Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget

by JAMIE BERNSTEIN

Coda Quiet Place hdl 515
A Quiet Place at NYCO, 2010, with Sara Jakubiak (Dede), Dominic Armstrong (François) and Joshua Hopkins (Junior)
© Carol Rosegg 2015

What made it all so difficult for my brother, sister and me was that blurry, blurry line between work of art and life.

A Quiet Place came as a sequel of sorts to my father Leonard Bernstein’s 1951 opera, Trouble in Tahiti. T in T, as we call it, was my father’s processing of his own parents’ unhappy marriage. By the time I was old enough to notice, my grandparents seemed to me like a pretty mellow elderly couple. But my father had recounted growing up in an atmosphere of dinner-table acrimony, squabbles over money, icy silences. The names of the T in T couple were originally Sam and Jennie — his parents’ names. Later, he changed Jennie to Dinah — his grandmother’s name. I wonder what his parents thought of T in T; no record exists of their reaction.

Amazingly, my father wrote this tale of sour suburban matrimony while on his honeymoon. Maybe it was a spit-in-the-corner-three-times ritual: If I write about this, it will never happen to me. 

By the time AQP was in the works, thirty-odd years later, my father’s marriage had run its course. It had been a mostly happy union with my mother, the stylish, witty Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre. But like many marriages, it got complicated. Toward the end there was a separation, followed by a reconciliation, followed a year later by my mother’s death from cancer. My father was convulsed with grief, and also guilt: was it all his fault?

Meanwhile, Stephen Wadsworth, AQP’s librettist, was trying to process the recent loss of his younger sister Nina, killed at age twenty in a car accident. Somehow, out of this mutual family wreckage, Stephen and my father teased out the narrative for their opera.

The story begins with a wife who has died in a car crash — and right away, the two authors’ strands were intertwined. We see Sam from T in T, now old and destroyed by grief, unable even to greet the guests at the funeral of his wife, Dinah. His daughter, Dede, arrives with her husband, François. Sam’s son, Junior, a very disturbed young man, stumbles in late and makes a terrible scene, leading Sam to lash out in an aria of white fury and despair. The scene ends with an instrumental interlude of exquisite sorrow.

My brother, sister and I attended a workshop of that opening funeral-home scene, in a cramped rehearsal studio at Juilliard. This was the first of the many times we would be reduced to heaving sobs by the music. It was nearly unbearable to us in its gut-spilling beauty. Our father’s music was thorny, lacerating, incalculably sad — and an evocation of his psyche as unmistakable as a fingerprint. 

Then, in June 1983, we all convened at Houston Grand Opera for the world premiere. Stephen and LB were nervous wrecks. There was a lot of drinking going on. Houston’s oil-rich, conservative audience seemed an odd choice for the unveiling of this challenging work full of expletives and themes of homosexuality and incest — to say nothing of that funeral-home scene, which was entirely twelve-tone and nearly forty-five minutes long. 

After the performance, at a large dinner reception, LB took his turn at the microphone and marveled that his opera had come to life “in this cow town.” At our table, aghast, we slid down in our seats nearly to the floor. More wine over here, please!

We waited anxiously for the reviews. They were not pretty. Stephen and LB made some changes for the upcoming performances at La Scala and the Kennedy Center. Now T in T was a flashback, sandwiched between the funeral home and the subsequent scenes at Sam’s house. That worked better, but it took another twenty-five years for an invention that strung the disparate parts together in a particularly strong way.

By the time the New York City Opera revival came along, in 2010, my siblings and I hadn’t revisited AQP in a very long time. I hadn’t even listened to the recording: too painful. What I had been doing was living out my adulthood. I got married. I had two children. I battled cancer. I got divorced. I lost my father, as well as several other beloved family members. And then I sat down in an empty row during a dress rehearsal at the Koch Theater and heard that music again.

It was vivid and beautiful, and as desperately sad as it had been at that very first workshop at Juilliard, except that now I brought to those notes the weight of my own life — my own losses, my own disappointments, my own futile attempts to make sense of it all. The combined weight of my father’s grief and my own crushed away all composure, and I shuddered uncontrollably, my face drenched with tears. I was grateful no one was sitting near me. 

For this revival, director Christopher Alden had come up with an idea so right that we were amazed it had never been done before. Now that T in T appeared as a flashback in the middle of the later material, Alden cast the three young adults we’d met at the funeral home — Dede, Junior and François — as the trio commenting ironically on the actions of the unhappy couple in T in T. My brother, sister and I viscerally identified with those grown children haunting their dad’s past. That made all the sense in the world to us; thanks to his music, our father had given us the opportunity to do exactly that, all our lives. spacer 

JAMIE BERNSTEIN is a writer, narrator and documentary filmmaker. 

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Current Issue: May 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 11