Minnesota Opera hatches a political thriller: ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

It’s a story that won’t go away. It stays with us.

A former Korean War POW, Staff Sgt. Raymond Shaw, is brainwashed by Communists into becoming a political assassin, the potential killer of a presidential candidate. Since Shaw has no memory of having killed and therefore no guilt, he is the perfect assassin. He won’t ever be caught. But another former prisoner, Ben Marco, may know how to save him.

The story, of course, is fiction, the creation of Richard Condon in his 1959 novel “The Manchurian Candidate,” a satiric thriller that was released three years later as a film by John Frankheimer with Lawrence Harvey as Raymond and Frank Sinatra as Ben. A second film, directed by Jonathan Demme starring Liev Schreiber and Denzel Washington, was released in 2004. This second version, after a prologue in the first Persian Gulf War, unfolds at a time succinctly and scarily identified as “today,” meaning the age not of the Cold War but of terrorism.

And this week the story moves to the stage of the Ordway Music Theater: the premiere Saturday by Minnesota Opera of an operatic version of “The Manchurian Candidate.” The production is expected to be closely watched by critics and other opera companies. Partly it’s the allure of a famous title along with the promise of something new: an operatic thriller. “There are no real thrillers in opera,” said Rob Ainsley, the company’s head of music. “No one’s done this before.”

But what has really turned this into the season’s main event in opera around the country — engendering both curiosity and high expectation — is the fact that the work’s creators, composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for a work, “Silent Night,” that, like this one, was commissioned and premiered by Minnesota Opera.

Campbell has written nearly a dozen opera librettos along with lyrics for song cycles and musicals. But “Silent Night,” which enacts the famous “Christmas truce” during the first year of World War I, was the first opera by Puts, who has four symphonies and numerous chamber works to his credit. Given the complexities of opera composition, first operas are seldom so greatly honored. The question before the court of opinion: Can these two repeat their success?

“I think all these people want to see if I’m a fluke,” said Puts, laughing.

Frankenheimer film inspired Campbell

Campbell initiated the project. He had been thinking about a musical treatment of  “The Manchurian Candidate” ever since 1994, when he saw the Frankenheimer film.

“I thought this would make a great opera,” he said.

Mark Campbell
Courtesy of the Minnesota Opera
Mark Campbell

The political thrust of both the book and the first film is clear. Condon intended it as a satire on the Red scare of the 1950s. His character Sen. John Iselin, Raymond’s stepfather, is clearly modeled on Sen. Joe McCarthy. Prompted by his wife, Eleanor, Raymond’s mother and arguably the story’s main character, Iselin waves a list of “card-carrying Communists” at a Senate hearing and vows to “launch a formal investigation of atheism in the Department of Agriculture.”

Eleanor, played so memorably by Angela Lansbury, who received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal, is bent on a “holy crusade” to restore the country “back to its original purity.” She plots to have Raymond assassinate the Republican Party’s presidential candidate and to have her puppet, the perpetually inebriated Iselin, placed into the White House.

The perils of using paranoia in politics

“This is all very relevant today,” said Campbell during a recent lunch break at Minnesota Opera’s offices. “Look at Rudy Giuliani – he’s a moron – saying Obama doesn’t love America because his parents were communists or socialists – or something. It’s like you can still say that and people believe it? That’s what this opera is about. It’s about the perils of using paranoia in politics. We’re still affected by what McCarthy did. Plus with Eleanor you’ve got a tremendous operatic role, a real Lady Macbeth.”

In 2010 Campbell asked his agent to secure rights to the book for an opera. He passed on trying to get movie rights, which he said is something close to a nightmare. “Plus the book and the movie are so similar,” he said. Even so, he feared the book publisher, McGraw-Hill, and the Condon estate might be resistant. Instead, they were very cooperative. Condon’s daughter, Wendy Condon Jackson, plans to see the production on opening night, Campbell said.

In November 2011, just before “Silent Night” opened, Dale Johnson, artistic director at Minnesota Opera, impressed with that opera, invited Campbell and Puts to a meeting to hash out ideas for another commissioned work. Other staffers were present. “A lot of ideas were thrown around,” Campbell recalled. “You look for the idea that galvanizes. When I said ‘The Manchurian Candidate,’ everyone went ‘Wow!’ I could feel Kevin’s mind already start to work.”

Puts laughed. “Yeah, I went home that night and wrote it.” He, in fact, had seen both films. “The whole thing was exciting to me, the idea of a political thriller. Even the title is kind of exciting,” he said. “You don’t know what it means unless you know the story. And the idea of Eleanor as an operatic figure was incredibly exciting. Also, I liked the idea that you’re trying to solve a mystery. Something’s not right. That’s the feeling of the piece.”

Campbell wrote the libretto quickly. “Most of the story’s there,” he said. “I started with an outline, as I always do, and I just kept writing.” Campbell lives in New York City. Puts, who teaches composition at the Peabody Institute, lives in Yonkers. During the writing, the libretto being produced first, as is customary, there were emails and phone calls and occasional in-persons confabs.

