Trouble in Tahiti
Trouble in Tahiti is a one-act opera in seven scenes composed by Leonard Bernstein with an English libretto by the composer, dedicated to Marc Blitzstein. It is the darkest among Bernstein's "musicals", and the only one for which he wrote the words as well as the music. The opera received its first performance on 12 June 1952 at Bernstein's Festival of the Creative Arts on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts to an audience of nearly 3,000 people. The NBC Opera Theatre subsequently presented the opera on television in November 1952, a production which marked mezzo-soprano Beverly Wolff's professional debut in the role of Dinah. Wolff later reprised the role in the New York City Opera's first staging of the work in 1958. The original work is about 40 minutes long.
Musically, Bernstein utilizes many of the styles he is most recognized for. The heroine's first aria has a wistful melancholy reminiscent of Aaron Copland's earlier vernacular works and of Bernstein's later writing in West Side Story, while the jazzy interludes harken back to the score Bernstein wrote for On the Town.
Bernstein tried to make his opera as real as possible. He wanted everything about it to be believable. He even went to great lengths to write in language that would be heard in everyday speech during that time. “All the music [in Trouble in Tahiti] derives from American vernacular roots, as do the words. And the words are very carefully set so that they will sound in the American cadence and with the American kind of syncopated, almost slurred quality”
While it was rumored that the troubled young couple was based on Leonard Bernstein himself and his new bride, Felicia Monteleagre -- he was working on the work during his honeymoon -- there is another, perhaps more plausible, theory that the story is based on the relationship of Bernstein’s own mother and father. There is a third, perhaps yet more plausable theory, that the opera is not based on any specific couple. Bernstein was influenced by his parents, to be sure, but it isn't treating him as an artist to say that he was basing his opera on his his own marriage, his parents', or anyone else's. The work isn't even about marriage, which is only one of several themes.
The work contains a strong attack on American suburbia. Although "Trouble in Tahiti" is a movie that the characters Sam and Dinah see -- Dinah sees it twice -- the title is also applicable to the life depicted in the opera. It should be Tahiti-like, that sun-kissed suburban life, with the neighborly butchers and parks for the kids. In fact it isn't. There's trouble. Trouble in Tahiti. Indeed.
The opera is frequently performed with minimal scenery and very simple costumes. There are only two singers, a married couple named Sam and Dinah. Their son, Junior, is often referred to but is never seen or heard. Other characters--Sam's secretary Miss Brown, Dinah's psychotherapist--are addressed in certain scenes but also are never seen or heard. Sam talks to two men by telephone.
Trouble in Tahiti is the story of one day in the life of these desperately unhappy, though married people, lonely, longing for love, and unable to communicate. At the end of the opera, Sam and Dinah show a willingness to sacrifice for each other, out of commitment to the marriage, though there's not much pleasure to be had. A copyright is held for an alternate ending by Bernstein, which has not been released.
The opera also uses a scat singing jazz trio, whose role is important. Bernstein refers to them as "A Greek chorus born of the radio commercial". It's no accident they sing like a radio commercial: that was the happiest type of music that existed. The trio opens the work singing the glories of Su-bur-bi-a, using the same pattern - c, f, g, c' - as in the line "New York, New York" from the earlier On the Town. The sun wakens the couple, kindles their love, kisses the windows, kisses the walls, kisses the doorknob and the "pretty red roof," kisses the flagstones on the front lawn, the paper at the front door, the roses around the front door of "the little white house" in Scarsdale (New York), Wellesley Hills (Massachusetts), Ozone Park (New York), Highland Park (Michigan), Shaker Heights (Ohio), Michigan Park (a white enclave in black Washington, D.C.), and Beverly Hills (California) - all upper-middle-class, white suburbs where people lived who had "made it," who had gotten "out of the hubbub". "Have a good day in the city today. Joy to your labors, until you return." The viewer is about to witness a day in the life of an idyllic couple living there. "Skiddly-day, skiddly-day. Ready, boom."
In the middle of the opening, one member of the trio sings a stanza of nonsense, then sings it again - the same nonsense - accompanied by a solo jazz clarinet.
The trio appears several times later. In an Interlude, they speak well of how possessions contribute to the "wonderful life": up-to-date kitchen, washing machine, colorful bathrooms, Life magazine, Sheridan sofa, Chippendale chair, bone chinaware, real solid silver, two-door sedan and convertible coupe - "Who could ask heaven for anything more?" Their "sweet little son" seems another one of the possessions: "family picture, second to none".
