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Minnesota Opera’s latest: Bolcom, Campbell transform ‘Dinner at Eight’

“This opera arrives… at a time in this country when we’re all feeling very nervous, not unlike what the characters in this opera were feeling during the Great Depression.”

From left to right, “Dinner at Eight” librettist Mark Campbell, William Bolcom’s wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and composer William Bolcom.
Photo by Lu Zang

“Minnesota Opera happens to be the center of the universe, as far as I’m concerned,” said librettist Mark Campbell. “They do new things more often than most other companies, and they have a great audience that’s eager to see new opera.”

This isn’t hyperbole. The company’s well-funded New Works Initiative has given birth to a new opera — or the revival of an important recent work — every year since the program was launched in 2008, an achievement unmatched today by any other American company, according to Marc A. Scorco, president of the service organization Opera America.

Some of those new works may sit on the shelf after their premieres. However, one of them, “Silent Night,” with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Campbell, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012 and has since been presented by nine other companies, including the Wexford Festival in Ireland.

Depression-era comedy

Campbell’s latest, his fifth commission with Minnesota Opera, a collaboration with the composer William Bolcom, is an operatic treatment of “Dinner at Eight,” the Depression-era comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. It will open Saturday at the Ordway Music Theater.

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Bolcom, one of America’s most revered and prolific composers, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner and the creator of more than 300 works, from ragtime pieces to symphonies, expressed similar admiration for Minnesota Opera’s receptive audience. He recalled seeing “The Shining” at the Ordway last year, a work based on the Stephen King novel with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Campbell.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Bolcom said. “It was the third performance, and it was a full house. This is the only place I know of where new opera gets a full house. And people are waiting for the next one.

“A friend of ours, a singer who lives in Paris, said there are practically no opera houses in Europe these days doing new works. They’re all so scared about funding. I knew this would happen when I was a student in Paris in the late ’50s. Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, my God, isn’t it wonderful to have state support?’ I said, ‘You just wait. When that support goes, there will be nothing to back it up,’ and that’s exactly what’s happening.”

(It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but, according to artistic director Dale Johnson, Minnesota Opera will revive “Silent Night” in the fall of 2018 and “The Shining” during the 2019-20 season.)

“Dinner at Eight” tells of a dinner party put on by the wife of a once-successful and seriously ailing shipping magnate for a distinctly diverse collection of wealthy and desperate acquaintances, during the preparation for which nothing goes right. A critic described the play as “extremely amusing and thoroughly remorseless.”

The play was a hit on Broadway, running 232 performances in 1932. Ferber was a best-selling novelist. Kaufman was the most successful playwright and director of his era. (Their first collaboration, an even bigger hit in 1927, “The Royal Family,” is currently playing at the Guthrie Theater.) The classic film version came along just a year later with an all-star cast that included John and Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow and Wallace Berry.

Bolcom had been thinking about an operatic version of “Dinner at Eight” for some years and had discussed it with his long-time collaborator Arnold Weinstein. But Weinstein died in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009, when Bolcom met Campbell and the two of them wrote a one-act opera, “Lucrezia,” for the New York Festival of Song, that, finding they worked well together, they began to think of larger projects.

Impressed with the play (the film not so much)

When Bolcom suggested “Dinner at Eight,” Campbell read the play. He hadn’t much liked the movie. But the play impressed him. “There were so many different characters I could write text for,” he said. “It was a story about survival during the Depression. And I also wanted to work with Bill. This is a piece that allows him to do what he does better than anyone else, and that’s to explore his American sound. I don’t think anyone can write opera the way he does, by that I mean having an American inflection in the music.”

Dale Johnson, the company’s artistic director, liked the idea. “We hadn’t done any new comedies here,” he said. “Comedy is rare in contemporary opera. Plus, we had been wanting to do something with Bill.”

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They secured the rights to the play with surprising ease. Campbell’s agent, it turned out, knew Kaufman’s daughter, Anne, now in her ’90s. She controls the rights. They all met for lunch in New York City. “She’s such an admirer of Bill’s music,” Campbell said. “She said, ‘Everything’s fine. Go ahead.’ ”

A tight schedule

Campbell got to work right away. There wasn’t much time. The libretto had to be finished before Bolcom could start on the music. He wrote it in the spring of 2015, much of it in Minneapolis during rehearsals for “The Manchurian Candidate,” the opera he wrote with the composer Kevin Puts.

Campbell cut the play down some and combined a few of the characters. He couldn’t use the famous last line of the movie because the contract is for the play, not the movie. (Kitty, a dim gold-digger of easy virtue, remarks that robots will take over all our jobs in the future. Carlotta, a worldly actress, looks at Kitty’s crotch and says, “Honey, in your line of work, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”) Campbell wrote a new line for the ending.

Bolcom began composing the opera in May. In August Campbell, Johnson and two others who had signed on, the director Tomer Zvulun and the conductor, David Agler, flew to Bolcom’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he lives with his wife, the renowned mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. They came to hear what he had composed so far. (Bolcom taught composition at the University of Michigan from 1973 to his retirement in 2008.)

Bolcom finished the score in eight months. This is quick by any measure, except Bolcom’s. “I’m slower than I used to be,” he said during a lunch with Campbell at Minnesota Opera’s offices. Campbell objected. “Slow? I work with many composers. The slow version of you is faster than many 20-year-olds.” Bolcom gave a little ground. “Well, I think about a piece for quite a while before I write it. I work the thing out in my head first. Plus, in an opera, I write the song, the setting, the aria, from the character. If the character is well drawn, it’s a piece of cake.”

