of how to integrate the necessary exposition into this scene was never quite solved, but there's an awful lot there; it's really just a question of paring it down.
Scene 3 is the only complete scene that Blitzstein finished. It's 40 pages, 472 measures. It's a beautifully written scene: the scene of the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti, who have come, along with their friends Boda and Orciani, to pick up a car at the garage of Mr. & Mrs. Johnson, in order to go around and collect the literature mentioned earlier. There's wonderful characterization in this scene, especially of Mrs. Johnson, very much like that of Ruchel, the Rabbi's wife in IDIOTS FIRST who doesn't want to help the poor at all. In this scene with Mrs. Johnson, all she wants to know after Sacco and Vanzetti are arrested is: "When do we get the reward!?" Scene 4 is the chorus; it was originally thought of as an opening scene but he moved it into Scene 4 - "Chair, scepter, the Commonwealth" - the chair and the scepter being the symbols of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and there's a pun on the chair being the electric chair. Out of the chorus step Judge Thayer, Governor Fuller, District Attorney Katzmann as separate choruses - but he never wrote any music for them; he just sketched the beginning of this scene: there are 9 pages of music, 38 measures. Scene 5 is the grilling at the Brockton police office. There are 16 text drafts, 65 measures of music + 9 pages of additional sketches. What he initially had in mind was: the District Attorney interviews Sacco, and Bridgewater Police Chief Michael Stewart (who was very important to the investigation - it was his theory, which the prosecution adopted, that Italian anarchists had committed two crimes, one in Bridgewater and one in Braintree) interviews Vanzetti, and that there's a cross-fire of questions.
I think it's a terrific idea for an ensemble. Blitzstein temporarily discarded it because at the time he was writing there was a television documentary in which Police Chief Michael Stewart refused to be interviewed. So because, as Blitzstein noted, "he balked re TV show!!" the composer had decided that he would not include him. Bob [D'Attilio] has suggested to me that since Stewart is now dead, there's no reason not to include him - which I think is a very good idea.
Bob has some wonderful ideas. As he indicated earlier, he was thinking of writing a libretto, and I am just absolutely delighted to have him as consultant on this. Blitzstein was offered consultation by many experts on the case. He had lunch with Herbert Ehrmann, who wrote The Untried Case and The Case That Will Not Die, was active in the defense, and in fact proved pretty decisively that the crime for which Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted was actually committed by the Morelli gang, but the evidence he found was never admitted in court.
Blitzstein [met with others from the defense committee including Gardner Jackson, Michael Musmanno, Aldo Felicani, and Tom O'Connor, and] was also approached by a writer named Richard Rohman, [a playwright and journalist who had been active in the case and] who wanted to help. When I was working at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1977-78, I approached Rohman. He came to my apartment and was willing to work with me on it. I met with Jimmy Levine, who said he was delighted at the idea of my completing SACCO AND VANZETTI, as I had completed IDIOTS FIRST - and also Blitzstein's translation of MAHAGONNY, which was left incomplete, and the Met was considering, but Levine told me that I had to go see John Dexter.
We've talked a bit about racist politics, nationalist politics, and class politics. This is where sexual politics comes in: John Dexter was very well known for pinching little boys' behinds, and I was quite notorious for being the only non-gay assistant con- ductor on the staff, and even though I was supposed to see Dexter and his assistant told me every day for months that I would get to see him - I never did get to see him: he never had time to see me. In spite of the fact that I was told I was one of five candidates for three positions of assistant director there, and that I would be interviewed, somehow he never did interview me. This is one of the reasons, to answer one of the questions asked earlier as to why it's taken so long - when I left the Met I was unable to find employment anywhere in this country; I spent seven years in Europe. Now I'm back, and have finally found employment - in five different jobs - and am economically secure enough to begin the serious round-the- clock work that this is going to take.