The critique of contemporary American society
The dedication to the leftist Marc Blitzstein was no accident. Blitzstein and Bernstein were good friends, fellow students at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, from the same type of Jewish family. Bernstein had produced one production of Blitzstein's most famous work, The Cradle Will Rock.
Bernstein, like Blitzstein before him, is skewering American capitalist society. Life as U.S. capitalism prescribes it - in suburbia, in one's own house, full of one's possessions - produces misery and isolation. Home and work are separated. Competition, not love, rules the day. Community - the neighbors - you see on Sunday only (and presumably only the men are interacting, as the Sunday activity is playing golf). The man runs for his train, going to the city to work; the woman stays home. Who you know is important (Bill, who gets the loan, also belongs to Sam's handball club); money gives power gives happiness (Sam's thrill at turning down Mr. Partridge). Culture you get on TV or from the Book-of-the-Month club. Sex is something a man does with his secretary, or wants to, not something a husband and wife engage in (though they must have done it once). Escapist, false entertainment ("Island Magic") helps make life endurable.
The result is pitiful. Sam and Dinah want to love each other, to learn how to love again, to tear down the walls between them, to care for their child, but they don't know how. They don't even know where to start. They can't talk, can't express their feelings. The only note of cautious optimism comes from Dinah's psychoanalysis (dream).
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 12 June 1952
(Conductor: Leonard Bernstein)
|Sam, a businessman||baritone||David Atkinson|
|Dinah, his wife||mezzo-soprano||Nell Tangeman|
|1st trio member||soprano||Constance Brigham|
|2nd trio member||tenor||Robert Kole|
|3rd trio member||baritone||Claude Heater|
Prelude – A smiling jazz Trio sings of perfect life in an affluent, unnamed suburban town, with its little white houses and happy, loving families ("Mornin' Sun"). The town could be anywhere; many names are mentioned.
Scene I – Real life in suburbia contrasts greatly with what the Trio has painted. Sam and Dinah are having breakfast, alternating between habitual bickering and lyrical moments of longing for kindness. Dinah is angry with Sam. She accuses him of having an affair with his secretary, which he denies ("the subject is closed"). She also reminds Sam that their son Junior's play is that afternoon, but Sam insists that his handball tournament at the gym is more important, to which she retorts, "to hell with the gym". She needs more money to pay for her "doctor", who Sam calls an "out-and-out fake". Dinah says Sam should go too, which suggestion Sam pays no attention to. They agree that this is not the way to live, and they will have a conversation about their relationship problems in the evening. They both ask each other for kindness, ask the other for help "to love you again," and pray that the wall built up between them can be broken down. They continue to argue until Sam leaves for the office, late for his train.
Scene II – Sam, at work, exuding confidence, is dealing with business on the telephone. He turns down the curiously-named Mr. Partridge, presumably for a loan. The chorus calls him a genius, "you marvelous man". "When it comes to the dollar, no one touches marvelous Sam."
But then comes a call from "Bill", who he is glad to lend money to: "you'll return it whenever you want to... Is it sufficient?" Coincidently, Bill is also participating in the handball tournament with Sam. The chorus observes that "when it comes to the giving, no one touches big-hearted Sam".
Scene III – In her analyst's office, Dinah recalls a dream ("I was standing in a garden").
I was standing in a garden, a garden gone to seed, choked with every kind of weed. There were twisted trees around me, all black against the sky, black, and bare, and dead, and dry. My father called, come out of this place, I wanted to go, but there was no way, no sign, no path to show me the way. Then another voice was calling, it barely could be heard. I remember every word: "There is a garden, come with me, come with me. A shining garden, come and see, come and see. There love will teach us harmony and grace, harmony and grace. Then love will lead us to a quiet place."
Meanwhile, at Sam's office, he asks his secretary if he ever made a pass at her. When reminded of an incident, he insists, in a menacing way, that it was an accident and that she should forget that it ever happened.
Scene IV – Sam and Dinah accidentally run into each other on the street. Rather than having lunch with each other, they both make up lies about imaginary commitments to lunch with others. They continue to sing on the stage (though not to each other), reflecting on the confusing and painful course their relationship has taken, and yearn for their lost happiness.