The composer John Corigliano said of Bolcom in 2008, “I envy Bill’s chops. He’s got such skills, such great compositional techniques. Music flows out of him the way it flowed from Mozart.”

The essence of collaboration

In conversation, Bolcom and Campbell seem to embody the essence of collaboration. Their talk is like an endless stream of thoughts and digressions. When they meet, they pick up right where they left off. Perhaps Kaufman, who worked with many of the best playwrights, had this level of rapport in mind when he described collaboration as “marriage without the sex.”

Campbell describes ”Dinner at Eight” as a serious play with comic moments. “That balance between light and dark was the hardest thing we had to achieve. And it can’t go real dark, even in the suicide scene.” (Larry Renault, a washed-up silent-screen actor, positions himself theatrically in his hotel room right before he turns on the gas.)

“There’s a strange kind of humor beneath that scene,” Bolcom said. “He’s arranging himself. It has to be just so.” “He’s turning his death into a photo-op,” said Campbell.

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Opera or musical?

The other kind of balance they’ve had to consider is stylistic. Is “Dinner at Eight” an opera or a musical? Audiences on Saturday night will find it has elements of both. “Casino Paradise,” a theater work of Bolcom’s that premiered in 1990 was described as a musical with operatic overtones. Perhaps “Dinner at Eight” is an opera with overtones of a musical.

Photo by Lu Zang
A scene from the orchestra workshop for “Dinner at Eight”

Both Campbell and Bolcom accept that description, though Campbell made it clear early in the collaboration that he wouldn’t be writing conventional lyrics for show tunes, that this is definitely an opera. But there’s an element in the work, too, Bolcom said, of the Broadway musical comedies of the late ‘20s and ‘30s, of Rodgers & Hart and especially of Irving Berlin.

“All the great songwriters turned to Berlin to learn how to set words to music in an American style,” Bolcom said.

Speaking of Irving Berlin in the context of opera shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Bolcom’s music. As a protégé – and as Bolcom has said, a spiritual son — of the French composer Darius Milhaud, who incorporated all sorts of ethnic and vernacular elements into his music, Bolcom has been a serious explorer of American pop forms, from ragtime to Cole Porter. He and Morris, the “dream team of American popular song,” as they have been called, have been recording and performing popular and semi-classical material for more than 40 years.

Bolcom’s goal of erasing boundaries between popular and art music has been reflected in much of his music – among them his eight symphonies and 12 string quartets – but most impressively in his magnum opus, his three-hour setting of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” performed here memorably in 2007 by VocalEssence under the direction of Philip Brunelle as part of that organization’s weeklong “Illuminating Bolcom” festival.

Awards pile up

Such diversity branded the Seattle-born Bolcom as a maverick. But as the awards pile up – two Grammys, the National Medal of the Arts, Composer of the Year – Bolcom, at 78, appears to have entered the mainstream. (Or is it that the mainstream came to him?) It seems significant that at least one generation of younger theater composers – Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, Andrew Lippa, Jason Robert Brown – compose works that have elements of both opera and the musical.

Though Bolcom still composes at a heady pace, he walks more slowly than he used to – and with a limp – the result of a fall he suffered in his back yard two years ago. He broke eight ribs and dislocated a bone in his left hand. Prior to this were six operations for arthritis (“which I inherited from my sacred mother”) and a case of carpel tunnel syndrome. 

Bolcom recently finished writing a sextet for Chamber Music Northwest and is working on a horn trio. He and Morris played one of their popular music concerts in New York City in December. According to Morris they have some bookings in September. Neither of them wants to tour as often as they used to. They say they’re winding down.

“We’ve been doing this for 40 years, and now it’s done,” Bolcom said. “The point is we did what we wanted to do. We had a following, and I’m amazed that it still seems to be there, though we’ve never been bold-face-type people.”

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Asked what he would like audiences to get out of “Dinner at Eight,” he said, “I want them to be moved and entertained. And be glad that they came. That’s enough.”

For Campbell, projects galore

The prolific Campbell has projects galore. Among them, “The ®evolution of Steve Jobs,” with music by John Musto, opens in July at the Santa Fe Opera, and a chamber opera, “Elizabeth Cree,” with music by Kevin Puts, will be premiered by Opera Philadelphia in September. Another commission from Minnesota Opera has been agreed upon but can’t yet be announced, he said.

Campbell offered a final thought on “Dinner at Eight.”

“This opera arrives – perversely, and we did not forget this – at a time in this country when we’re all feeling very nervous, not unlike what the characters in this opera were feeling during the Great Depression.

“What do we learn? We learn that small talk still goes on, that people have to eat, that infidelity goes on, and that people die, no matter what was going on in the horrible world they lived in, a world that was falling apart in front of them — just as, for me, in the world that I live in, that is falling apart because of Trump and the government, we still can be civil with each other. So it’s not a heavy message. It’s a light message.”

“Dinner at Eight”: A Minnesota Opera production of a new work by composer William Bolcom and librettist Marc Campbell. 7:30 p.m. on March 11, 16 and 18; 2 p.m. on March 19. Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Tickets: $25-$200. 612-333-6669.