From March 12 to April 18, the Kennedy Center will present Nights at the Opera, a five-week celebration of McNally's plays that will include three of his opera-inspired works, Master Class (1995), The Lisbon Traviata (1989) and the newly written Golden Age, which recently had its debut in Philadelphia, and is the playwright's very first historical drama, concerning the 1835 premiere of Vincenzo Bellini's final opera, I Puritani. While on a train from Washington to New York, McNally spoke to Playbill.com about opera, history and his affinity for Bellini.
Playbill.com: Who's idea was this festival of your plays?
Terrence McNally: Well, the Kennedy Center's [president] Michael Kaiser called me about three years ago and said they'd like to celebrate my work by doing three plays at the same time. It seems so long ago. I thought the time would never get here.
Playbill.com: Was the idea always to do your opera-focused plays?
TM: No. They just said three plays. Michael said the one play he really wanted to see again was The Lisbon Traviata. He had great memories of the original production. That was great with me, because I hadn't seen it in many, many years. Then we discussed Master Class. Tyne Daly was willing to undertake that role. Then I thought the third play — I didn't want it to be a grab bag of plays. I wanted it to have some connection [to the others]. And I've been thinking of writing a play called The Golden Age for quite a while. It was in the back of my mind, the world of this opera in 1835. The festival seemed like a good incentive, a deadline to write it. And it would give the evenings a thematic link. I think this worked out very nicely. And it turned out the plays were written over a span of nearly 30 years. It's a nice retrospective of what I've been thinking about for the past 30 years.
Playbill.com: A historical play is something unusual for you.
TM: Golden Age is my absolute first. I look at rehearsals and can't believe it's a play of mine. Skirts and tights. I think, "Who wrote this?" We're in another century for two-and-a-half hours.
Playbill.com: Is your love of opera as strong as it ever was?
TM: Yes, but I don't act out on it as much. I mainly go to the Met when there's an interesting new opera I want to hear, like this year House of the Dead. And I very much want to go to the Shostakovich opera The Nose. But it's pretty hard to get me to a La Boheme or Tosca anymore. In my youth, I was up in the family circle of the old Met probably five nights a week. How I graduated from Columbia is pretty amazing. During less riveting moments of the opera, I'd sit down and read by the lights on the steps. And when a good scene was coming up, I'd put down my book and turn around and watch the proceedings down below. The old Met was my study hall. Playbill.com: If you had to choose only one art form to have in your life, theatre or opera, which would you choose?
TM: Oh, theatre. I like writing my plays.
Playbill.com: Was it difficult writing for the characters in The Golden Age, given that they live in a different time? What sort of speech did you give them?
TM: I decided they probably spoke like we did. They used a few four-letter words, and they had the same emotions. People don't change that much emotionally over time. They had the nerves and the tensions and exhilaration of people on an opening night. It was easy to relate to all that. And Bellini was a composer that I feel was very underrated. One of the things that drew me to this play, perhaps, was that he and I share the same birthday, Nov. 3. He's a fellow Scorpian. This opera was written for the four greatest singers of their day. And I have written plays for some of the greatest actors of our time. That's an interesting relationship. Is this opera going to be a great success because of its singers, or would it have been a success no matter who was out there? That tension between the creator and interpreter is always there. Sometimes the road to true collaboration is a rocky one. There's nothing in this play that I could not empathize with in the 21st century.