I've digressed; I'm going to return now to the last scene of Act I, which Blitzstein envisioned as a Quartet for Sacco, Vanzetti, one of their lawyers (John W. McAnarney), and one of their sympathizers, Mrs. Elizabeth Glendower Evans, who represented or was affiliated with the Community Church of Boston.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: No, she founded it.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Right. She helped found it. There's a plaque with Sacco's and Vanzetti's likenesses at the Community Church, and also at [the Rare Book Room of] the Boston Public Library. [In that Act I Finale Quartet the defendants learn for the first time that they're on trial for murder and robbery.] The Second Act begins with the Memorial Day celebration we mentioned earlier, and the opening of the trial. A separation request is denied by the court; 19 measures of music were sketched. There are two pages of text for Thayer, denying all of the defense's jury stipulations and choosing Ripley (a baritone) as fn - this is what Blitzstein said in his notes in answer to that question - "What animated Sacco and Vanzetti?": Blitzstein writes: "If you mean what did they stand for, how strong was their belief, I agree it is a most essential point, and must be covered." Okay. We don't disagree.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: No, no. This is what I mean, that I think Blitzstein was evolving as a person, so his life-long beliefs were evolving. And I think this is what stretched out the whole process of writing the opera, and it's just a pity that he didn't have a chance to because I agree with what Professor Talley had said about his ability to put concepts into real words which could be sung - that was his great gift.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Yes, and setting them so they could be sung. It was a gift. The one scene that I left out was going to be in the third act, although we don't know quite where. It was based on the most famous words that Vanzetti ever said. These words were written down by, or transcribed from the notes of, Philip Stong, the reporter, who later wrote State Fair and many other novels. It begins, "If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out my life talking at street corners to scorning men." That piece of writing became required reading for English classes in many places, was translated into dozens of languages, and formed a very important basis of the plot in The Male Animal by James Thurber. It was made into a movie in which Henry Fonda played the role of a professor who fights with his administration over the right to read these lines in class. And I was just informed yesterday by Paul Talley...
PAUL TALLEY: May I say it?
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Go ahead.
PAUL TALLEY: There's a [movie] musical version of The Male Animal called She's Working Her Way Through College, in which a liberal professor who's doing research on burlesque for his Ph.D. makes it possible for one of the strippers to come to college. From there on the rest of it is Thurber's story. But the liberal professor was played by Ronald Reagan.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Can you imagine!? Ronald Reagan saying "If it had not been for these thing..."!? [Actually, in the movie She's Working Her Way Through College, he doesn't. The words do not appear in the film: the character's controversial stand was reduced, in 1952, to standing up for the right of show-business people to be taken seriously - in education and in politics, which of course became Ronald Reagan's principal message to the world.] Anyway, I'd like you to hear Marc Blitzstein's setting of these words, which he almost completed; I finished the middle section, measures 21 to 34 of the accompaniment. But the melody is entirely his. This is again sung by the multi-talented baritenor, Ron Edwards [on tape]....
So, before I open the floor to questions and comments, I'd just like to read a couple of very short passages quoted in this really incredible and monumental - but not yet definitive - book, Mark the Music : The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein by Eric Gordon. I consider this the Encyclopedia of Marc Blitzstein - Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Marc Blitzstein... The problem with it is, as I see it, it's about his music, his politics and his sex life, but unfortunately not in that order - in the opposite order. I am writing now - I've just gotten a contract from Greenwood Press to write the Bio-Bibliography of Marc Blitzstein in their series. I'm supposed to have it finished by the year 2000 - I may need an extension, 'cause I'd like to finish the opera first. That's why I said "three years."
The passages I want to read are, first, from Leonard Bernstein's December 1964 tribute to Blitzstein, after he'd given up completing IDIOTS FIRST. He writes: "It could be done, they tell me. With what notes? Only yours, your own private and mysterious notes. Neither I nor anyone I know has access to your luminous caves where those word-notes are forged."
Well, that was before he met me. Years later, he told Richard Flusser, "Leonard Lehrman is Marc Blitzstein's dybbuk." And I'd like to read just two passages from what we might consider Marc Blitzstein's credo:
First, from a speech he delivered at Brandeis in 1962, which Eric Gordon fortunately made an audiotape copy of and we're lucky to have a copy of, because the original videotape - the only video footage that ever existed of Marc Blitzstein was lost by Brandeis: He said he believed in "the right of all... to have no need to ask favors in order to exist with dignity."
I think that's true of the positive characters in virtually every one of his works.
And finally, "On Writing Music for the Theater" was an article he wrote for Modern Music in February, 1938, and it's been my guideline:
"There is only one rule [in terms of composition] I know; follow your theatre instinct. You discover you've got it very much in the way you first discovered you were a composer. You may be wrong..., but your inner conviction is all you've got."
