In June of 1983, "Morning in America" was in full swing, President Ronald Wilson Reagan, the much-heralded face of the new conservative zeitgeist deep into first term in office. On June 17 of that year, in the conservative city of Houston, Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place premiered, a "second act" to his domestic drama Trouble in Tahiti. And though this was Bernstein's only opera, reactions were mixed- not least that of Christopher Alden, who brings his production of this neglected masterpiece to New York City Opera this month.
"I think people who go to operas now would be so much more open to taking in this kind of material" says Alden, "but back then I just don't think anyone could quite deal with the piece, with the gay character, the dark music: though a lot of that had to do with Bernstein's personal life. I think his 'radical chic' baggage got in the way of people taking the piece for what it was." After its unsuccessful premiere, A Quiet Place was heavily revised, the whole of Trouble in Tahiti folded in as a kind of flashback. There were other performances: at the Washington Opera, La Scala, and the Vienna State Opera: but the piece has foundered; this production represents its New York debut. Perhaps America on planet 1983 was simply not ready for A Quiet Place; "It is quite political," says Alden, "expressing quite a bit about the post _World War Two suburban thing: the work is about the perceived death of the American dream."
"We didn't write things with the idea that people would be laughing, or crying for that matter," says librettist Stephen Wadsworth. "We tried to tell the truth about the way one American family does and does not communicate, and what happens as a result. We both were working on loss and grief and justification and seemed to share a kind of acerbic, flarednostril humor. I haven't a clue how it will play now. I think audiences are different here, and now, from those that saw it years ago: and of course it will depend on how it is presented."
This of course is up to Alden. "The piece shifts easily between the present and the past," he says. "You jump from one moment to the next, and I think this production is trying to get at that, make it happen in a fluid way. It'll be less naturalistic than the original production, which was more literal than this one, which is going to be open-ended: not abstract: but more fluid and fluent, and I think the way these two different eras exist in my production, there's less of a gap. I love the way the music from the '50s portion and the '80s portion sits weirdly, uncomfortably together, the way that in our daily lives the dead are still with us."
Daniel Felsenfeld is a composer who lives in Brooklyn.