Saturday night we opened our production of Bernard Herrmann’s only opera, Wuthering Heights. Below we have included an article about it from Friday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.
What is cinematic, and what is operatic? To some ears, a lot of Puccini sounds cinematic even though he died in 1924, three years before the movie The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talking picture. So when someone in attendance says that Wuthering Heights sounds “very cinematic” we might just respond, “yes, just like Puccini.” Herrmann completed Wuthering Heights in 1951, a few years prior to the beginning of his great collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. And for his 1941 score for Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane Herrmann composed an aria to be sung by the trophy second wife of lead character John Foster Kane. Kane pushes her to become an opera singer, a career option not suited for her due to a lack of talent and ambition. She sings Herrmann’s aria badly. Here it is a link to it being sung well, by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzWX59Nvimw So is this Te Kanawa being cinematic? Or Herrmann being operatic? Both? Neither?
Let us know what you think.
The Twin Cities is where Bernard Herrmann composed much of his only opera, Wuthering Heights.
His first wife, Lucille Fletcher (Lucy I), was an accomplished writer and penned the Wuthering Heights libretto. They met in New York while both worked at CBS, Herrmann the chief conductor of the CBS Symphony, and married in 1939. However, the marriage soured in part because of Herrmann’s relationship with Kathy Lucille Anderson (Lucy II). And here’s where it gets complicated. Herrmann and Fletcher divorced in 1948 and he headed for Minneapolis, where Lucy II was living. While here, Dimitri Mitropoulos arranged for a studio at WCCO Radio where Herrmann composed Wuthering Heights, at one point saying it would be his greatest artistic achievement. Mitropoulos and Herrmann were friends and Mitropoulos was in town as the Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now Minnesota Orchestra). So while in Minneapolis, Herrmann was setting to music Lucy I’s libretto while he was spending time with Lucy II. Writing a gothic romance opera, Bernard Herrmann was living one himself. Lucy II was also the cousin of Lucy I, ten years her junior.
Lucy II and Herrmann married in 1949, a relationship that lasted until 1964. His breakup with Lucy II roughly coincided with his split with Alfred Hitchcock.
Composer Bernard Herrmann and film director Alfred Hitchcock had perhaps the most prolific composer-director collaboration in Hollywood history, teaming to create: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1957), North By Northwest (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964) and Torn Curtain (1966).
According to Herrmann expert Bruce Crawford, Herrmann was the first composer to stand his ground with the powerhouse director, often disregarding Hitchcock’s specific instructions for the music. For Psycho, Hitchcock had insisted the shower murder scene be done in complete silence. Herrmann ignored the directive and composed the shrieking violins that have become emblematic of the movie. When asked later how much of the success of Psycho was due to the music, Hitchcock replied, “33 and one third per cent,” a droll compliment to Herrmann and a reference to the RPM speed of an LP record. The Psycho score contains only string instruments because that is all they could afford. The total budget for the film was $800,000. And yes, black and white film is cheaper than color.
Both men had large personalities that inevitably clashed. Still, at the heart of their relationship was a profound respect. Their collaboration ended when Hitchcock was pressured by Hollywood to be less old-fashioned as the social changes of the 1960s unfolded. He fired Herrmann (but paid his full fee) for not getting hip with the times, as Herrmann continued to compose for a symphony orchestra instead of a 60s pop ensemble. In response, Herrmann chided Hitch for trying to be something he wasn’t. So Bernard Herrmann, the friend of Paul McCartney and an innovator of electronic music, parted company with Alfred Hitchcock over aesthetics.
On a more personal note, Herrmann’s second wife, Lucille Anderson (Lucy II), told Bruce Crawford the story of a dinner party she hosted that was attended by Hitchcock and his spouse. While Lucille was trying to make Hitchcock a daiquiri her blender broke, ruining the frozen concoction for the legendary director. She was very embarrassed and fixed him something else. The next day a large limousine pulled into the driveway of the Herrmann Hollywood home and stopped. Alfred Hitchcock popped out, and handed Lucille a new blender.
Bernard Herrmann wrote the original theme music for the TV show The Twilight Zone. He also wrote music for a few episodes in the first season, music that was recycled in subsequent seasons.
Although he was a classically trained composer and symphony orchestra conductor, Herrmann’s orchestrations went far beyond what you’d normally hear in Carnegie Hall. For instance, he is credited as the first person to include a theremin in the orchestration of a movie score. He did so for a 1951 science fiction film, creating the convention that when you hear a theremin you think about zombies or invaders from outer space (or the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations”). He had a gift for expressing the creepy, which endeared him to his long-time collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock.
Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, idolized radio dramatist Norman Corwyn. Our director for Wuthering Heights, Eric Simonson, won an Oscar in 2006 for his documentary short film about Norman Corwyn’s VE Day radio broadcast On a Note of Triumph, a program heard by 60 million Americans. And, in a The Twilight Zone-like coincidence, Bernard Herrmann wrote the music for On a Note of Triumph.
