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The Blitzstein Issue

Brenda Lewis Recalls Marc Blitzstein and Regina

Brenda Lewis sings Birdie's Aria - MP3 file (7.84 meg) requires RealOne software or RealPlayer software.MP3 file (3.67 meg) requires RealOne software or RealPlayer software. RealOne (the newest version of RealPlayer) is available for $9.95 at www.real.com; the 1999 free version of RealPlayer 8.0 can be downloaded from software distributor tucows.com - go to RealPlayer download link at tucows.com (note that page will not say you are downloading RealPlayer).

By Robert Wilder Blue

Brenda Lewis as Regina, New York City Opera, 1953.
Brenda Lewis as Regina, New York City Opera, 1953.

She is remembered as a fiery Carmen, an orgasmic Salome and an intelligent and sympathetic Marschallin. But it is as two American heroines, Lizzie Borden and Regina Giddens, that soprano Brenda Lewis has left her name in the history books. Her portrayals of the title characters in Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden and Marc Blitzstein's Regina captivated a generation and set the standard for future interpreters. She recorded both roles with the New York City Opera; Lizzie Borden is available currently but Regina has never been released on compact disc. Although she is associated with the title role, she actually created the role of Birdie in the world premiere of Regina. She was a close friend of Blitzstein and has been one of a circle of his contemporaries who have kept his name and legacy alive. During two conversations with USOperaWeb (one of which took place the day before her 80th birthday) Brenda spoke about Marc Blitzstein, Regina and American opera.

"Really great opera is a visceral experience. Verdi's operas, the bad ones as well as the great ones, have that about them. They are about murder, torture, betrayal, wars, and power-mad people. Many American operas have been somehow removed from that kind of theatrical experience - perhaps it's our temperament or the English language - but Regina has that visceral quality. It is a story about the foremost capitalist society in the world; it is firmly rooted in American history and in the progress of this country. Our power struggles are not for bits of territory or kingships or principalities; they are for money. Marc translated that into music and created an opera about our society and culture that is completely American. It is a brilliant study of people who exist to this day, people who are fighting for every last dollar to put in their accounts, who are as blood-thirsty as people who go to war. That's the one thing in our cultural consciousness that really drives us - making a buck!

"Regina is a powerful work, full of wit and as American as can be. Most of the American operas written during that period, excluding Lizzie Borden, have a derivative European feel. But Regina could not have been written by anyone other than an American. The music is powerful and evocative. It's not ersatz Puccini and it isn't Kurt Weill either; it's purely American and it's great opera! I have to tell you that every time I look at that score, every time I go through it and hear that music in my head, I feel Marc's choice of language was so right. His rhythmic sense, his use of syncopation, and his setting of the American vernacular capture our way of singing and speaking. It is so correct the way he translates it musically. It is a paragon for setting the English language to music.

"I originally did Birdie, you know. Everyone thinks I did Regina first. But for me, Birdie was the top experience of my performing career. I wanted to do that part so badly. Marc was casting Regina and had come to see me do Salome at the City Opera. He came backstage with Lenny [Leonard] Bernstein after the performance. We had a brief conversation and they were very complimentary. I don't recall whether he expressed what was going on - you know, there's a lot of excitement after a performance - but I know he was looking for a name to do Regina, hoping she would bring some money with her because they were not fully funded yet. I heard Gladys Swarthout had been considered. He told me that the role of Regina was for a mezzo and so I asked if anything else was available. When I heard that they were still hearing people for the role of Birdie, I felt it was fated to be mine. Birdie is my given name, you know, and I just had a strong feeling it was for me. I determined to do everything I could to get it.

"I made several calls and learned that they were thinking of casting a coloratura, which of course was not my fach. Up to that point, the roles in which I had been largely exposed in New York were Carmen, Salome, Santuzza, all the heavy, dramatic stuff. I knew I had to show them something entirely different, someone vulnerable who was totally insecure and certainly had no glamour or strength. I went through my repertoire and found a song by Ravel that had a wistful, wispy quality and a certain amount of flexibility in it. I did not dress up, but I didn't dress down, either. I just went in as my natural self (I was all of 29 or 30 at the time) with a clean face. I sang the Ravel and there was talk out in the auditorium and they thanked me. Then later they asked me to come and meet the director Bobby Lewis. I read for him and the next thing I knew the part was mine.

