Trouble in Tahiti
For now here is a straight copy of John Ostendorf's
liner notes from the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater '98 recording
on Newport Classics (NPD 85641)
Buy it !
1973 Production on VHS
Leonard Bernstein began composing Trouble in Tahiti
in Mexico, Spring 1951. He had rented a large house in Cuernavaca with
the intention to vacation. Instead, he found his creative juices flowing:
"a really nice surprise from the Gods." The composer found himself "knee-deep
in my opera idea, and loving it." He instructed his New York concert manager
to cancel everything on his calendar, to give him time to compose.
Preparing both libretto and music, Bernstein
was challenged by "getting Americanese to sound sensible when sung." Progress
was shattered by the sudden death of long-time mentor Serge Koussevitsky;
Leonard Bernstein left both Mexico and Trouble in Tahiti and rushed back
The relationship with Felicia Montealegre was
happily resolved by a September wedding. The couple honeymooned in Wyoming,
then returned to the Mexican house, where Bernstein resolved to finish
his "little opry." Indeed, he even had thoughts about a trilogy! However,
despite all efforts, he could not manage to finish Trouble in Tahiti. By
January 1952 he was totally blocked. A particularly exasperating visit
by his own parents during these months may have distracted the
composer (and may have also influenced the tone
of the work later on.) Meanwhile, his wife was pregnant. Returning to Boston,
Bernstein took a position at Brandeis as Visiting Music Professor. His
first assignment was to oversee a large-scale music festival. Trouble in
Tahiti would open the proceedings. So, to complete the work, he took a
month off in Spring 1952, retreating to an artists' colony in Saratoga
where he might orchestrate the opera, plan stage directions, etc. The Brandeis
opening night-and the opera's premiere-occurred June 12, 1952.
A tedious symposium on the arts began the evening,
and Bernstein's little opera was not given until after 11:00 PM-for an
irritated and dwindling audience. Outdoor amplification was reportedly
faulty, the production itself badly under-rehearsed. Trouble in Tahiti
enjoyed only partial success, "half-baked" by its composer's assessment.
Dissatisfied, Bernstein reworked the final scene
in the next weeks and had the opera staged again at the Tanglewood Festival
later that summer, this time in the capable hands of director Sarah Caldwell.
The results, said the composer, were "200% better." Critics, not so kind
in Boston, were still only lukewarm in Lenox, Massachusetts. The one-act
work was dedicated to Bernstein's longtime composer friend, Marc Blitzstein
(who didn't much like it either: "lively musically, but dreary in subject.")
As for Trouble in Tahiti's "subject," it has
been suggested that Sam and Dinah, the protagonists, somehow reflect the
composer and his newly-wed bride Felicia. After all, Leonard was composing
and having trouble with the opera during the first months of marriage.
To be sure, both were high-spirited, complicated artistic people (she was
a successful actress). But it surely cannot have been on their marriage
that the dismal couple of Trouble in Tahiti is based. Humphrey Burton,
Leonard Bernstein's distinguished biographer, discusses the opera's more
likely autobiographical connection: the couple of this libretto is not
the author, but his own parents. Indeed, in the original draft they are
"Sam" and "Jennie," the actual names of Bernstein's parents (later on "Jennie"
becomes "Dinah," still close to home, the composer's grandmother).
Burton felt the writer was "administering the
public rebuke to his father for the misery, as he saw it, of his childhood."
That this was an "extraordinarily vengeful act" by the composer seems perhaps
overstatement. While the opera couple's marriage does seem bleak, they
themselves are vibrant and interesting-if selfinvolved. David Wright's
excellent note for the Manhattan School production provides further clarification.
He quotes the composer's own sister Shirley: "our parents were mismated,
mismatched, both interesting and good people who should never have been
married." Wright cites "a painful incident in the composer's boyhood, when
his father missed his debut playing Grieg's Piano Concerto with the Boston
Public School Orchestra, which has been incorporated in the opera's plot
as 'Junior's' big night in the school play." In the face of all of this,
Bernstein's "Sam" seems a forgetful, competitive father, not an abusive
one. The more evident impact of Trouble in Tahiti seems a general, satiric
knock at the American Suburbia of the 1950s (dated and quaint to us today,
but timely to the author in 1951). Seeing a "shrink," consumerism, aggression
in athletics, a boss flirting with his secretary, Hollywood escapism-perhaps
these are not hot topics for a Millenium-minded America, but Bernstein's
light musical touch, his kooky, amplified doo-wop trio, jazry rhythms and
touching lyricism can still uplift the work for us today.