From August 7-20, Glimmerglass will present Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti starring members of the Young Artist Program.
When Leonard Bernstein began to work on the music and lyrics for Trouble in Tahiti during his honeymoon in 1951, he was attempting to create a new type of musical drama. Unlike the tendency toward the fantastical shared by musical theater and opera, Bernstein wanted Tahiti to be realistic – in every sense of the word. With its riff on radio jingles of the era, conversational libretto and musical language borrowed from popular song, this one-act work is imbued with the sounds and feelings of everyday life.
Tahiti’s striking cynicism and critique of mid-century consumerism is in keeping with a broader movement that was transforming 20th-century drama. Earlier in the century, German playwright Bertholt Brecht made a splash on the international theater scene with plays that critiqued the ills of capitalism. His collaborations with German-American composer Kurt Weill resulted in The Threepenny Opera (1928) and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), two operas that quickly became international successes.
Brecht’s ideas were well-known to Bernstein; American composer Marc Blitzstein, one of Bernstein’s early mentors, translated and adapted Threepenny and Mahagonny for their off-Broadway premieres in the United States. Bernstein even conducted a concert version of Blitzstein’s translation of Threepenny at the inaugural Brandeis Arts Festival in summer 1952, just after he completed Tahiti. Furthermore, the Marxist ideals of Brecht’s dramas pervaded Blitzstein’s own compositions, such as The Cradle Will Rock, a work that Bernstein conducted at Harvard during his senior year.
In Tahiti, Bernstein presents a pessimistic portrait of a vacuous suburban paradise where the protagonists, Sam and Dinah, live out a stereotype of the “American dream.” With this project, the first and the most substantive composition for which he wrote both music and lyrics, the influences of Brecht and Blitzstein on the composer are evident. From the smiling jazz chorus that extolls the virtues of middle-class suburbia to Sam’s triumphant yet hollow meditation upon the unequal nature of American society in “There’s a Law about Men,” Bernstein paints a bleak picture of modern society.
Despite the work’s short length, Bernstein delivers substantive political appraisal with signature lyricism. Dinah’s aria, “There Is a Garden,” reveals the psychological turmoil hidden beneath her seemingly-perfect life. Bernstein’s choice of an overgrown garden to symbolize her unconscious bears a thematic similarity to Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, a one-act monodrama that premiered in 1924. In Erwartung, a nameless woman searches for her lover in a dark forest, growing increasingly panicked until she discovers his dead body. But while Schoenberg’s melodrama exploits the woman’s hysteria with anxious, atonal writing, “There Is a Garden” employs gorgeous melodic writing to delicately uncover Dinah’s repressed longing for intimacy. The sincere sweetness of Bernstein’s musical language in this moment cuts the bitterness of the work’s political message and sweeps the audience up in the fleeting possibility of true fulfillment.