"That was in spring of '49. During the summer I met with Marc at his apartment on 12th Street in Greenwich Village and learned the role. They wanted to get everyone up on their parts so Bobby [director Robert Lewis] could start rehearsals in September. I remember Bobby came to one of our coaching sessions in which I was working on Birdie's big drunk scene. I asked him if he wanted me to do anything specifically. He said, 'Only what you feel like.' I sang it for him once and when I finished, he was silent. I waited and finally he said, 'I'm not going to touch this until we get into rehearsals. It's just the way I want it right now.' And that was it.

Lizzie Borden at New York City Opera (1965).
Lizzie Borden at New York City Opera (1965).

"By September we had learned the music and were ready to go. The first rehearsals were readings. There was a lot of talk, as is done with any good play, about the character, where you're coming from, where you are, and so forth. Bobby had a wonderful musical background and an impeccable ear and impeccable taste. He had studied cello and had a huge library of opera recordings. I recall him explaining from the beginning that one of the problems was trying to make the transitions between dialogue and song sound as natural as possible. His principle was simple: as you came to the end of a dialogue you raised the pitch of the speaking voice so that it was approximate to where you started to sing, so there would be no abrupt change of pitch between speech and song. He would drill us on that so that from a technical point of view there would be a seamless aural experience for the audience.

"They created a 'Lionnet' corner in the set for me. Lionnet was Birdie's family's plantation and the Giddens were dying to get their hands on it. So Bobby created this little corner upstage in the bow where the staircase met a wall of the dining room. There was a small table and chair with a antique-looking lamp; everything was very elegant. And that little niche was reserved for me as Birdie. He wanted it to represent how completely different Birdie was from the rest of them. It was lit specially, because there were long stretches during which I had very little to say and where he wanted me either visible or invisible depending on what was going on in my head. I had a very rich inner life in that 'Birdie-nook.' I remember that vividly, almost more than anything else quite frankly, because it took an awful lot of interior exploration for me to bring forth what Birdie was feeling and thinking, to convey how trampled upon and separate she was. Bobby would bring the lights up before I had my little interjections, whatever it was that I would say that I was gonna be shut up for, so that the audience would become aware of me and how outside the pale I was.

"For me, Birdie was a very rich theatrical experience and a role I preferred over almost every other and probably the one I felt closest to. The older I get, the more I wish I were associated with that role instead of Regina. But Birdie was such a complex character and so entirely different from anything else I did and what people thought of me. I remember once reading an article about a new opera and someone said the title role was 'a Brenda Lewis role,' meaning Carmen, Regina, Salome. When I finally did Regina, it was a piece of cake.

"We opened in New Haven and I walked off with the show. Birdie's Drunk Scene was the single most powerful moment in the entire opera. I don't know at what point Marc wrote it, but clearly for him that was the button for Birdie and it never failed to bring down the house. At that point, Regina had nothing comparable. We went on to Boston and there Marc wrote 'The Best Thing of All' for Regina or what he liked to refer to as her 'Toreador Song.' It takes place at the end of the first act when she says 'Why don't you all go home?' It gave Regina a chance to come right down to the footlights and have a moment of her own, as well as making a powerful musical moment."

Regina opened at the 46th Street Theater in New York on October 31, 1949 and played for 56 performances. "On opening night after Birdie's drunk scene the ovation went on and on. My dressing room was on the fourth floor and I climbed those stairs and sat down and cried, getting rid of all the pent up tension. And they were still clapping and stomping downstairs."

The reviews were mixed, the predominant complaint being that it belonged in the opera house not on the Broadway stage. "That was true. Although I don't know if it had been done in an opera house it would have fared better with the reviewers. You've got to remember the political environment at that time and the fact that Marc was on the left and had made many enemies. The atmosphere was very anti-Blitzstein and the animus against the left of any stripe no matter how innocent was very strong. There was unquestionably a cabal - people with whom he had nothing to do who wouldn't have liked anything Marc put his hand to, period. There was a very strong social and political component to the criticism of Regina. Then add to it music that wasn't what you expected hear in a Broadway theater. But the people who liked it loved it with all their hearts.

"The other thing is that the play [Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes] had just been on Broadway and was fresh in people's minds. The role of Regina had been played by Tallulah Bankhead and she was still identified with the role. Jane Pickens, Regina in the opera, was not a powerful singer nor a powerful actress; she looked gorgeous and could act imperious and truly the Southern Belle, but she was no Regina. She just didn't have that kind of power onstage. Well, the piece revolves around this figure and here there was no figure to revolve around plain and simple. I don't know that anyone has ever articulated it that way and it's certainly not very gracious coming from me. But there was no core, no motor that drove the piece. When you have an unbelievable central character, it eviscerates the opera."

