Last week I went to see a rare production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera “A Quiet Place.” This run of six performances at City Opera is the first time “A Quiet Place” has ever been performed in New York, which surprised me. As a non-native New Yorker, I naively assumed that everything Bernstein ever wrote must have already been performed in New York at one time or another.
After seeing the opera performed, I began to understand why it has been rarely performed. Not because it isn’t good – quite the contrary – but because 1983 audiences may not have been ready for the story that Leonard Bernstein and his librettist Stephen Wadsworth put before them. Stories, or even operas about dysfunctional families are nothing new, nor are theatrical works that begin with someone’s death. But challenges mount in an opera that begins with the mother’s death, then looks, in a series of flashbacks, at a dysfunctional family that includes a son who is both gay and mentally disturbed. Add to that, the stylistic and technical challenges of Bernstein’s music. Bernstein throws at them – singers and orchestra alike – music that is lyric, angular, almost tonal, dissonant, sweet, angry, ironic, sometimes in quick succession, sometimes all at once.
Bernstein and Wadsworth were not trying to provoke any particular kind of reaction in the audience. In an essay by Daniel Felsenfeld in the opera’s program booklet, Stephen Wadsworth says “We (he and Bernstein) tried to tell the truth about the way one American family does and does not communicate, and what happens as a result. We were both working on loss and grief and justification and seemed to share a kind of acerbic, flared-nostril humor.”
In the end these issues of family communication are surely something that anyone in a family can understand. So why was last week’s audience cheering for an opera that got such a cool reception in 1983? The fact the City Opera did a terrific production of course helps.
But I would like to think that almost 30 years after it was first performed, we can now see a character like Junior, who is gay and mentally disturbed, first and foremost as a person. If you can do that, the story of this opera is deeply affecting. It also makes the final aria incredibly powerful, as Junior and his father finally connect for perhaps the first time. When I talked with baritone Joshua Hopkins, who played the character of Junior, he described the ending as “optimistic, the beginning of what was now possible.” A beautiful description of a reconciliation that is set to some of Leonard Bernstein’s most ravishing music.
It helped that the orchestra under conductor Jayce Ogren dealt with the huge stylistic range of the score with ease, and the cast to a person had both the voices and the acting chops to make this piece work. The music and the story often walk a fine line between irony and parody – get that balance wrong and you undermine the entire story. There are also some screamingly funny moments in the opera that were allowed to be hysterical, without ever undermining the other emotions at play.
In the end, this production did for me what really good theatre should – it is sticking with me. The sad parts. The funny parts. The images and music for sure. But most of all, the story.
Here’s to hoping that other audiences won’t have to wait decades to have their chance to experience “A Quiet Place.”
What are your impressions of the opera “A Quiet Place” upon seeing or hearing it?