About this Recording
8.669020-21 - HAGEN, D.: Shining Brow [Opera] (Orth, Harris, Frankenberry, Buffalo Philharmonic, Falletta)
English 

Daron Hagen (b 1961)
Shining Brow

 

Frank Lloyd Wright - Robert Orth, Baritone
Mamah Cheney - Brenda Harris, Soprano
Louis Sullivan - Robert Frankenberry, Tenor
Edwin Cheney - Matthew Curran, Bass-baritone
Catherine Wright - Elaine Valby, Mezzo-soprano
Maid / Townswoman 3 - Gilda Lyons, Soprano
Julian Carlton / Waiter / Reporter 3 / Workman 4 - Elem Eley, Baritone
Workman 1 / Guest / Photographer / Last Draftsman - James Demler, Baritone
Wife / Townswoman 1 - Jennifer Lynn Reckamp, Soprano
Draftsman / Workman 2 / Reporter 2 - Tony Barton, Tenor
Townswoman 2 / Wife - Deborah Fleischer, Soprano
Reporter 1 / Workman 3 / Workman 5 - Eric Fleischer, Tenor


Creating Shining Brow

My reflexive response, when asked, one July afternoon in 1989, by Roland Johnson of the Madison Opera, who I wanted to serve as my librettist for an opera they were interested in commissioning about Frank Lloyd Wright, was Paul Muldoon. Back then, the only way you could reach someone at the MacDowell Colony was by way of two telephone booths in Colony Hall, where Paul was seated, a few feet away, reading the newspaper. I leaned out of the booth and asked, ‘Say, Paul, how would you like to write an opera together?’

We read everything we could about Wright before reconvening, a few months later, to write together a filmic treatment, which ran perhaps a dozen pages and determined what would happen in each scene. I then planned out how long each scene would last, and the sort of musical form I thought would work best to underpin the action of that scene. Giving my notes to Paul, I asked him to create a number of core images and literary motifs that I could then graft to musical ideas, along with some ‘parallel’ poems for related characters, so that when I shared their music, the words would be easier to adapt. At one point I needed a straightforward hymn.

Paul’s libretto in hand, over the course of eight weeks at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts that winter, I composed the music for the first act. I began then the process I have happily adhered to ever since: I retyped and reformatted the libretto to reflect what I intended to do to it musically, storyboarded it on the wall, and illuminated it with various colored pens and pencils—red for one character, blue for another, orange for another; musical / poetic themes and motives that I wanted to ‘track’ also got colors. Standing with a glass of wine and dreaming on the entire act is as close as I’m likely ever get to understanding how a painter must feel working on a mural. A real sense of the pallet of ideas at hand is literally rendered in the colors arrayed on the storyboard.

I composed the most important bits first, beginning with the last three minutes; then the music that would be associated with the four or five most important dramatic spots (the ‘emotional nuclear reactors’) in the act; after that, I wrote the connective sections, which could and should be the least musically interesting. Each character existed in a ‘home’ key: Wright in B-flat major; Mamah in E major; Edwin and Sullivan in A minor; Catherine in C major. Our lovers’ keys were associated, of course, by the tri-tone, the ‘forbidden’ interval that Leonard Bernstein had used to such advantage in organizing West Side Story.

When it was done, I played and sang it for Paul, who then went off to write the libretto for the second act. Here’s a page from my diary from 16 February, 1991: ’I’ll base Act Two, scene two, a cocktail party which spotlights a sequence of gossiping couples, a set of variations—everything said is about Wright and how he affects others—on the waltz from Der Rosenkavalier introduced over the previous barbershop quartet by an onstage piano trio hired to entertain at the party. This will manifest several of the core themes of our opera (including the ‘borrowing’ versus ‘purloining’ argument & the union of the so-called ‘high’ culture of opera and the ‘low’ culture of barbershop) by musically ‘stealing’ from Strauss and doing variations on his theme, just as our Wright is building upon the achievements and ideas of Sullivan; furthermore, Wright will be observed in the act of seducing someone else’s wife in front of his own mistress to the strains of this ‘stolen’ music.’

