Trouble in Tahiti

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Trouble in Tahiti is a one-act opera in seven scenes composed by Leonard Bernstein with an English libretto by the composer. 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.[1] 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.

Bernstein's later opera, A Quiet Place (1983), incorporates Trouble in Tahiti in the form of an extended flashback, and both versions are regularly performed worldwide.


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”[citation needed]

While it was rumored that the troubled young couple was based on Leonard Bernstein himself and his new bride, Felicia Monteleagre,[citation needed] there is another, perhaps more plausible, theory that the story is based on the relationship of Bernstein’s own mother and father.[2]

Plot analysis[edit]

There are only two main characters, a married couple named Sam and Dinah. Their son, Junior, is often referred to throughout but is never seen or heard. Other characters, including Sam's secretary Miss Brown, Dinah's psychotherapist, and a listener in the hat shop — likely one of Dinah's female friends — are spoken to in certain scenes but never seen or heard. The opera is frequently performed with minimal scenery and very simple costumes.

Little occurs in terms of plot. Trouble in Tahiti is the story of one day in the life of two desperately unhappy people, lonely, longing for love, and unable to communicate. At the end of the opera, Sam and Dinah are left in essentially the same position as they were when the opera began, with only a bleak hope of reconciliation.

The opera also features a scat singing jazz trio; Bernstein refers to them as "A Greek chorus born of the radio commercial".[citation needed] They sing in quasi-gibberish, sounding like an advertising jingle, about an idyllic suburban middle-class life of the American 1950s. They pop up throughout the opera to sing of the perfect suburban family life born of the American dream, only to be cut off by a fight between the two or a miserable lament.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 12 June 1952[3]
(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


Set in an affluent, unnamed American suburb, the story depicts the disenchantment of Dinah with her husband Sam, who is more interested in his career and hobbies than in his family.

The opera opens with a cheery tune ("Mornin’ Sun"), as the chorus sings of 1950s suburban life and names several suburban communities where this story might be taking place. The action begins in the middle of the couple's breakfast, with a quarrel in progress. Dinah accuses Sam of indiscretions with his secretary: Sam angrily dismisses this as Dinah's jealous imagination. Dinah reminds Sam that their son Junior has a school play that day, but Sam says he can't go because of his handball tournament. Dinah pleads that "a woman needs so little — a little feeling of hope." Sam inwardly begs Dinah for some kindness. The scene ends with Sam storming out of the house and off to work.

In the next scene, a charming Sam is shown in his office dealing with clients on the telephone. After each client Sam speaks to, the chorus sings to him of his genius and business skills.

The action moves to a psychiatrist’s office. Distraught, Dinah tells her (unseen) doctor of the dream she had the previous night ("There Is a Garden"), in which she is standing in a garden where all the plants have “gone to seed”. She then hears her father's voice calling to her to leave the garden immediately. She wants to leave but seems to be lost. There is no sign or any path to tell her how to get away. Then she hears a second voice. It is very hard to hear but the words are now burned into her memory. The lovely sound of this voice intrigues her and she runs towards it. Everything around her becomes more frightening with every step. The ground starts to give way but she continues on.

The action moves back to Sam in his office, who first asks his (unseen) secretary if he has ever made a pass at her, and, surprised to be answered in the affirmative, then tells her that it was "an accident," and suggests she should forget that it ever happened.

Dinah continues the story of her dream. Desire has now taken over her. All she wants is to touch the face and hand of this mysterious voice. She finally sees his face and once again goes running to him. When she finally approaches him he vanishes leaving her in the garden and she awakes.

Dinah leaves her doctor’s office and bumps into Sam on the street. Each lies to the other about a lunch date with someone else as an excuse to not eat together. They part, but are stopped abruptly by the realization of what just took place. Each alone, they reminisce about the days when they were happy and ask, "Why did I have to lie?". Both then leave the stage with regret to go have lunch in solitude.

The chorus sings of the joys of married life. We see Sam in the shower at his gym, where he sings an aria ("There’s a Law"), bragging about his winning in the handball tournament and in the competitions of life.

Dinah is next seen in a hat shop. She come in and sings ("What a Movie") of a "terrible" movie she just saw entitled Trouble in Tahiti. She goes into great detail, mocking the ridiculous plot of the movie, but as she does, she is caught up in the romantic storyline. At the climax of the aria, she remembers that Sam’s dinner needs to be on the table and rushes off.

The final scene of the opera is back at the couple’s home. Dinah has just put dinner on the table and Sam is standing outside the front door with his sports trophy, dreading the evening ahead. He has won his handball tournament, but realizes that every victory comes with a price. He finally enters as the chorus sings of bringing the “loved ones” together with “evening pleasures”. Dinah is knitting and Sam is reading the paper. It is a perfect picture of what a happy suburban couple's life should be, but there is no happiness in the room, only tension.

Sam asks Dinah to talk. Pretending to be unaware of any problems she replies, “About what dear?” They continue on carefully and it seems like slight progress is being made. Unfortunately they begin bickering again. Sam asks about Junior's school play; Dinah replies that she didn't go. Sam now gives it one last chance and asks her to go with him to see the new movie that opened today: “Something about... Tahiti?” Dinah agrees (not mentioning that she saw the movie at the matinee that afternoon), and both inwardly express a wish that they might reconcile. In the interim, they will settle for the images of happiness — the "bought-and-paid-for happiness" — displayed on "a super silver screen." They depart as the chorus ironically echoes a phrase from the film's love song: "Island Magic."

Orchestral suite[edit]

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.[2]


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