Thank you. (Applause. )
Are there questions?
LELAND FOX: What happens when your inner conviction confronts the 19 measures only of a section, and your inner conviction says this has got to be written in such a way that perhaps some of those 19 measures have to be changed?
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Change them.
LELAND FOX: Okay. I wanted to know how to expect to hear this opera.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Because usually those 19 measures have several versions to choose from anyway, and so in choosing them, I have to combine, and then if I make one choice and it doesn't jive with something that is there, I have to change what is there.
LELAND FOX: I'm glad to hear that. It sort of goes along with "Fuck continuity."
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Oh, I don't know about that. Seriously, one could publish a variorum edition of various composers' works, like Charles Ives, for example, who never stopped composing his Concord Sonata; there are hundreds and hundreds of versions, which John Kirkpatrick was thinking of publishing at one point. There's a wonderful scene in IDIOTS FIRST where Ginzberg, the Angel of Death, appears, and Mendel says: "Ginzberg! Where's your black whiskers?" "Different assignment, another costume!" That scene doesn't fit with the rest of the opera as it was constructed, so it had to be discarded, but it's a wonderful scene, right? There are wonderful scenes that are going to have to be discarded. There are other scenes that are going to be continued in the way that he was writing them. Okay? Does that answer your question?
LELAND FOX: Very well.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Thank you. Yes...
A VISITOR: The first piece of Blitzstein's I ever heard was on a recording in college, and it's something that seems to be very much overshadowed these days. Could you make a few comments about The Airborne Symphony?
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Oh, sure. Tell us your name?
VISITOR: My name is Bill Miranda.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Bill Miranda!? Of The Jewish Advocate ?
BILL MIRANDA: Formerly, yes.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: I always wanted to meet you! This man wrote a fantastic review of the evening in 1970 that Leonard Bernstein gave me permission - or rather his blessing - to complete IDIOTS FIRST. It was at Lowell House, at Harvard: the production of I'VE GOT THE TUNE, THE HARPIES, and Bernstein's own TROUBLE IN TAHITI which had been dedicated to Blitzstein.
BILL MIRANDA: Yes, that was the evening I met Bernstein and his wife.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Oh of course. And I always wanted to meet you! So now you came to this symposium - I'm so thrilled - 25 years later, almost to the day - December 5th it was. Paul, do you want to talk about The Airborne Symphony?
PAUL TALLEY: There's an interesting history for The Airborne. It was commissioned by the Air Corps. Most of it was written in England where he was stationed during the war. When he was sent back to the United States, it was sent also and didn't get here. So he recomposed the whole thing. He didn't even have his notes.
And just about when they were ready to premiere it, the original arrived. I call it a theater piece because Orson Welles narrated most of it, as James Earl Jones just recently did last spring with the New York Gay Men's Chorus and the American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein at Avery Fisher Hall.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: You didn't mention that Blitzstein decided he liked the second version better.
PAUL TALLEY: Yes, that's right. It was done at the Philharmonic, and then it was done by the Air Corps Chorus with Zachary Scott as the narrator. The language in it is strange. It's still the language that we speak, but very frequently it's very simplistic.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: It's radio drama language. It's Norman Corwin-type style. The music, it's not really fair to say this, but it reminds me of The Bell Telephone Hour - in the way that Ravel reminds me of The Grand Canyon Suite. I mean it preceded it, and then it became superseded in our consciousness, so that it's cheapened, when in fact it was original at the time, although it doesn't sound that way anymore. That's the problem - my problem - with The Airborne, that time has not been kind to it. But it certainly was an important and original work, and the "Open up that second front" Finale is still spine-chilling. I mean it really is incredible. Did you have something you wanted to say about The Airborne?
BILL MIRANDA: No, I just wanted to ask the question. Thank you.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Thank you!
PATRICIA HEUERMANN: Did he leave any sketches for orchestration for SACCO AND VANZETTI?
LEONARD LEHRMAN: No.
PATRICIA HEUERMANN: So you're also going to orchestrate it, just as you did TALES OF MALAMUD...?
