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

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02 Dec 2012

Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally
Photo by Peter James Zielinski

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.


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