Second acts are tougher to write than first acts. Whereas the first act I had written entirely without guidance, the second act I wrote at home in New York and took several times to meetings with Bernstein. Our ritual: a glass of Ballantine’s together, a round or two of anagrams, the London Times crossword (which he would do left to right, in rows, in the time it took him to write the letters), some light gossip, and then I would sit down at the piano and play for him one of his ‘Anniversaries,’ which I had memorized for the occasion. At last, I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He’d become tough, all business, focused like a laser beam, speed over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.

‘Okay, baby,’ he’d begin. ‘Try this.’ He would wheeze a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he’d stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the manuscript, find something, and say, ‘Or you could have used this from before, like this.’ He’d play a few bars. ‘No, that wouldn’t work.’ I’d improvise a different line reading. ‘No, no, you can’t do that!’ he would laugh, ‘Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?’ He’d noodle a few bars. ‘No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God.’ Then we would both laugh.

During Wright’s Act One, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the ‘New York, New York’ motive that he had first used in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, ‘suburbia,’ ‘Nice lift,’ he said, ‘very Strauss. But you follow it up with this stuff that sounds like Ned’s little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahitior did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. I know you’re trying to talk about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there.’ At some point he figured out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him. He was flattered: ‘That’s ‘Maria,’ no, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,’ he thought out loud. ‘Well, yes, I stole it from Marc. But he stole it from Aaron!’

Around this time, Paul and I spent a week at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Especially helpful in my portrayal of Wright in the second act were the insights that Wright protégés Edgar Tafel and Richard Carney shared with me. In the beautiful recital hall there, Paul read some of his libretto aloud, and I played and sang several arias from the opera-in-progress for the Taliesin Fellowship. I was privileged to stay for a few nights at Taliesin in Spring Green during the fall of 1991, to dine with the apprentices, and to attend a cocktail party in the same room in which Paul and I had set our fictional one. Did I feel Wright’s presence? I did—as strongly as, a few months later I felt Bernstein’s, when Brow was workshopped after his death at his home in the Dakota. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I think I felt in both places as ‘some essence quorum of [their] souls’ intensities.’

After the company accepted the opera, it was time to choose a stage director. I suggested a young writer named Stephen Wadsworth. Bernstein had described to me how Stephen had just helped him to flesh out and extend his one act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, into a two act opera called A Quiet Place—a tricky, thankless job. Stephen masterminded a beautiful, heart-rending first production of Shining Brow which was as much a memorial to Lenny as a meditation on the career and life choices of a famous architect.

Six months of orchestrating—some in New York, the rest at Yaddo. Production. And then it went up: I remember standing during a performance at what is called ‘the rail’ of the house, behind the audience, where the authors traditionally are allowed to pace, fret, enjoy and suffer, performances of their work, with Stephen, as the tragic finale unfolded.

Stephen said, ‘Look!’
‘Eh?’ I said.
‘Look at them,’ he said, sweeping a hand over the audience, who were experiencing the last few minutes of the opera. ‘They’re all weeping.’
‘Yes, that’s where we want them,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s where they want to be. You did that. I did that. Paul did it. The performers did it. Communion. We all did it. Together.’

© Daron Hagen
September 2008, New York City.

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Synopsis

Act I: Prologue
The Cliff Dwellers’ Club, Chicago, 1903. Architect Louis Sullivan, erstwhile mentor and friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, sits alone. He has been drinking all afternoon. He muses on his estrangement from Wright, who was once a “pencil in my hand.” The estrangement has cost Sullivan dear.