A grand effort was made to keep the show going but there was such a negative perception box office died out and it closed on December 17, 1949. Blitzstein was dealt a further blow when no producer was forthcoming in making a cast recording.

During the 1950s several American operas were given their premieres on Broadway. We wondered how it was possible to sing these operatic roles seven performances a week? "It's like talking. Did I ever describe to you the busiest summer I ever had? (This has nothing to do with what we're talking about.) I did a Chocolate Soldier in Hyannis, then I went to Cincinnati Opera and did Fiordiligi [in Così fan tutte], then came back to Hyannis and did Call Me Madam, then went back to Cincinnati to do Carmen, and then came back to Hyannis for Carousel. You know when you're working and earning a living, you do what comes next. For me, performing was my life and I apparently had tremendous energy and enough skills to pull it off. Athletes get to know what their capabilities are and singers should be no different. Psychologically singers tend to put limits on themselves knowing that the instrument is frail. I didn't care. Maybe that's why I quit earlier than a lot of other people. I didn't think of myself as a singer, I thought of myself as a performer. It just never would have occurred to me that you couldn't do this seven times a week."

But you wouldn't have done Carmen seven times a week. "I don't know. Carmen is not as taxing as you'd think. It's taxing physically if you do your dancing and get involved emotionally. This may be heresy, but I think if you're physically strong and have a reasonably free technique you can do a lot more than is commonly thought. Look at those singers in the late 19th century who would do La Traviata one night and Tristan und Isolde two nights later. You used your body like an athlete. If the vocal instrument were given over to what really makes a person want to sing, which is the desire to express how you feel through your voice, if that is the first principle, strangely enough it is very freeing. I'm not talking about damaged voices and I'm not talking about people who have not husbanded their resources. The problem is that there are teachers who have never been performers and who don't understand that when you're free and given over to the emotionalism of what you are expressing, you are allowing the instrument to work the way God intended it to. That's not a spiritual concept, it's plain physics. If you don't interpose things that cause tension and friction, then the natural process, which is really what singing is, is allowed to blossom. Good acting should not interfere; on the contrary, good acting releases good singing. You have to have a technique of course, but that's more about freedom. So many teachers don't understand that and they ruin so many voices."

Brenda Lewis and Marc Blitzstein.
Brenda Lewis and Marc Blitzstein.

On April 2, 1953 Regina received its first major revival at New York City Opera. Bobby Lewis directed again and this time, Brenda sang the title role. "For me, stepping into the part was a breeze." Five years later, Regina was presented again at New York City Opera during a five-week, all-American opera season. The director and designer of the original Broadway play, Harold Shumlin and Howard Bay, created the new production. "That of course is another kettle of fish. In the first place, I don't think Shumlin was happy about being the successor so to speak, and opera rehearsals are never as generous in terms of time as they are in the theater. Shumlin didn't know anything about music; he had a tin ear and really couldn't have cared less about the opera. But the basic strength of the piece withstood that. I think Shumlin enjoyed working with me and he never once said to me, 'well this was how Tallulah did it.' I never had to put up with that. In the end, I think he was glad just to get it on its feet. It was an enormous success. Part of it was also because it was in an opera house where it belonged. And theater people wanted it to be a success because Herman Shumlin was doing it. With both Shumlin and Lillian Hellman finally giving it its imprimatur it had to be.

"City Opera did so many American operas during that period. [Music director] Julius [Rudel] set out to do every single one that was worthy and he had the audience for them. He had a house that was the right size - this was before the Lincoln Center days - and an audience that was primed for new and unusual pieces. There was a serious attempt to do good theater, things that were well rehearsed and funded sufficiently so that they would be given the best chance possible. City Opera fans have always been a very loyal bunch and they were as interested in new operas as in the standard repertory.

"Marc was desperately anxious to have Regina recorded. Columbia was not about to invest in the recording because it didn't have the smell of profit about it. They finally agreed to put up enough to pay for the costs of the studio and recording equipment for five hours. Marc got a $5,000 grant to pay the personnel from the Koussevitzky Foundation which had helped fund the original commission also. The only way the recording could be done was without any rehearsal time, in other words cold and straight through from beginning to end. It was decided that in order to ensure any kind of accuracy or togetherness the recording had to be made immediately after it had been performed so that the performance in a sense would be the rehearsal for the recording.

