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Dinner is Served

This month Minnesota Opera presents a world premiere by William Bolcom.
by James Robinson. 

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Composer Bolcom, above, is “having a ball” with Dinner at Eight
© Philip Brunnader
“It all starts with characters who have something to sing.”
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Costume designs by Victoria Tzykun for (from left) Millicent Jordan, Carlotta Vance and Oliver Jordan
© Victoria Tzykun/Minnesota Opera

THE GREAT COMPOSERS have always been able to move effortlessly between the sublime and the ridiculous, but there are few composers working today with the range, wit and authority of William Bolcom. I recall a performance several years ago of Bolcom’s monumental Songs of Innocence and of Experience, at which I was completely transported by his treatment of William Blake’s poetry. The huge scope of Songs (solo vocalists, multiple choruses, a large orchestra, etc.) had a lyrical majesty that I was not prepared for; it still haunts me as one of those “great performances.” 

Later that week, I was luxuriating in Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs—with texts by Arnold Weinstein—which touch on subjects ranging from a one-night stand to a drag queen. How could the same composer rattle me with his interpretation of Blake’s searing poetry and double me over in laughter with a song about transactional love? Bolcom’s mastery never makes the listener feel he is in the presence of “important music”—nor does Bolcom have any problem elevating the lowbrow to highbrow status. And one thing is very clear: the man knows how to write for the voice and for the stage.

“It all starts with the characters. And characters who have something to sing.” So said the composer, now seventy-eight, during a breezy phone conversation about his forthcoming opera, Dinner at Eight, set for its world premiere on March 11 at Minnesota Opera as part of the company’s New Works Initiative. Bolcom was upbeat about the progress of Dinner as he discussed his great fortune to be working in the opera business at all. A self-proclaimed “theater guy,” Bolcom says his opera career began in the 1980s, when he came back from a trip to Chicago and told his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, that he had just met the “love of his life”—Ardis Krainik, then general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, who offered him a four-opera commissioning deal. “Who gets that type of offer except—oh, I don’t know—Verdi? And who would turn it down?” 

Bolcom’s first opera for Lyric was McTeague (1992), an epic piece with extremely large forces based on Frank Norris’s novel. It was followed by an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge (1999), which was then performed throughout the U.S., including at the Met. Robert Altman’s kooky film A Wedding provided inspiration for Bolcom’s third opera, which had its premiere at Lyric in 2004, but the fourth opera planned for Chicago never happened. This, Bolcom says, was largely because of the death in 2005 of Arnold Weinstein, his great collaborator and “theater poet,” who had created the librettos for his three Chicago operas, as well as other Bolcom works for the theater. “We had talked about Dinner at Eight, but it never worked out, sadly,” he says. That was before Mark Campbell—one of America’s most prolific go-to librettists (Silent Night with Kevin Puts in 2011)—came into the picture. Bolcom and Campbell collaborated on Lucrezia, a one-act comedy that was given its premiere in 2008 by New York Festival of Song. During the course of that project, they realized they shared an enthusiasm for turning Dinner at Eight into an opera. When Minnesota Opera learned of the project, it quickly commissioned the team.

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Orchestral workshop for Dinner at Eight, 2016
© Lu Zang

Dinner at Eight, the 1932 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, ran for 232 performances on Broadway; the plot revolves around a New York City dinner party and various invited guests, including social climbers, a wealthy capitalist, an aging actress, spouses, children and the like. Dinner is best remembered from George Cukor’s 1933 film adaptation, a major Depression-era hit. Bolcom says that—as usual—the characters in the piece are his reason for creating the music, and that the opera of Dinner is based on the original play. “We couldn’t really adapt the film, for various reasons, and while I love the film, I find the play to be better material. The characters certainly have more to reveal.” 

What Bolcom finds most intriguing about Dinner is what is beneath its veneer of frolic—the play’s dark underlying theme of financial crisis, which he says touches him quite personally. “My grandfather had millions and promptly lost them all in the Crash,” he says. “I know this side of the story very well.”

Asked what has changed since his last opera, Bolcom says it had not been his experience to have a lot of workshops for an opera in progress. Working in theater meant that everything was fluid—“you change as you go”—but in opera, the expectation was that the composer would present the finished score on a designated date. Things are different now. “People do workshops now,” he says. “It’s a great way to see how things are progressing, and it gets people involved.” And he is thrilled by the attention
Minnesota Opera has shown to him and Campbell. “I like families,” he says. “I’ve had theater families, and now I have opera families. And I’m having a ball.” spacer 

James Robinson is artistic director at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. His production of The Abduction from the Seraglio opens at Houston Grand Opera in April. 

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