Trouble in Tahiti; Scene 1

Today we have a post from our double-bill’s stage director, Lawrence Edelson, that he wrote for American Lyric Theater’s blog, where he is Artistic Director:


Making Singers Cry

No, I did not yell at anyone in rehearsal.  When working on an opera that strikes a deep emotional chord with the entire cast and creative team, it’s easy for emotions to get flowing!

The past few weeks, I’ve been in San Francisco staging a double bill of Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. Im not going to try to convince anyone that La Serva Padrona has any deep emotional message. It doesn’t. It is a fun piece of fluff from another era. What I want to focus on here is Trouble in Tahiti, because in many ways, I think it is one of the most perfect pieces I’ve ever worked on.

For those not familiar with the story, Trouble in Tahiti is the story of a couple – Sam and Dinah – who have been married for almost ten years. In the context of an idealistic, artificially utopian American mid-20th Century society, we peel back that artificial veneer of perfection to see what is beneath the surface – a deeply troubled relationship – a marriage on the rocks where communication has broken down so much that both Sam and Dinah are at a loss as to what to do to restore the love in their marriage.  In this short piece, Bernstein packs some incredibly beautiful music, along side some very amusing and fun “numbers” that draw strongly from both the worlds of Jazz and the Broadway stage.  By combining a deeply relevant story that pretty well anyone in the audience can relate to with a musical language that contemporary American audiences can easily identify with – Bernstein has really created an incredible piece of theater and music.  Remarkably, even though the piece is over 50 years old, it doesn’t feel at all dated to me.

For audiences, Trouble in Tahiti can be both a moving and entertaining experience.  For performers, getting to the heart of the piece has proven to be very easy – and a particularly rewarding process. The libretto for Trouble in Tahiti was written by Bernstein, and demonstrates remarkable craft – both in its wit and its depth.  It is well known that there is a semi-autobiographical basis to the story of Sam and Dinah – and it is surely for this reason that the piece is so strong. Bernstein was writing something close to his heart. Much like La Traviata (see my earlier post), Trouble in Tahiti is also NOT an opera about a society foreign to the audience for which it was written – it is about the society OF the audience – and about characters the audience could relate to easily. The fact that these characters, juxtaposed against the idea of a storybook, idealized American society still resonates so strongly for us today speaks tremendously for the strength of the piece.

While the more flashy arias, like “What a Movie!” are a lot of fun to stage and perform, it is because Trouble in Tahiti has so much honesty at its core that it has been so rewarding to work on with the cast.  While this short opera is packed full of amazing scenes, perhaps my favorite is the very moving duet when Sam and Dinah meet on the street in the middle of the day.  They both make up lies just so they don’t have to spend time with each other:

Why did I have to lie – to avoid another hour together?
Is it better to sit alone in a crowded restaurant, and catch up on last week’s magazines?
What do we need to make us friends again?
We’re not so very far apart.
We like the same movies, the same parties,
We have our little child…
What makes this emptiness? Tell me when these silences began?
Why did I have to lie?
Long ago, you were all strength and life and joy to me.
All magic, all music, all life to me.
You were my charm and all delight to me;
My heart and mind;
You were my love, the sun and night to me.
That was then.
This is now.
Years have gone, nearly ten,
And what has happened to dull the mystery?
And where is our garden with a quiet place?
Why can’t we try to find the way again
To peace and life?
Why can’t we find the way, the way to life again?
Can’t we find the way back to the garden, to the garden, where we began?

As we staged this duet, it quickly became apparent that we needed to do very little. Here was a place where the words and the music are about as perfect as they can be for the dramatic situation.  By keeping things simple in the staging (which is not always the case with my directing – but was certainly appropriate here!), and letting the singers really concentrate on what they were singing, a remarkable intensity started to emerge in the rehearsal room.  At one point, I was looking at our Sam (the very gifted Ryan Kuster) and I could swear he was holding back tears – wow, I thought – what a good actor!  I was getting a bit choked up.  When he walked off at the end of the duet, and sat down, I could see that the tears were real. He had allowed himself to get so involved in the text, and it was so natural to “live” in the text, that the character of Sam really took over.  It was a very powerful experience for all of us. Of course, one has to strike a balance on stage, and not get so involved in the emotional content that it makes it impossible to sing – but I was so excited that the simplicity with which we had set up the scene allowed Ryan to explore the emotional depth of the text and music.  The next challenge was to find that balance – accessing the emotional truth without letting it get in the way of the technical requirements of singing, but that is so much easier to do when the emotional heart of the material is so easy to access.

Now, when I watch this scene (as well as other parts of the opera), both Ryan and our fantastic Dinah, Maya Lahyani, just rip my heart out. They are so connected to the text because it is not a stretch for them to be these characters. Maya is Israeli, and in the beginning of the rehearsal process, I think she had her doubts about being such an “American” character – but what these characters are going through is so real, one need not be American to portray them or relate to them.  Ryan and Maya become Sam and Dinah. And I, as an audience member, am so connected to the text because it is not a stretch for me to see parts of myself in these characters as well.  When opera becomes so fully satisfying, I truly feel grateful to spend my days making singers cry!

~ Lawrence Edelson, Stage Director

(Set model by Martin T. Lopez)