Terrence McNally Time-Travels to Eavesdrop Backstage at the Creation of an Opera in Golden Age

By Harry Haun
02 Dec 2012

Lee Pace and Will Rogers
Photo by Joan Marcus

"The challenge of this play, of course, is writing around the music," says McNally. "You can't have a scene for a character if they're out there singing. You have to figure out how to tell the story with who is available to you on and off the stage in each scene. I always like a kind of technical challenge when I write a play. I wrote this to a recording so the length is fairly accurate. I wouldn't take a stopwatch to it, but it pretty much parallels the length of a performance of the opera at The Met."

For Golden Age, McNally has assembled I Puritani's original cast as his own cast of characters and ascribed to them the fabled idiosyncrasies usually associated with their particular vocal range. The baritone, Antonio Tamburini (played by Lorenzo Pisoni), stuffs his crotch with apples and cucumbers. Giovanni Battista Rubini (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the tenor, really believes his high notes will outlive the composition that got him there. Luigi Lablache (Ethan Philips), the bass, believes nobody notices the bass, so a change of costume is superfluous. Giulia Grisi, the soprano (Dierdre Friel), tips easily into temperamental fits and tantrums and is not above fake faints.

To this already combustible company on opening night is added in the overwrought composer himself (Lee Pace). "At one point, the baritone says, 'No composer should be allowed backstage,' and I think that's what a lot of the cast and director would think: 'No playwright should be allowed backstage during an actual performance.' I know a lot of people who go to bars or even leave town the night of their opening. I'm interested in seeing what the audience is seeing, and I'm not shy about being there. If things are not going well, I'm not happy, but I don't believe in running — whereas Bellini just can't bear to be in the auditorium once the curtain has risen."

Bebe Neuwirth
photo by Joan Marcus

Accompanying the composer backstage is a friend and, hopefully, steadying influence — McNally would have you read: lover — Francesco Florimo (Will Rogers).

"That's my conjecture," he allows. "Florimo was his constant companion and did a biography of him after he died that was so admiring it could have passed for a press release — it's not very helpful as a research source. Theirs was a kind of 19th century relationship. They're certainly not a couple. Florimo sleeps with men and women, kind of a pansexual, but he is certainly there and a very important character in my story. This is a play based on the general facts of Bellini's life — and my imagination."

In one of the more pensive moments backstage, Florimo laments the fact that, as close as they are, he recognizes when Bellini has departed to the planet of creativity.

"I'm sure I must be like that to my husband [producer Tom Kirdahy]," McNally admits. "When I get to That Place, I'm really just with the characters, listening to them. It's not so much that serious creative people disconnect from life, it's that they get more interested in something else. I haven't left this world. I'm just hard at work.

"I think the key to Florimo's speech is that he is the one who hears Bellini's music first and all the others can't take that away from him. He also says, 'I don't think your famous colleagues — and they may be great artists — have a clue who I am.'"