Paul McCartney and composer Bernard Herrmann were friends.
In fact, the staccato cello in the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” came directly from Herrmann’s scores for the movies Psycho and Fahrenheit 451. This is according to several interviews with McCartney and the Beatles’ producer, Sir George Martin. Then when McCartney was asked to score a movie he called Bernard Herrmann for help. As a thank you, Paul McCartney gave Herrmann a painting by Marc Chagall.
Hello! This is resident artist Michael Nyby updating after our final run-through of Casanova’s Homecoming before we go into production week. This opera was a challenge musically, but the end result is going to be well worth the effort. When I first received my score, I spent some time reading through the text and laughed out loud on several occasions. Now that I’ve had the chance to see the entire production come together, I can honestly say that this is one of the most hilarious operas I have ever encountered. Argento wrote both the music and the libretto, a feat only a few composers have dared, and with a few exceptions, many of whom ended up with rather middling to woefully poor results. Casanova on the other hand has a delightfully funny libretto in which the text never becomes subservient to the music nor vice versa. It boggles the mind that this opera hasn’t been produced more than three times since the original premiere twenty-five years ago. I hope this time around it is again well-received and more productions are mounted elsewhere; this work certainly deserves it. I hate to sound like an advertisement, but I really love this opera!
This week we start production on resident composer Dominick Argento’s Casanova’s Homecoming. It is a wildly difficult, but wildly funny opera that features many local singers, but welcomes many beloved guest artists, as well.
But do not think that between The Pearl Fishers and Casanova’s Homecoming we have just been sitting around!
Besides everyone hurriedly getting ready for Casanova, the resident artists have been involved with many events. A few weeks ago we put on a very successful Cabaret dinner party in which we performed not only opera, but pop, musical theater, and Spanish music. The event was a great success and there were many new faces in the crowd. So hopefully we have gained some new fans to the opera world. Last night, the head of music, Mary Dibbern, resident artist, Mike Nyby, and I sang at the Minneapolis Institute for the Arts. The museum held the opening gala for the touring Louvre exhibit. Something definitely worth seeing.
As you can see, among the productions that we put on at The Minnesota Opera, we have many events, too. Up next weekend, some of the cast of Casanova’s Homecoming and I will be taking part in the Rochester Aria Group concert in Rochester, MN. The events are just as important to building the support and love for opera as putting on opera themselves. Hope to see you at not only the operas, but at some events, as well!
MN Opera resident artist Michael Nyby here, updating from the intermission of our penultimate performance of the Pearl Fishers. If any readers are coming to our last performance on Sunday, come to the Ordway an hour prior to curtain to watch the Opera Insights presentation, hosted by Mary Dibbern, our marvelous head of music and featuring the vocal stylings of myself and fellow resident artists Naomi Isabel Ruiz and Brad Benoit. Before each performance we sing a few excerpts from the opera and Mary gives a short but very informative and entertaining talk about the opera’s genesis. Hope to see you there!
The season opened with great success, well received by audiences and critics alike. The deluge of promotions for The Pearl Fishers not only helped make for a great opening night, but let the public take part in the process of the artists putting the show together, ranging from the witty discussions of Zandra Rhodes design process at a Vita.mn sponsored event to the singing artist singing all over town for many social events to making commercials!
The opening night gala was a huge success, too, as the four Resident Artists males sang their hearts out in renditions of Unchained Melody and My Way, waggishly in the manner of a certain all male opera group.
Yes, the season has opened, but the work has just begun. We have already started work on the comical Casanova’s Homecoming and are looking forward to putting that production together with so many Twin City locals and favorites!
Catch Pearl Fisher if you haven’t yet!!
Good evening readers! Resident artist Michael Nyby here, updating from the first Pearl Fishers orchestra run at the Ordway. I’ve always felt that opera is best viewed from the balcony, where one can best assimilate the full visual and auditory value of a production. As viewed from seat 28 of balcony row 2, this is quite a visually striking production. Anyone familiar with the design of Zandra Rhodes would not be surprised.
Along a similar vein, I am always fascinated by the transformation of voices once a production enters the performance space. Sure, all the soloists sound good in the small rehearsal spaces, but the acoustics of a well-designed performance hall have a way of adding a richness and warmth to the voice, and the design of the Ordway makes excellent use of this effect. The design is essentially that of the classic European opera house–tall, shallow, and steep–as opposed to the wider, deeper design of many North American houses. The classic design was tailor made for opera, whereas the larger American houses were often built as multi-use venues, where the unique acoustical requirements of the human voice tend to take a backseat to economic efficiency of design. With that in mind, the Minnesota Opera and the residents of the Twin Cities are fortunate to have such a wonderful space for opera. I’m excited to observe the onstage experience firsthand when I sing my role in Casanova’s Homecoming in November!