It seems appropriate that Bernard Herrmann’s opera “Wuthering Heights,” a work that the composer was obsessed with and yet never lived to see on the stage, will be performed next month in the Twin Cities. Herrmann, in fact, composed much of the opera in 1951 while staying at the Nicollet Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, where he was courting the woman who would become his second wife.
Known as one of the most innovative film composers of his day and for such revered scores as those for “Psycho” and “Citizen Kane,” Herrmann made the acquaintance here of Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor of the (then) Minneapolis Symphony. Mitropoulos provided the composer with studio space at WCCO radio, where Herrmann devoted 11 hours a day to the opera, which is based on the classic gothic romance by Emily Brontë.
Though Herrmann had been encouraged by friends such as Leopold Stokowski to write the opera — his first — he began it three years earlier in a troubled mental state. In letters to his first wife, Lucille Fletcher, who wrote the opera’s libretto, Herrmann described himself as a “drowning man” who must first “finish the opera. It is an obsession of mine. It will be enough to be remembered by one work, even if only in the history books.”
But the history books have been unkind, and the opera has been largely forgotten. Herrmann conducted a recording of the work in London in 1966, but by the time of his death, in 1975, no opera company had been willing to take a chance on it. The Portland Opera gave the work its premiere in 1982, and on April 16 at the Ordway Center in St. Paul Minnesota Opera will present a new staging of “Wuthering Heights” by Eric Simonson that will be filmed in HD to be shown in theaters around the world.
Richly romantic, passionate music
It’s odd that this opera should have sat so long on the shelf. Brontë’s tale of doomed love between Cathy and Heathcliff, set in the misty moors of England’s Yorkshire, has been perennially popular — the source of at least five film versions. And Herrmann’s score is anything but the exercise in rigorous abstraction that is supposed to be a turnoff for today’s opera audience. This is, in fact, richly romantic and passionate music, superbly orchestrated and full of lush vocal writing and what can only be called good tunes.
Herrmann’s idols, after all, weren’t the stern 20th-century Modernists but such ear-friendly composers as Frederick Delius and Ralph Vaughan Williams. So why is the opera largely unknown? Steven C. Smith gives one answer in his biography of Herrmann, “A Heart at Fire’s Center”: the composer’s’s own stubbornness. When Julius Rudel, then head of the New York City Opera, expressed an interest in producing the work, he asked for some changes in the score. Herrmann blew up. “I’m not gonna change a note,” he said in his most abrasive New York accent. The same thing happened when Kurt Herbert Adler wanted to mount the work at the San Francisco Opera. Others suggested that the opera, at three-and-a-half hours, was too long. Herrmann wouldn’t cut it. (The Minnesota Opera version will be 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission.)
While not denying Herrmann’s intransigence — or integrity, as some would have it — Simonson blames the opera companies of the day for not being venturesome enough.
“They weren’t producing a lot of new American works back then,” he said. “And let’s face it, at that time there was only the Chicago Lyric Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Met and the City Opera. There were only a limited number of places he could go, and I imagine he was caught up in his other projects. The opera had a good chance of being lost and forgotten. Give credit to Dale Johnson for unearthing it,” he said, referring to Minnesota Opera’s artistic director. “What we’re talking about with ‘Wuthering Heights’ is an underappreciated masterpiece, a lost gem that just needs a limelight shown on it.”
Events galore during centennial
The limelight is shining on more than just “Wuthering Heights,” as it turns out, this year being the centennial of Herrmann’s birth. Herrmann, the son of a Russian-Jewish optometrist, and his most frequent collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock, will be dissected in a three-day scholarly conference titled “Partners in Suspense” late this month at St. John University in York, England, a country that Herrmann loved and visited as often as he could. Herrmann’s early and seldom-performed cantata “Moby Dick” will be on the program at a festival in Sonoma County in California April 9 and 10. The Bernard Herrmann Society, founded in 2000, puts out a quarterly journal, “Echoes” with essays devoted to the composer, and Herrmann’s film scores continue to be released on CD. Even Lady Gaga has gotten into the act: The main title to “Vertigo,” one of the most favored Hitchcock-Herrmann collaborations, is featured in the pop star’s recent video “Born This Way.”
