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

By Harry Haun
02 Dec 2012

F. Murray Abraham
Photo by Joan Marcus

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 . . ."

Lee Pace
photo by Joan Marcus

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...?