On the Beat

On the Beat

Arroyo recipient of 2013 Kennedy Center Honors; Chopped!: Lewis recalls TV's Lizzie Borden.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Arroyo lg 1213
Arroyo: Washington-bound in December
© Marty Umans 2013

MARTINA ARROYO wasn't having a good day. She was sitting in her office, mediating a tense planning meeting for the Martina Arroyo Foundation's tenth-anniversary gala celebrating its Prelude to Performance program, when the foundation's executive director, DIANE BATSON-SMITH, strolled into the room. "I have something that is going to make you feel better," Batson-Smith said, and she handed over a printout of an e-mail informing Arroyo that she had been chosen as one of five recipients of the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors. "I nearly fell on the floor," Arroyo said recently. "My first thought was that I wish that Michel [her late husband, MICHEL MAUREL] and my mother could be here. Every time I am honored, it's fabulous. I mean, it's wonderful when someone says, 'I like you, and I like what you're doing.' But I never expected this. I had watched the Kennedy Center Honors over the years, but only as a TV program. I didn't sit there thinking, 'I wish that were me.'" The presentation of the Kennedy Center Honors medallions will take place on December 7, at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State JOHN KERRY, and on December 8, a spectacular program will be held on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House; CBS will telecast the event on December 29. Arroyo has several events sandwiched in between, including a luncheon with U.S. Supreme Court Justice SONIA SOTOMAYOR. 

"JACQUES D'AMBOISE tells me that from the time you get there, you smile for two-and-a-half days," she says. "I do think this honor has a lot to do with the Prelude to Performance program. What I did in my career vocally, a lot of people did — but not many necessarily went out of the profession and into working with young people. I think that's what the Kennedy Center is saying. I'm not doing the greatest thing in the world, but I work with forty people a year, and if we had ten groups each doing forty, then we would get 400 opera singers out in the world who know how to work."

The other 2013 honorees are CARLOS SANTANA, HERBIE HANCOCK, BILLY JOEL and SHIRLEY MACLAINE; Hancock is the only one Arroyo has met. "It was on a bus, in an airport, going from one place to another. I decided to flirt with him, and he didn't know me from Adam. I'm going to wait until December and say, 'Remember me?'" 

THE DISTRESSING NEWS of New York City Opera's imminent demise was broken by The New York Times on September 8. Ironically, around the same time, Video Artists International released one of the glories of the grand old days when City Opera was in every
way a company that mattered — the 1965 WGBH taping of JACK BEESON's Lizzie Borden, one of the most successful new American operas of the '60s. (See ERIC MYERS's review in Video.) 

In late September, I spoke with BRENDA LEWIS, who created the role of Lizzie, at her home in Connecticut. At ninety-two, with undiminished acuity and wit, she recalled the circumstances of the telecast. "We were not anywhere near the orchestra or the conductor," Lewis says. "They were in another building, across the street from WGBH in Boston. There was a small monitor on which we could hear the orchestra, and our conductor, ANTON COPPOLA, had a small television set, but he had to follow us, more or less."

Lewis recalls that when she was first sent a copy of the score, which she performed for the work's 1965 world premiere at City Opera, "every page looked like an Etruscan discovery! Blotch after blotch — chords that were about three inches tall. Almost impenetrable. I was a good enough pianist that whenever I got a score I would play through. That broke down what I saw into what I could hear. But this! The handwriting was largely cramped, and it was like doing a crossword puzzle in a foreign language. It took me a long time to pick it out, but I had the kind of musical intelligence that once I heard it, I knew it. The learning of it was totally at the piano keys, which was fortunate — because you couldn't get a coach. Only Jack could teach it."

One of the glories of this telecast is that KENWARD ELMSLIE's libretto is revealed in all its brilliance. Elmslie never wastes time with elaborate theories on the source and plotting of the Borden murders; he focuses entirely on Lizzie's mental disintegration as she attempts to negotiate with her hidebound, skinflint father (HERBERT BEATTIE); the script is really about the ultimate implosion of Lizzie's long-simmering masochism. "Ken Elmslie is a poet who says what you feel," says Lewis. "You could taste the words in your mouth. And Jack Beeson was basically an actor at heart. Those episodes were real to him. It wasn't just a solo here, a duet there. 

"I did a lot of research at the time, and one of the theories about Lizzie was that she was gay, and what touched off the murders was that her stepmother found her in bed with the housemaid." (Although this was too much to show in the 1960s, Elmslie shrewdly substituted Lizzie's sexual fantasy about her sister's suitor, Captain MacFarlane, which her stepmother, played by the superb ELLEN FAULL, witnesses.) "There's also a theory that the reason they never found a bloody thing in the house was that Lizzie committed the murders stark naked, with a bathing cap on her head, so that no blood splashed her hair. It was such an utterly fascinating time. There is no way that that town could have found her guilty, even if they all privately believed she was. Her father was the richest man in town, and they were an upright Christian family. No matter what happened, she could not have committed the murders. One of the things I discovered was that her middle name was Andrew. That was her father's name. So she was stuck with this fixation on her father from the beginning, and she wore a ring all her life that had 'Andrew' engraved in the interior. There was clearly a psychological hinge undone between her and her father to begin with. She was not a boy — if she had been, there would have been no murder." spacer

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2