According to tradition, a bride’s wedding-day wardrobe includes items that are old, new, borrowed and blue. As it happens, those adjectives can also be applied to William Bolcom’s effervescent opera A Wedding, which the Music Academy of the West will stage next week at the Lobero Theatre.
Something old: The opera is based on a 1978 Robert Altman film about A Wedding that brings together members from two very different, if equally wealthy, families.
Something new: The piece premiered just four years ago at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, delighting audiences but dividing critics.
Something borrowed: In the course of the opera, Bolcom “creates precise pastiches of everything from Rossini to rockabilly,” in the words of New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.
Something blue: As an American-and a student of Darius Milhaud, one of the first composers to incorporate elements of jazz into classical music-Bolcom’s massive musical vocabulary also includes the blues.
“Some people thought A Wedding was a little too Broadway,” Bolcom noted in a recent interview. “There are some musical theater styles in there. But it certainly doesn’t reflect the Broadway of today, which I think is a rather bland place without much musical interest-although there are a few exceptions, such as Avenue Q.”
It follows that the 70-year-old composer would enjoy the irreverent puppet musical Avenue Q, since he has been breaking rules and challenging conventions his entire career. Known for his eclectic style, he has been guided by poet William Blake’s notion of blending opposites to form a transcendent whole. Indeed, his best-known work is his gigantic setting of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.”
Asked if Blake-whom he first read as a 17-year-old college freshman-gave him implicit permission to use a wide stylistic palate, Bolcom laughed. “I’ve taken permission, whether anybody gave it to me or not,” he said. “I just commandeered it!”
Only to discover that some of his most revered predecessors had done the same.
“Leonard Ratner [a composer and scholar Bolcom studied with at Stanford] talked about how Mozart would mix a learned style with popular dance and cantilena [lyrical melodic passages], to the point where it drove a lot of his contemporaries nuts!” he said. “He liked to find ways to make one phrase go in all those different directions. He was also dealing with the play of opposites-the conversation between styles.”
Bolcom’s intense love of Mozart was evident in his initial reaction to the movie A Wedding, which he saw shortly after it was released 30 years ago.
“I thought, ‘This is an American Marriage of Figaro,’” he recalled. “There is an implicit humanity to it. Nobody is a villain; nobody is laughed at. You understand them; you don’t judge them.”
While Bolcom immediately saw the material’s operatic potential, he didn’t follow up on the thought until 1990, when Altman staged the premiere production of Bolcom’s opera McTeague (also at the Lyric Opera of Chicago). Once the two men got to know one another, Bolcom brought up the idea, only to have Altman dismiss it. The producer/director had sold the rights to the film to Twentieth-Century Fox, and he advised the composer that getting permission would be a tremendous hassle.
Which, in fact, it was. But Bolcom’s agent kept pushing, and the film company (which initially insisted on retaining creative control of the project) eventually relented. Things fell into place after that: The Lyric was looking for a big, festive piece with which to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2004, and Altman decided he would be happy to direct it.
Working from John Considine’s screenplay, librettist Arnold Weinstein (Bolcom’s longtime collaborator) created a streamlined version of the somewhat unwieldy original, cutting the number of characters from 48 to 16. The remaining characters, some of whom are composites, “are fleshed out in a way you don’t get in the film,” said George Manahan, who is conducting the Music Academy production.
Of course, that is mainly due to the music, which both expresses their inner lives and reflects the society they inhabit.
“The bride’s father, who is something of a redneck, has a number that sounds like Elvis,” Manahan said. “His son, Dino, has a number that is marked ‘a la the Platters’ (the 1950s doo-wop group). The uptight [members of the bride’s family] have stricter music. It’s subtle enough that it’s not like painting a sign saying ‘Here comes the goofy guy.’ He can imitate and parody many styles, but his profile comes through in every measure of music. That’s the sign of a great composer.”
Violinist Philip Ficsor, a member of the Westmont College music faculty, knows exactly what Manahan means. Although not involved with this production, he knows Bolcom’s music well, having recorded all of his works for violin and piano.
“Although he writes many different types of music, it’s always Bolcom,” he said. “It’s like he speaks 12 languages. The craftsmanship is very high; there’s a real sense of fluidity and elan to his music.”
Chas Rader-Shieber, stage director of the Music Academy production, happened to be at the Lyric Opera working on a different show while rehearsals were underway for the world premiere. He left town before it opened, but notes that even if he had seen it, this production-in a far smaller venue would necessarily be much different.
“I told the cast on the first day, ‘This isn’t the movie,’” he said. “But there are parts of the idea of ‘movieness’ that we do want to embrace. One is we don’t want to stop and start the drama with blackouts or scene changes. It goes from place to place to place, with 10 different scenes per act. You want the forward motion of cinema. The other is we want to exploit the intimacy the Lobero Theatre provides. There’s something wonderful about being in a small house where you can really see facial expressions. The performances have the quality of film performances.”
So, in a way, this material is coming full circle-except that colorful music has taken the place of creative camera work. The eclectic score even includes a reference to French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose music has been heard all summer during this, his centennial year (and whom Bolcom knew as a young man).
“I’ve always been fascinated by the potential of any kind of musical language,” Bolcom said. “I like carrying on traditions, but I don’t like to be bound by them. I want them around, because without them, you lose the sense of where you are in the great scheme of things.”
A Wedding will be performed Fri., Aug. 8, at 7:30pm and Sun., Aug. 10, at 2:30pm, with an open dress rehearsal on Wed., Aug. 6, at 7:30 pm, at the Lobero Theatre. For tickets, call 969-8787 or visit musicacademy.org.