And as a prelude to next month’s production, Minnesota Opera will present two events, both at 7 p.m. The first — to be held Monday, March 28, at the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Av. S., a co-production of the MinnPost Book Club Club — will be a panel discussion on the subject “Wuthering Heights: Is This Love?” with Simonson, psychologist Sara Hoppe and Brontë scholar Diana Postlethwaite as participants and Sarah T. Williams as moderator. The second, April 4 at the Opera Center, 620 No. 1st St., will be a lecture by Bruce Crawford, a film historian whose two-and-a-half-hour radio documentary on Herrmann has become a National Public Radio Pledge Week staple ever since it was first produced for a radio station in Omaha in 1989.
Crawford’s enthusiasm for Herrmann and his music knows no bounds. “Mozart and Beethoven have nothing on Bernard Herrmann,” Crawford said by phone from his home in Omaha.
Crawford was just 5 when he first encountered Herrmann’s music. His parents had taken him to see “Mysterious Island,” the 1961 English film based on Jules Verne. He was impressed with the special effects by Ray Harryhausen, “but what really rocked my world,” he said, “was Bernard Herrmann’s music. I thought ‘Where does this music come from? I’ve got to get to know these people some day.” ‘
A remarkable phone call
At 16, he began a correspondence with Herrmann, having written to the composer at London Records, the label that was then putting out the Herrmann soundtracks. Later that year, 1974, came a surprise phone call on a Sunday morning. It was Herrmann calling from New York City. He had looked up the name Crawford in Nebraska City, Neb., where the family then lived.
“I thought it was a joke,” recalled Crawford. “He talked like a New York cab driver. He said ‘Why do you keep writing to me?’ ” They spoke a half-dozen times subsequently, and Herrmann died a year later, though Crawford also got to know Herrmann’s family, including his sister-in-law, Ruth, who is still living at 96.
Smith, the biographer, describes Herrmann in vivid terms: “explosive,” “paranoiac,” “insecure” and “his own worst enemy.” Burt Lancaster called Herrmann “the most difficult man I ever worked with” and “a genius.” “All that’s true,” said Crawford. “He was both belligerent and explosive and at the same time kind and thoughtful. He would never beat up on people who were weaker than he was, and he responded to genuine interest in his music, like mine.”
In Smith’s view, “Herrmann remains the most imitated and influential composer in film; yet despite his many innovations in the medium, he always insisted that he was not a ‘film composer’ but a composer who worked in film.” Indeed, during a career that spanned nearly 50 years, from 1929, when the 18-year-old Herrmann wrote his first work for large orchestra, “The Forest,” until 1975, when he composed his last film score, for “Taxi Driver,” Herrmann wrote a considerable amount of concert music, including chamber music, choral works and, in 1941, a symphony, which he dedicated to his first wife, Lucille. By the time he composed his first film score, for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” in 1941, he had racked up nearly a decade of work composing and conducting for network radio. He served as regular conductor of the CBS Symphony and he wrote the score for Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938 that scared half the nation. (That’s Herrmann, by the way, conducting the orchestra at Royal Albert Hall in the climactic scene of Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”) In later years Herrmann turned to television, contributing title themes for “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone” and other popular series.
‘A kind of emotional scenery’
Herrmann described movie music as “a kind of emotional scenery passing through a film,” adding that “it often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry.” The composer James Horner (“Titanic”) echoed the thought years later: “An audience may not notice that there is music there, but they will surely notice if it’s not.”
One of Herrmann’s hallmarks was his sensitivity to orchestration — unlike most film composers, he did his own orchestrations. They often involved unusual sounds: the shrieking strings in the famous shower scene of “Psycho,” an effect unprecedented in film at the time, or the ominous low woodwinds that open “Citizen Kane,” a device Herrmann repeats in the prelude to “Wuthering Heights” in a five-note theme that runs through the entire opera. For “Taxi Driver” he composed a jazz score, while for “Torn Curtain” he used the strange combination of 16 horns and 12 flutes. And right from the start of his film career, Herrmann wrote in short, atmospheric phrases, at a time — the early ’40s — when film composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner filled the soundtrack with almost continuous music in a largely Viennese style, a practice that actors sometimes resented. Said Bette Davis, “What that awful music does is erase the actor’s performance note by note.”
