Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Schizoid Gays in a Quiet Place

A Quiet Place, an opera composed by Leonard Bernstein, was recently presented at the New York City Opera [not to be confused with the Met] where it got some surprisingly good reviews. A Quiet Place, which had very few American performances during Bernstein's lifetime, began life as a tuneful 1952 one-act entitled Trouble in Tahiti. With an engaging score and a pretty good libretto by Bernstein, Trouble told the story of the dysfunctional marriage of Sam and Dinah. It was a memorable short work, the title of which referred to a piece of "technicolor twaddle" that Dinah goes to see at the movies.

But Bernstein wasn't satisfied with Trouble; it wasn't serious enough, so -- working with librettist Stephen Wadsworth (whose personal life I know nothing of, except that he has a wife) -- Bernstein expanded his little one-act into a full-length opera entitled A Quiet Place, the title taken from one of Dinah's songs in Trouble. It made its debut in Houston in 1983. All of the music from Trouble in Tahiti was used in the new work in flashback sequences.

In the new opera, Dinah has been killed in an accident, and their little boy, Junior, is a schizophrenic. His lover, Francois, is now married to Junior's sister, Dede -- talk about making someone schizophrenic!

Now at this point I must interject that Bernstein was a married homosexual who -- like many married homosexuals do -- probably preferred to think of himself as a hip bisexual. Therefore the whole idea of Francois ditching Junior to marry his boyfriend's sister, may have just seemed like some trendy bisexual chic. In reality, it's an utterly cruel and grotesque situation, which librettist Wadsworth never really explores. I mean, talk about situations that would fuck a guy up. As I wrote in my book The Opera of the Twentieth Century, it's never made clear if Francois' falling for his sister exacerbated or actually engendered Junior's instability. It is suggested that Dede and Francois married out of their mutual love for Junior, who needs looking after, but Francois sings a [second-rate] aria reaffirming his love for and commitment to Dede. Poor Junior.

Perhaps something interesting could have been made of this, but Wadsworth's libretto is pretty lousy, being more pretentious than profound, and does little to illuminate these rather screwed-up characters [I mean, a woman who would marry her brother's boyfriend, and vice versa!], although there's a fairly moving wind-up and Bernstein's relentlessly non-melodic music [aside from the excerpts from Trouble in Tahiti] doesn't help.

What's more interesting is some of the comments Christopher Alden, who directed this latest production of A Quiet Place, made to Olivia Giovetti of Time Out New York Magazine. "There's a lot of Bernstein in many of the characters. [In Francois] there's that fantasy of bisexuality or a gay man suddenly turning straight." As for Junior, Alden says, "It seems a bit of a throwback to the past where anytime gay characters were presented, they had to be shown to be problematical people." While it might have been admirable to present some sort of gay characters in an opera some years ago, it's the Same Old Story when we see a shizoid fag and a "bisexual" man who opts to marry his lover's sister. Sheesh! No thank you, Bernstein!

A Quiet Life looks at homosexuality from the confines of the closet, where Bernstein and others like him resided for most of their lives. It doesn't present a hip look at bisexuality or "sexual fluidity" so much as to all intents and purposes it simply avoids the subject of homosexuality altogether.

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