"On the evening of April 27, 1958, we finished the performance - the curtain when down after 11 p.m.- and piled into taxis in front of City Center in our costumes and makeup and headed downtown to the studio. At the stroke of midnight we started to record. During the taping we were taking off our makeup and costumes when we weren't singing. There were no retakes. Most recordings, as you well know, are put together in bits and pieces. Things are redone and tampered with and so on. You really do not hear a complete opera from beginning to end with full-performance fervor. It is carefully modulated for recording. But what you hear in the Regina recording is hot off the griddle. It was do or die. We were totally abandoned to the work and the energy of the drama.

"We finished at 5 a.m. and everybody packed up and went home. The only thing we had not recorded was the high 'C' at the end of Regina's second act aria when she sings to Horace, 'I hope you die!' We had not recorded it because we weren't sure what would come out of me at that point at 3 a.m.! So, with everything else shut down, they gave us a tiny studio with a piano and a tape recorder and Marc and I went in and I knocked out high Cs until we were sure we had one that was right and would fit. That's how the day ended. I'll never forget that night and the feeling of exaltation of recording it that way. I can only tell you that everyone who heard it, including people I never knew and students years later who studied it, would say that the recording was like a kick in the stomach it had such urgency. And the reason was that it did - we were hot."

Why hasn't Regina been done more often? "You have to remember that the opera was not a success on Broadway. Well, it didn't belong on Broadway, it was not a Broadway show. Cheryl Crawford who was a brilliant Broadway producer was very sensitive to what this piece was and she fought to get up that production. No opera house at the time was willing to touch it because Blitzstein was not a 'legit' composer. He had translated [Kurt Weill's] Three Penny Opera, which also played on Broadway, but worse than that he was involved in political causes. This was the McCarthy era. You have no idea how pervasive the poison was. Anyone who was remotely connected to 'liberal' causes could have a finger pointed at him. Today you still have people who think liberals are traitors and enemies. The world is divided into two groups - those who believe in what's good for ordinary people and for those who didn't get their share at the table, and people who want everything for themselves and don't give a hoot in hell about anybody else. Our world is really black and white and you see that being played out in Washington all the time.

"Marc was active as a liberal and he wrote from the heart. The reason this opera meant so much to him was that it validated our national personality, our national temperament. This was the beginning of the rise of the manufacturing, capitalist class. You're also talking about the fight over slavery - this goes all the way back to that. The Angel chorus that sings at the beginning and the end, and the whole third act are very political. This really came from Marc's guts, it wasn't just an intellectual exercise or a nice theme for music, it meant something to him.

"At the time of his death, Marc was writing an opera based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. We were living in Weston, Connecticut where we had a large house and barn with a fully equipped apartment over it. Marc stayed with us over the summer of 1962 and worked on it. During that summer he played numerous portions of it. I remember in particular a wonderful tenor aria in the second act for Sacco who had just received a letter from his wife. Musically, Marc was finally writing an opera without referring back to Broadway. There was still the American smell about his music but it no longer had the vestiges of the Broadway sound and it was fully within the genre of operatic writing. It had been commissioned originally by the Met. [General Director Rudolf] Bing didn't know who Sacco and Vanzetti were when he gave Marc the commission. When the Met found out they wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole and withdrew the commission. When Marc died, the manuscript was supposedly in Leonard Bernstein's hands and Lenny swore there was enough material to put the work together and that he would finish it. He never did, of course, and then the manuscript disappeared for many years."

There was a circle of composers, Blitzstein, Bernstein, Diamond, Copland, among others, who not only were active in liberal or leftist causes but were also gay and lived and worked with varying degrees of openness. It is fascinating now to wonder about this and how their sexual identities might have affected their careers. "They all supported one another, certainly. But as in any enclosed society, there were jealousies and resentments. Do you know the word 'Schadenfreude?' It's a wonderful German word that means you are secretly delighted when your best friend flunks his exam. In that whole inner circle of gay composers there was mutual love, respect and support as well as a kind of tension. Each one was vying to break out of the box. Marc's gayness was well-known. He never made a secret of it and people at that time who wanted to use that as a club certainly did. And that fit right in with the political thing. Of course, in those days you didn't talk about it. But the word that is whispered is far more powerful. It never has a source but it sure goes around fast. By some, David Diamond is considered a respectable composer. Did he ever make it big? No. There were many like that, who were always on the edge, always on the outside looking in, and resentful of anybody who stood out. That's true in all small or outsider communities; it's true in feminist communities."

