Cuts, Big and Small, Transform Leonard Bernstein’s Final Opera

Throughout his long career, Leonard Bernstein yearned to write, as he put it, “one real moving American opera that any American can understand (and one that is, notwithstanding, a serious musical work).”

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Zachary Woolfe
, New York Times

Throughout his long career, Leonard Bernstein yearned to write, as he put it, “one real moving American opera that any American can understand (and one that is, notwithstanding, a serious musical work).”

“A Quiet Place” was his submission to the operatic canon. Bernstein’s final stage work, it had its premiere in 1983 and was conceived as a sequel to his bright yet poignant one-act “Trouble in Tahiti,” from 30 years before.

A sharp satire of suburban anomie that played with 1950s pop styles, “Tahiti” was laced with autobiographical resonance; the unhappily married couple at its center was based on Bernstein’s parents. “A Quiet Place,” its music and libretto (by Stephen Wadsworth) more overtly bleak and jagged, brought the action forward several decades as the “Tahiti” family explodes with grief and buried anger.

It was originally presented as the punishingly long second part of a double bill with the snappy “Tahiti.” When this was a failure, “Tahiti” (in its entirety) was incorporated as a flashback into the middle of a substantially cut “Quiet Place.” This version, from 1986, is regarded as definitive, but it’s hardly ever been done: The forces it requires are immense, and its subject matter is bitter. A New York City Opera production in 2010, cunningly staged by Christopher Alden, made a stirring case for an unwieldy, wounding work, but it didn’t lead to much new interest.

“It’s a major Bernstein theatrical work that had just vanished,” said Garth Edwin Sunderland, who as vice president for creative projects at the Leonard Bernstein Office is a kind of in-house editor and arranger for the composer’s estate. “One of the reasons had been that the full work is magnificent, but that magnificence comes at a cost: huge cast, huge orchestra. It’s expensive. To put the kind of resources that requires into something challenging is difficult for major opera companies to manage.”

So there had long been a desire for a more intimate “Quiet Place” that could be done by conservatories and smaller companies. Bernstein had mulled a Broadway version with a reduced orchestration, but didn’t get around to it before his death in 1990. “We had also wanted to look at other dramaturgical possibilities for the work,” Sunderland said. He got to work on what ended up being a seven-year project.

Out, most dramatically, went “Trouble in Tahiti.” Back in came three arias that had been cut from the final act for the 1986 version. Snips were made throughout. An orchestra of at least 72 players was reduced to an ensemble of 18, creating leaner textures and encouraging a less, well, operatic singing and acting style.

This chamber adaptation, a tidy 90 minutes long, was unveiled in 2013, and has recently been released as part of the celebrations of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth — with Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal — in a recording that renders the opera newly vivid, direct and moving. Even for those of us who were pleasantly surprised at how smoothly and strongly the opera came across at City Opera, this new version is vital.

A few days before a performance of the adaptation Thursday at Tanglewood, Sunderland spoke about the opera and his work on it. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What was seen as the overarching goal for the chamber version?

We wanted something that really focused on “A Quiet Place” and gave an option to do it without “Trouble in Tahiti,” and boiled the story down to really the core. Rather than the very presentational approach of the 1986 version, we wanted something that focused on relationships and the core conflict of a broken family trying to reconcile.

What brought you to the Bernstein Office in the first place?

This was my first job out of grad school. It was just happy serendipity. I’ve always loved his music, and I was always obsessed with the deep cuts. I loved “Mass” and all the crazy works. One of the things that’s been great about this job is that most of the work I’ve been doing has been on the lesser-known works: “A Quiet Place,” “Songfest.” It’s been a good opportunity to me to discover how he developed as a composer. The later works are so complex and challenging compared to the earlier stuff, like “Fancy Free” or “Chichester Psalms.”

How did you go about this “Quiet Place” project?

My first step was to go back to the Houston material [the 1983 premiere was at Houston Grand Opera] and catalog the changes and see what was available. There are three arias in Act III that are restored, and a pretty sizable cut in Act I.

What we also decided to do was create a new edition of the 1986 version, and that was just in time for the City Opera production. Christopher Alden made a case that that version of the opera really was definitive, but we wanted to see what happened if we let “A Quiet Place” stand on its own.

But this isn’t just the Houston version. That really got a pummeling from the critics and the authors understood that. There’s a reason they made such a radical revision. One of the things this adaptation does is give François [who is, in a glimpse of the opera’s thematic thorns, both the grown daughter’s husband and her brother’s ex-lover] a little more focus, because in the 1986 version a lot of his material was cut. I put back his climactic aria in Act III; I think that the biggest difference between 1986 and this adaptation is the way Act III builds to a crisis. In 1986, it’s a little softer.

How did seeing the City Opera production affect your work?

It gave me a stronger sense of the opera itself and the authors’ goals for it. One thing it did spur me to do was make a cut in Act I. It’s so long and so grueling that sometimes audiences weren’t coming back. There were a lot of empty seats in Act II and III. Which isn’t a surprise: It’s the experience of being at a funeral you don’t want to be at. It’s not Act I of “La Bohème.”

I think 1986 is the vision of the authors and it’s correct. But because we were seeing what could be done with the opera, we gave ourselves some freedom and allowed the opera to take a different shape.

What did you do to the orchestration?

One of the things that’s so difficult in the 1986 version is the size of that orchestra. It’s got a synthesizer and an electric guitar and it’s a lot for the singers to get over; it requires a different approach from the singers. It has to be a bigger style. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a different thing. The new orchestration allows a different theatrical approach: a smaller, more detailed performance. It’s for a different performance space, where the audience can be closer.

I tried to maintain his sound world, to capture it with an 18-piece ensemble. And I’m really proud of the orchestral moments: The Act I postlude is one of the most beautiful things Bernstein ever wrote. It’s like 75 lines of counterpoint, and to keep that intensity with just 18 players was difficult, and I like to think I pulled it off. I was really pleased by how not-small it feels.

Why the excision of “Trouble in Tahiti”?

To my mind, because “Trouble in Tahiti” is a different sound world. It’s like, “Let’s listen to these wonderful tunes.” Whereas “A Quiet Place” is like, “Let’s immerse in this.” We wanted to see what “A Quiet Place” is if it’s not a sequel to “Trouble in Tahiti.” There are callbacks in the “Quiet Place” score to “Tahiti,” but you don’t need to know the callbacks are callbacks.

What do you see as the future balance between the 1986 version and this adaptation?

1986 is the definitive version, and Christopher Alden made a case for how valid that version is. They’re intended for different halls and different presenters. Tanglewood and the Curtis Institute of Music, places that wouldn’t be able to handle 1986, can do the adaptation.

There was a lot of interest in the 1986 version for the centennial, but there are just a lot of challenges to it. But when you have a company as adventurous as George [Steel]'s City Opera was — there are people who will take the risk on it. The future of this new version remains to be seen. The recording with Kent Nagano will certainly breathe new life into it. And I was at the dress rehearsal at Tanglewood for Peter Kazaras’s production and it’s heartbreaking.

What was Kent Nagano’s role in the project?

I was working with Kent in Munich on the premiere of my chamber orchestration of “Trouble in Tahiti,” and I said, “We’re thinking about this adaptation of ‘A Quiet Place.'” He had been working with Bernstein around the time of the 1986 production and he always thought a smaller version would be to the opera’s benefit.

And he connected us with Ensemble Modern to get the premiere to happen in 2013, and he was a huge help in bringing this to fruition. He did it a year or two ago in Montreal, a year or two before they did the recording, and then he brought it back. He loves the work and we’re so grateful he’s such a passionate advocate.

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