LEONARD LEHRMAN: In IDIOTS FIRST he indicated a cello solo in Scene 5 measures 17-20 and a passage for flute and bassoon in Scene 7 measures 2-9. That's it. Everything else was only for piano. And SACCO AND VANZETTI has much less than that. IDIOTS FIRST was somewhere between 60 and 80 percent complete, and as I mentioned earlier he claimed that SACCO was 40% complete, but in fact sketches of 40% of it were complete, so the real figure is I'd say somewhere between 20 and 30 maybe, and not a note of orchestration.
PATRICIA HEUERMANN: That makes it more fun for you.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Well, we'll see. Is there another question? I didn't ask the panel if they had questions for each other. I really should have done that.
HOWARD ZINN: Oh, I have a million questions to ask of Robert D'Attilio, but they'll have to wait for some other time.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: Any thing in particular that relates to this work that you wanted to ask him?
HOWARD ZINN: No.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: One last quote which I would like to use because it's too good. Just to show the effect of the cultural milieu when Blitzstein began to compose his work: I'm talking about 1959, 1960 - we'd had the Rosenberg case, the McCarthy trials, and so forth. But here he'd moved into the Metropolitan Opera, and he was speaking with Rudolf Bing. Blitzstein told him, "I'm writing an opera on Sacco and Vanzetti," and Bing rather fatuously replied, "Are those two Italian lovers?"
LEONARD LEHRMAN: That's an apocryphal story. It probably happened in one form or another.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: Well, I don't know. But anyway that shows the atmosphere - the conflict that he was trying to bridge between Bing, the aristocratic leader of The Metropolitan Opera dealing with Sacco-Vanzetti who really doesn't have any idea what it's for, and at the same time Blitzstein picking a political case and the people on the right who have no idea of music, like National Review , [George] Sokolsky, and so forth, who started picketing the Met.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: They threatened to picket - the American Legion threatened to picket the Met if it was ever written.
ROBERT D'ATTILIO: To stop it from being performed.
LEONARD LEHRMAN: I talked with a couple of members of the Board of Trustees, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that they weren't really all that unhappy that the opera was never finished. They did turn down a number of operas they commissioned, including Virgil Thomson's LORD BYRON. And whether they would have turned this one down, well, it's hard to say. Julius Rudel had offered to produce it at the City Opera - to commission it sight-unseen, but Blitzstein decided to try for the Met and, well whatever.
I'd like to mention the Opus One LP of my Rosenberg Cantata, especially since the Rosenberg case has come up several times. This is relevant because a) Blitzstein was thinking of the Rosenbergs while he was writing SACCO AND VANZETTI, and b) the second act was conceived as largely a series of soliloquies based on Sacco's and Vanzetti's letters, which I got to see some of at the Boston Public Library thanks to Bob D'Attilio. This is a cantata that I wrote a couple of years ago based on the letters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which is in a sense going to be a prototype for that second act structure with the letters of Sacco and Vanzetti. I might mention that John Corigliano told me that he had been thinking for years of writing a work on the letters of the Rosenbergs, but he said he could never find anybody to commission it!
One last musical thought I'm going to leave you with: We've talked about TALES OF MALAMUD a little bit. I'm going to play you a portion of TALES OF MALAMUD which is still in progress. IDIOTS FIRST was Blitzstein's first Malamud opera. He was working on THE MAGIC BARREL when he died, but he had just barely started that. And when I met Paul Talley, as a matter of fact [in January, 1974], at the home of Christopher Davis and Jo Davis, Blitzstein's nephew and sister, I suggested that maybe THE MAGIC BARREL should be finished and Kit Davis said, "Why don't you write your own opera?" So I did. That was the opera KARLA, which has been the companion piece for IDIOTS FIRST in four productions. It was based on "Notes From A Lady At A Dinner Party" by Malamud. Now this is from a third Malamud opera I'm writing based on another Malamud work called SUPPOSE A WEDDING. It's a parable that occurs right at the beginning of the opera. ["The Rabbi and the Rich Man"] (Applause.) Thank you all for coming!
HOWARD ZINN: Leonard, that was great - worth waiting for.
The organizer of this symposium was granted permission in the early 1980s by Blitzstein's sister Josephine Davis to complete SACCO AND VANZETTI provided no other works were destroyed in the process. As in the case of his agreement with her on IDIOTS FIRST, nothing about the agreement was to be committed to writing until the work was done. With her death in 1986, all rights to the material have passed to her sons Stephen and Christopher Davis. Permission to perform any of Blitzstein's works lies solely with them and the works' publishers.
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