Gore Vidal recounts that during the shooting of “Dark Victory,” scored by Steiner, Davis walked half-way up the stairs, then turned to the director, Irving Rapper. “Now tell me, Irving, before I waste any more time on acting, who is going up the stairs to die, me or Max Steiner?”
Fletcher’s libretto for “Wuthering Heights, like the William Wyler movie of 1939 starring Laurence Olivier covers only the first half of Brontë’s novel. It ends with Cathy’s death. Among the many undercurrents to the story, the first-act duet makes it clear that Cathy and Heathcliff represent nature as against Christianity, as embodied in the character of Hindley, Cathy’s stern, repressed brother.
“Our production is going to focus heavily on that nature aspect,” said Simonson. “What they’re up against isn’t only religion but society in general. I don’t think it’s a mistake that they’re out in the wilderness. It’s two houses maybe a mile away from one another. One is very sort of refined and sticking to the rules of society, and the other, Wuthering Heights, is wild, on the verge of destruction. We’re trying to say that nature can go both ways. To some, nature is always good. If Heathcliff and Cathy could just get away from society and all its rules, their love will be pure, and they will be free to love on another. But there’s also a part of nature that’s destructive. Nature is a beautiful sunset, but it’s also a vicious rainstorm that you can get lost in. The love between Heathcliff and Cathy is nuclear-charged. They can send each other to the heavens, but they can also end up in hell. And I think Herrmann’s music really expresses that. In other words, like in the Hitchcock films, this isn’t just a love story.”
In Fletcher’s epilogue, set 20 years after Cathy’s death, Heathcliff sits in the same attic room as is seen in the prologue, tortured by the ghostly voice of Cathy crying, then he ventures out onto the moor. The Portland production, according to reports, brightened that up a bit. Instead Cathy watches Heathcliff die while their spirits become mimes who walk into the sunset and eternal happiness. Said Opera News, “This hokey solution is bad Brontë and bad Herrmann.”
Simonson thinks the problem is in the libretto itself. “The end of the opera is too long,” he said. “You can’t have a singer just wandering around for six minutes. Something is going to happen there, and I’m going to discover that in rehearsal. I don’t mind a downer ending as long as it’s honest. The ending where the lovers walk off together into the sunset is what happens in the Wyler film, too, but that was the producer’s doing. He took it away from Wyler. It looks as though they’re being united in heaven, and that’s not right.”
However the ending is staged, it’s possible that Minnesota Opera’s production of “Wuthering Heights” will signal not just a rebirth of interest in the opera that Herrmann anguished over and that he thought of as his major opus. It may encourage other film composers to try their hand at various forms of music theater and concert music, a trend that’s already apparent.
It wasn’t so long ago that writing film scores carried a stigma in the concert world, marking a composer as second-rate. “More corn than gold,” wrote critic Irving Kolodin of Korngold’s Violin Concerto, a work that is today a much-admired staple of the concert repertory. By now, however, the opposition between the worlds of film music and concert music seems dated. Both Andre Previn and Elliot Goldenthal have composed successful operas in recent years, and John Williams’ scores for “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters” have exerted a strong influence on the work of young concert composers. Bernard Herrmann was simply ahead of his time. Had he lived long enough to take his aisle seat at the Ordway April 16, he would surely be experiencing a dream come true.
“And it all began,” he might say to himself, “right across the river in Minneapolis.”
Michael Anthony, former longtime Star Tribune music critic, writes about classical music for MinnPost. He is the author of “Osmo Vänskä: Orchestra Builder.”
Upcoming “Wuthering Heights” events:
• “Wuthering Heights: Is This Love?“ a panel discussion with “Wuthering Heights” stage director Eric Simonson, psychologist Sarah Hoppe and Brontë scholar Diana Postlethwaite as participants and Sally Williams, moderator. 7 p.m. Monday, March 28, the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Av. S., Minneapolis.
• Film historian Bruce Crawford class/discussion, 7 p.m. April 4 at the Opera Center, 620 No. 1st St., Minneapolis.
• Bernard Herrmann Film Festival. Minnesota Opera and Take-Up Productions will present a five-week festival of films featuring scores by Bernard Herrmann, beginning April 1. Riverview and Trylon theaters.
• The Minnesota Opera production of “Wuthering Heights” opens April 16, with additional performances on April 17, 19, 21 and 23.