Interlude – Inside the house, the Trio sings of lovely life in Suburbia, detailing the possessions that contribute to the American dream.
Scene V – At the gym, Sam has just won the handball tournament. He sings triumphantly about the nature of men ("There's a law") — how some try with all their might to rise to the top, but will never win; while others, like him, are born winners and will always succeed. "Men are created unequal."
Scene VI – In a hat shop, Dinah tells an unidentified person about a South Sea romance movie called "Trouble in Tahiti", which she has just spent the afternoon watching. (Later, we learn that she has missed Junior's play.) At first she dismisses the movie as Technicolor drivel. But as she recounts the story (What a movie!") and its theme song "Island Magic," backed by the Trio, she gets caught up in the escapist fantasy of love. Suddenly self-conscious, she stops herself, as she has to prepare dinner for Sam.
Scene VII – About to enter his home, Sam sings of another law of men — that even the winner must pay "through the nose" for what he gets.
The Trio sings of imaginary evenings of domestic bliss in Suburbia: "bringing the loved ones together, safe by the warmth of the firelight". After dinner, Dinah is knitting and Sam is reading the paper. Sam decides the time has come for their talk, and Dinah, after asking what he wants to talk about, agrees: "anything you say". Yet Sam can't talk; he doesn't know where to begin. He blames Dinah for interruptions, but she has not said anything. "It's no use", he says. In the only recitative in the opera, Sam asks Dinah about Junior's play; she didn't go either. He suggests they go to the movies, to see a new film about Tahiti; Dinah consents. ("Sure, why not? Anything.") As they leave, they each long for quiet and communion, wondering if it's possible to rediscover their love for one another. For now, they opt for the "bought-and-paid-for magic" of the silver screen. The Trio makes its final ironic comment, reprising the movie's "Island Magic" theme song.
Sam comes out looking pretty sick, compared to Dinah. He cuts off discussion ("the subject is closed"). His handball tournament is more important than his son's school play, in which he's wearing his dad's tie. (Curiously, Dinah cuts it too.) He made a pass at his secretary, but belittles Dinah's suspicions, then tells his secretary threateningly to "forget that the incident ever happened." Dinah sees a psychoanalyst, but Sam refuses. He says he can't talk because of Dinah's interruptions, when in fact she's not said a word. Sam is tormented by his need, as a male, to compete, to win. He believes that men "are not created equal".
Dinah at least knows something of what she wants. A woman needs so little, she says: a little feeling of warmth, a little feeling of hope.
With the permission of the Leonard Bernstein Office Inc. (the musical estate of the composer), Paul Chihara adapted the operatic music into an orchestral suite. In March 2012, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed the New York premier of the adaptation at Carnegie Hall.
Bernstein's wrote a continuation, A Quiet Place (1983, libretto by Stephen Wadsworth), which was poorly received. It was rewritten incorporating Trouble in Tahiti in the form of an extended flashback. Another continuation, not by Bernstein, focuses on Junior, the "kid" whose parents don't care enough about him to come to the school show in which he is the lead.
- Ross Parmenter (November 17, 1952). "BERNSTEIN OPERA ON VIDEO THEATRE; ' Trouble in Tahiti,' One-Act Work Presented by N. B. C., Deals With Suburbia". The New York Times.
- Smith, p. 46
- Woolfe, Zachary (20 Mar 2012). "A Lot of Trouble for Trouble in Tahiti, and It Was Worth It: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Works Wonders With Bernstein’s Opera". The New York Observer. observer.com. Retrieved 17 May 2012.
- Helen Smith, There's a Place For Us: The Musical Theatre Works of Leonard Bernstein, Ashgate, 2011, ISBN 1409411699, p. xvi.
- Cast taken from Opera America: North American Works Directory
- "A Quiet Place: An Opera in Three Acts by Leonard Bernstein", http://www.leonardbernstein.com/works_a_quiet_place.htm, retrieved 2014-09-09
- Trouble in Tahiti on Floormic.com DEAD LINK
- Bernstein on Bernstein - Trouble in Tahiti Quotes from a 1973 interview with Bernstein by Humphrey Burton (on Leonard Bernstein's official web site)
- Production history and scoring (on Leonard Bernstein's official web site)
- Anthony Tommasini, "A Short Bernstein Opera on a Troubled Marriage", New York Times, October 10, 2005