What do you think about the future of opera? "Look at MTV. The idea of using music to accompany images and tell stories is familiar to a younger generation. They are accustomed to seeing deep-rooted emotions played out to music and to the sound of the human voice. So why can't new works be created to tap into that energy, that tell deeper stories and are recognizable and relevant to them. Personally, I don't think Rent worked at all. It was just disguised Puccini. But the fact that kids loved it certainly shows you that it is possible to reach that audience. I think we're seeing now a big boiling pot filled with all these ideas and we're waiting for someone with talent to come along to transform it into art. And it will not be European derivative, it will really be ours."

Incidentally...

In 1950 during her debut season with the San Francisco Opera, Brenda Lewis sang the title role in Salome, the second presentation of a double bill that began with Suor Angelica (sung by Company favorite Licia Albanese). The same season, a "reportedly sensational new soprano" [Fresno Bee] from Italy was making her U.S. debut with the company. Renata Tebaldi sang the title role in Aïda on opening night; she was joined by fellow U.S. débutante, tenor Mario del Monaco as Radames. On October 30, the Company traveled to Fresno, California for a one-night-only presentation of The Marriage of Figaro. Italo Tajo and Bidú Sayão were Figaro and Susanna, Tebaldi and John Brownlee were the Countess and Count, Lewis was Cherubino, and Claramae Turner sang Marcellina. Jules Sanders wrote in the Bee:

Big time opera came to Fresno last night. It came in a $14,000 production wrapped up in $1,000,000 talent. It came for only an evening and it left enough pleasure to be remembered for months to come…. Not since 1928, when the Chicago Grand Opera Company appeared here, with Mary Garden in the role of Fanny LeGrand in Sapho has there been such a demonstrated interest…. With all the atmosphere of a metropolitan city's opening night affair, mink, ermine, silver fox and white tie and tails mingled with everyday coats, frocks and business suits - and some shiny serge - while flash bulbs popped almost everywhere….

After the opera Fresnans strolled over to the California Hotel for a supper and ball honoring the artists. Lori Ponsart's report in the Bee gives an idea of the splendor:

All the beauty and elegance of a full night of fashion were in evidence at the opera ball…. Women in some of the most beautiful and fashionable gowns imaginable swept across the dance floor. Mrs. George T. McMahan entered the ballroom in a champagne net over white and gold brocaded satin gown. The dress was in an off the shoulder model and had tiny self straps. She had pinned green cymbidium orchids at her waist and she carried a full length mink coat.

And so forth.

More on Jack Beeson and 'Lizzie Borden'
http://www.sai-national.org/phil/composers/jbeeson.html
http://www.ny.boosey.com/pages/Composer/composerbiography.asp?composerid=2689
http://www.operaworld.com/special/beeson.shtml
http://www.pbs.org/lflc/notes/032499.htm
http://www.composersrecordings.com/cd/694.html

Cheryl Crawford
http://info.lib.uh.edu/speccoll/guides/crawford.htm
http://digilib.nypl.org/dynaweb/ead/nypl/thecrawford/@Generic__BookView
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/group_theatre.html

More on House Unamerican Activities Committee
http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/hellman-per-fbi.html
http://huac.tripod.com/
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAredC.htm

For a different look at 'Sacco and Vanzetti'
http://www.saccoandvanzetti-theopera.org/

The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, San Francisco Opera (1952). Gown designed by Tony Duquette, Tony Award-winning designer and decorator who died in 1999.

The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, San Francisco Opera (1952). Gown designed by Tony Duquette, Tony Award-winning designer and decorator who died in 1999.

 

Dominic Aquilino as Jaffrey Pyncheon and Kelly Smith as Phoebe Puncheon in a scene from Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater's world-premiere production of The House of the Seven Gables
Brenda Lewis in Salome publicity photo (c. 1950).
Brenda Lewis publicity photo (c. 1950).
Brenda Lewis publicity photo (c. 1950).
Brenda Lewis as Regina, New York City Opera, 1953.
Program cover for Regina, New York City Opera, 1953.


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