Act I, Scene 1
Wright’s office, Oak Park, Illinois, 1903. Wright brings prospective clients Edwin and Mamah Cheney into his busy studio. He enthusiastically outlines his plans for their house. He and Mamah are clearly taken with one another; Edwin is leery of the cost of the house. Shortly after the Cheneys depart, Wright’s staff leaves for the day. Wright’s reverie about Mamah is interrupted by his wife, Catherine, who in frustration, and with some bitterness, urges him to come home to his family. But he is preoccupied and distant, so there can be little real communication between them. After Catherine leaves, Wright’s thoughts return to the Cheneys. At the same time Sullivan, visible at the Club, reflects again on his falling out with Wright.

Act I, Scene 2
The Cheney construction site, six months later. As workmen begin their day, several townswomen discuss the rumored affair between Wright and Mamah Cheney. Edwin comes to inspect the progress of the building and realizes that as his house is being built his marriage is being destroyed. Wright and Mamah appear, exchanging intimacies, and are surprised by Edwin. Mamah and Edwin clash, and she announces her intention to leave him. Edwin is crushed, Mamah determined to throw off the chains of a conventional marriage. Wright urges Mamah to escape with him “to make our mark on the well-worn slate of Europe.” They leave Edwin inside the four open walls of the half-built house.

Act I, Scene 3
Mamah’s apartment in Berlin, 1910. Mamah has for several years been working on translations of German and Swedish literature. As she translates some verses from German (the “Hymn to Nature”) Mamah thinks about Wright, who is away at work in Italy. She comes to terms with her strongly ambivalent feelings about her life with Wright, recognizing, despite her love for him, that her dream of an equal partnership with him must remain a dream; his hunger for wealth and fame will always eclipse her. For all the romance of rejecting her conventional former life she has ended up, like Catherine before her, waiting on Wright. Sullivan, still brooding in the Club, echo’s her disappointment in Wright.

Act II, Scene 1
Taliesin, Spring Green, Christmas, 1911. Wright, with Mamah at his side, greets a crowd of reporters, photographers, and townspeople at a Christmas Morning Press Conference in his living room. He delivers a prepared statement attempting to explain his living out of wedlock with Mamah while still married to Catherine (who will not grant him a divorce). His audience seems unconvinced that “the artist must take a harder, higher road.” When Mamah and Wright speak privately, it is clear that she is dissatisfied with the imbalances in their life together, though he doesn’t really seem to hear her.

Act II, Scene 2
Taliesin, Summer, 1914. At a party hosted by Wright and Mamah, her children play among the guests, employees and neighbors of Wright’s who express a variety of opinions about his worth as a man and as an artist. Mamah realizes incontrovertibly that she and Wright are living separate lives; they are not the picture of connubial bliss they seem.

Act II, Scene 3
The Cliff Dwellers’ Club, later that summer. Wright visits Sullivan, apparently hoping for reconciliation. Their conversation is at first strained and indirect. Ultimately neither is able to reach out successfully to the other; it is hard for Sullivan to let down his guard. Edwin Cheney enters with a telegram: Taliesin has been destroyed by fire. Wright is stunned; Edwin hauls him off to catch a train to Spring Green. Alone, Sullivan cries out in anguish—he seems to feel Wright’s loss, as well as the loss of Wright.

Act II, Scene 4
The ruins of Taliesin, deep in that night. There is great despair. The dead are laid out on the ground. The victims are seven in number, including three employees, the child of one, Mamah’s two children, and Mamah herself. Some died in the fire; the latter three were hatcheted to death by the man who started the fire, Julian Carleton, Wright’s chef, who is missing. Edwin takes away the bodies of his children; Wright bids him a contrite farewell and mourns Mamah. The Maid, in hysteria, announces that the Chef has been found, his throat burned from drinking hydrochloric acid. Wright finds a a paper in his coat with Mamah’s translation of the “Hymn to Nature”: “She sweeps us off our feet, and dances round and round, then flings us back, exhausted, on the muddy ground.” Wright imagines rebuilding Taliesin in Mamah’s memory.

 

Stephen Wadsworth


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