Terrence McNally Time-Travels to Eavesdrop Backstage at the Creation of an Opera in Golden Age
By Harry Haun
Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally charts the egos and passions of a 19th-century opera troupe and their composer, Vincenzo Bellini, in the New York City premiere of Golden Age.
Terrence McNally has a long and distinguished history of translating his passions into plays. Opera, for handy example, led him to the hilarious and, by sharp turns, tragic The Lisbon Traviata — then onto a Tony-winning Master Class and its latter-day, full-tilt portrayal of Maria Callas, that Juilliard Schoolmarm. His familiarity with the gay scene, which informs many of his plays, got him another Tony for Love! Valour! Compassion! Both elements are present and accounted for in Golden Age, his seventh Manhattan Theatre Club opus bowing Dec. 4 at MTC's City Center Stage I space.
He has Tonys, too, for the musical books of Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime, and there's music throughout Golden Age — only in the background — accompanying the comedic commotion of unclothed egos colliding backstage during the first public airing of I Puritani, Vincenzo Bellini's last (and, McNally would argue, best), opera at Paris' Theatre-Italien on Jan. 24, 1835. By the time the piece was to be done a second time eight months later in Naples, Bellini was dead — at the age of 33 — and the performing artists went, almost directly from the stage, to sing at his funeral.
"I've always responded to Bellini's music," McNally is quick to confess. "We're fellow Scorpios and share the same birthday [Nov. 3], but that's not the reason that I wrote this play. I wrote it because I felt the relationship between a creative artist and an interpretive artist is a very interesting one. He wrote for these four famous singers who were as famous as he was, and there's a lot of resonances in that situation — them being foreigners in the capital of culture, trying to prove the supremacy of their Italian art over French opera. Paris was the place one triumphed: If you make it there, you can make it anywhere in those days. There's just so much stuff there. Of course, I love writing larger-than-life characters, and these people certainly qualify.
"There are so many things that led me to this play. I started writing it 15 or 16 years ago. I wrote about 20 pages, and it read like a bad translation from the French or German, so I said, 'I'm going to put this one away for a while,' and I finally got back to it a couple of years ago. From the first time I got the idea for the play, the time and place and setting stayed constant — the opening night of I Puritani in Paris in 1835."
Fitting the singers in with the on-going opera off-stage was a kind of theatrical jigsaw puzzle, the sort of thing that Alan Ayckbourn makes a specialty of in England.
"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."
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.'"
McNally's imagination takes flight again with the arrival backstage of another prominent prima donna of the day, Maria Malibran (Bebe Neuwirth), creating the inevitable diva-catfight and causing Grisi to barricade herself in her dressing room.
"We don't know Malibran didn't come backstage if she was in Paris that night. That's what the playwright brings from his imagination. I'm sure she wondered why she wasn't asked to do the part since he professed to adore her, so I imagined her there."
More than that — because Bellini professed to write his long-flowing melodic lines for Malibran — McNally has him starting to revise I Puritani for her on the spot when Grisi feels too ill to continue. That threat somehow brings Grisi around, and she and the show go on. In point of fact, he did do an alternate version for Malibran to sing in Naples, but it wasn't performed till 1986. (Some have called this "Grisi's Revenge.")
At one point, the divas make nice, and Grisi rather magnanimously permits Malibran to go on stage to snatch a few stanzas for herself. Interestingly, when Grisi sings, she sounds like vintage Joan Sutherland; when Malibran breaks into song, it's primal Callas. McNally has no comment to make about this "illusion" (having already said quite enough, as Callas, in Master Class: "I won't hear anything against any of my colleagues. . . . She did her best.")
A more plausible dressing-room visitor is Gioacchino Rossini (F. Murray Abraham), the era's long-celebrated composer still coasting on his laurels. He pops up in the last few minutes of the play to give his blessing to Bellini. "He was very supportive," says McNally, "but, of course, Bellini didn't feel he was because on that night he was so insecure, and Rossini did come late — he was notoriously late to everything — and that enraged Bellini more. Everything is perceived as a disaster or a slight. There are a lot of my anxieties in this play, and I've put them into Bellini. If a friend of mine shows up late to a play of mine, I'm not happy — especially if it's an opening night."
Although it wasn't planned that way, it's nice to have an Oscar-winning Salieri (from "Amadeus") play Rossini. "And what luck to get F. Murray Abraham!" seconds McNally. "We were in a jam when Richard [Easton] had to withdraw, and he took over on 24-hours notice, literally. That's a real sign of friendship. He's one of the actors who has done more of my plays than almost anyone. He and Nathan Lane have both done six or seven."
Other than Abraham, there's little parallel between the two historical characters.
"Rossini was a very nice man. Salieri seems not to have been that way at all. Rossini was very supportive of Italian opera. Once he moved to Paris — the French paid him enough money to leave his beloved Naples — he started writing operas in French."
Sprinkled throughout the play are inside-jokes designed to tickle the brain of the opera aficionado. Every once in a while, Bellini will sit down at the backstage piano and play a little something he cut from Norma or one of his "new creations" — they are yet-to-be-written Wagner or Puccini. "That's just my joke. If you sit at the piano and improvise, eventually you'll play a few bars of 'The Godfather' or 'Memory.' Put a monkey at a typewriter, and he'll write Hamlet. It may take a billion years, but . . ."
Despite the setting, the tone and spirit of Golden Age is as contemporary as It's Only a Play, McNally's comedy about a Broadway opening night. "This is the first play I've written that wasn't about Americans and wasn't contemporary. The only time I've ever written not in the present tense was in Some Men. Some scenes were set 30 or 40 years ago. This is the first time I've written an historical play. It's the first play of mine where actors actually have costumes. Usually, designers have them come out in various versions of blue jeans, sweaters and breakers, looking just like they did coming to rehearsal. In this play, they really wear costumes — by Jane Greenwood."
Golden Age is McNally's con amore valentine to the bel canto style of music that Bellini wrote. "Singers who can deal with those long vocal lines are few and far between," sighs McNally heavily. "I've always been drawn to the bel canto, but I like pretty much all schools of opera. I like Wagner, I like Mozart, I like Puccini, I like a lot of contemporary opera. I'm not stuck in any one thing, but I like this period to write about — because these personalities were so flamboyant and larger than life."
The play could pass for the fevered dream of an opera buff, a dizzy mix of fact and fantasia. "That's what Shakespeare always did with his historical plays," McNally says, "take the facts, and interpret them, then add characters and change things. I wouldn't want to write a documentary play. Golden Age is like Master Class — emotionally accurate. I say what I want to say. Whether it happened on the day I said, or if Malibran was backstage — isn't important. She was backstage in spirit."
McNally once said he couldn't pick which Bellini opera he would take with him to the desert island, but he has subsequently changed his tune. "After repeated listening for just the music, I would say I Puritani is Bellini's masterpiece. He only wrote about eight operas. I still love Norma and Sonnambula, and I'd say the other five have moments, but I definitely think I Puritani is his greatest piece of music."
And, who knows, Terrence — maybe there's a play in that...?
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