“It’s interesting to get the libretto,” said Puts. “When Mark sent me the libretto of ‘Silent Night,’ I was so excited that my hands were shaking. But I also thought, ‘I have no idea what to write.’ But as soon as I went to the piano, I started thinking of the first scene, an opera house in Germany and an opera in the style of Mozart. Suddenly I knew what to do. I started singing lines that were classical in an Italian vein, and from there I just went from scene to scene. The same with the new opera.”

Changes for the opera

One change they made in “The Manchurian Candidate” was toning down the sex scene between Raymond and his mother. In the book Eleanor seduces Raymond, and we learn that she had been seduced by her father. In the first movie there’s a smoldering kiss and a fade-out. In the opera they simply kiss.

“I wanted to shock the audience,” Campbell said. “But I also thought that if Eleanor seduces Raymond early on, that’s so off-putting. The audience will think she’s disgusting and wouldn’t follow her at all. We also learn in that scene that she didn’t choose Raymond to be the assassin. The people in Korea chose him and brainwashed him in order to bind her to their cause. So there’s a moment when you think, ‘Boy, I feel kind of sorry for this really sick woman.’”

Kevin Puts
Courtesy of the Minnesota Opera
Kevin Puts

Raymond, too, becomes sympathetic in the opera. In the book and the films he’s a blank – unlikable and resentful. “In opera you have to increase the sympathy of characters,” said Campbell. “There has to be a reason for someone to sing. If a character is just one note, emotionally, you won’t be on his side. You won’t follow his story. Also, the text in an opera is only part of it. It’s really Kevin’s genius that made Raymond more sympathetic. We hear things in his music that I couldn’t write in words. You hear the sadness and pain in Raymond’s soul much more in the music than you do in the words.”

Puts’ score is a mix of idioms. An austere, ominous prelude leads to a bouncy, playful tone in the ladies’ garden club, wherein the American soldiers have been hypnotized. Thick, gnarly chords in the orchestra give way to a light-hearted tone in the manner of Lawrence Welk, cascading into a march in the style of John Philip Sousa.

“It all comes through my reaction to the libretto,” said Puts. “Raymond is holding on to hope, to Jocie, his girlfriend. Everything in music is about harmony, about collections of notes and how those collections move from chord to chord. You can encapsulate romance and sadness and anger in a short amount of time if the harmony’s right.”

Developed in workshops

Both were enthusiastic about the three workshops the company held last year during which the opera was staged, scene by scene, and rehearsed and examined in collaboration with the production’s director, Kevin Newbury, an experienced hand at new music theater.

“This is a nurturing environment,” said Puts. “I admire those composers who don’t do workshops and just drop off their scores and tell them to stage it. They must be better than I am because I can’t do it without having a look at it first and checking the pacing, which is so important. Just yesterday, we added four measures to a scene to make it go better.”

Campbell describes Puts as a “spectacular collaborator.”  Their relationship looks to be as amiable as it is productive. There was much laughter during the lunch.

     Campbell: “You know, we’ve never fought.”

     Puts: “Actually, Mark gets more fun by the year.”

     Campbell: “Or by the drink.”

The two will soon begin work on their next collaboration, an opera based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd, “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree,” to be premiered by Opera Philadelphia in 2017. Minnesota Opera will present two more works by Campbell: an operatic treatment with composer Paul Moravec of Stephen King’s “The Shining” to be premiered in May 2016, and in the following season a collaboration with William Bolcom on “Dinner at Eight,” the classic film comedy by Kaufmann and Ferber, based on a play by Sam Harri.

They’re hoping, of course, that “The Manchurian Candidate” will achieve the success earned by “Silent Night,” if not another Pulitzer, at least a similarly large number of productions around the country – eight, so far, with more under discussion. Campbell’s only regret, he said, is that the new opera won’t be recorded, either in video or audio. At least there are no plans to do so. In contrast, the production here of “Silent Night” was taped and broadcast on PBS two years ago.

Soprano Brenda Harris met with Lansbury

There was talk, too, of having a very special guest in the audience for opening night: Angela Lansbury. She is, however, at 89, touring in an acclaimed production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and so can’t make it. The dramatic soprano Brenda Harris, who is singing the role of  Eleanor here, visited Lansbury in January backstage at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, where “Blithe Spirit” was playing. Harris had written Lansbury a fan letter and asked if they could chat after a matinee.

“She was very nice and quite interested in learning that this story had become an opera,” said Harris. “We were there only about five minutes, my husband and I. She had another show to do that night.”

And finally, what would the creators of this new “Manchurian Candidate” like audiences to get out of seeing it?

“Just on the basic level of a good thriller, I hope they can love it that way,” said Campbell. “And if they go away with a lesson, we want them to go away with the lesson from ‘Silent Night,’ which is that peace is possible. But we’re not out to teach. We’re out to entertain.”

“The Manchurian Candidate: a Minnesota Opera production of a new work by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, directed by Kevin Newbury. 7:30 p.m. March 7, 12 and 14; 2 p.m. March 8 and 15. Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. $25-$200. 651-224-4222.

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