Symposium on the Marc Blitzstein/Leonard Lehrman Sacco and Vanzetti
Aug. 18, 2001
at The White Barn Theatre, Westport, CT
in conjunction with the premiere concert performances there Aug. 17-19, 2001
with Leonard Lehrman, Robert Palmer, Brenda Lewis, Anton Coppola
Joan Peyser, moderator
introduced by Vincent Curcio
accepted for publication by The Opera Journal but not yet printed as of May 2004
Vincent Curcio: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Vincent Curcio, General Manager of Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre and Museum, and on behalf of all of us I want to welcome you this afternoon. This program is made possible by the generosity of Ann Sheffer, the Chairperson of our White Barn Theatre and Museum, and we're very grateful to her....
We are particularly delighted to be having this seminar this afternoon. Marc Blitzstein had a long history with Lucille Lortel. As most of you know, he did the famous adaptation of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, that Miss Lortel had played at her theater for six and a half years. They were close friends. He came often to The White Barn Theatre, wrote special material for her, and we did a whole event around him in our White Barn Theatre Museum in 1995. I would like to now introduce you to our panelists, and let you know this program will last about an hour and there'll be coffee and cake in the green room afterwards.
First let me bring to the stage our musical director and co-composer, the man of the hour, Maestro Leonard Lehrman. (Applause.)
Next, our moderator. We're very lucky to have this lady. She's a very famous biographer of Leonard Bernstein, of Pierre Boulez, of George Gershwin, and has come out with a new book called The Music of My Time, and in this book is an essay that she wrote in 1966 about Marc Blitzstein, a seminal [essay] and very important in establishing and reinforcing his reputation as a serious composer. Ladies and gentlemen, Joan Peyser. (Applause.)
And then we have our dear friend, our Westport neighbor, the great Metropolitan Opera star who was a very close friend of Marc Blitzstein's. In fact a great part of this opera that we are doing this weekend was written in her home. Ladies and gentlemen, Brenda Lewis. (Applause.)
And we have another very special guest, a conductor and composer. Leo Meyer, who did the lighting for this production, said once he saw him conduct Faust. He looked at the score [like this], closed the book and said, "Well, let's start," and conducted the whole thing from memory, while mouthing the words along with the singers. This marvelous man, this marvelous composer, wrote his own opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, which premiered in huge productions to great acclaim this past February at the Tampa Center for the Performing Arts. Ladies and gentlemen, Maestro Anton Coppola. (Applause.)
And we have another wonderful gentleman, [a composer] who was a close friend of Marc Blitzstein's. This gentleman knew him well, and in fact sat at the piano with Marc Blitzstein and played the music that he had written for the piece, and Sacco and Vanzetti is dedicated to him by Marc Blitzstein. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Robert Palmer. (Applause.)
Well, here's our marvelous panel, and we're going to let them go right to it. And thank you all for coming. And let us all begin. Thank you. (Applause.)
Joan Peyser: Yes, I know I'm the moderator, but I thought maybe Leonard should be the one to correct this: It was Leonard who dedicated the opera...
Leonard Lehrman: ...to my teacher, Robert Palmer...
Joan Peyser: ...to his teacher, and not Marc Blitzstein. We don't want to start with a piece of incorrect information.
What led to the Sacco and Vanzetti opera that The White Barn is presenting this weekend? The story is intriguing and infinitely complex. I'll start at the beginning.
Marc Blitzstein was born in Philadelphia in 1905. His grandfather and father were bankers and provided a privileged and cultivated environment. At 3 Marc began to play the piano. At 4 he took lessons. A few years later he appeared in public, and at 15 he concertized with the Philadelphia Orchestra. After two years at the University of Pennsylvania, he dropped out and enrolled at the Curtis Institute, the Philadelphia conservatory where Gian-Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein later studied.
In 1926, along with many American composers, Blitzstein went abroad. First he worked with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, then with Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. At the end of the 1920s, the texture of his scores was dense. After the crash of 1929, and the overwhelming poverty that followed, many artists and intellectuals turned politically to the left. Blitzstein, because of this wealth, was able to travel extensively, to Yugoslavia, Spain, and again France.
Apparently trying to reconcile in his mind and heart his growing Stalinist [sic: Communist] beliefs with his elitist compositional techniques, he began work on an oratorio. The narrative was based on what happened to Sacco and Vanzetti, a fishmonger and a cobbler, Italian immigrants tried for robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Probably because they lied about their political convictions - they said they were not anarchists, and they were - they were found guilty, and executed in 1927. Blitzstein's choral work was first performed in 1933. Critics found that score too thick, and the characters "remote and inhuman."
In March, 1933, Blitzstein married Eva Goldbeck, a writer for the radical left, and began to write his own polemical essays, such as "Coming - the Mass Audience." It was followed by a piece for piano and speaker, "Send for the Militia." (Parenthetically [noted by Joan Peyser]: This was written in response to a revolt at Asturias that the Spanish government reacted to with bloody retribution. [Editor's note: This connection seems a bit tenuous.])
In 1935 he composed the song, "The Nickel Under My Foot," [sic; actually: "The Nickel Under the Foot"] and played it for Bertolt Brecht, when Brecht visited his Greenwich Village apartment. Brecht suggested that Blitzstein expand it into a full-length theater piece, in which all forms of prostitution, not just the whore with the nickel under her foot, but politics, religion, business, and the press would be dissected and exposed. And so The Cradle Will Rock was born.
During its composition, Goldbeck literally starved herself to death. I have no understanding of why she did this, but her husband attended her constantly, and after she died, worked obsessively and effectively until Cradle was done. Celebrating the vernacular in both words and music, Blitzstein had erased both Boulanger and Schoenberg from his musical vocabulary.
The Cradle's premiere in 1937 was an astounding event. Tim Robbins recently recreated it in a feature film. The poet Archibald MacLeish described it as "the most exciting evening of theater this generation has known." Blitzstein had become a major cultural figure, working with John Houseman and Orson Welles, being celebrated in print by Virgil Thomson.
In 1938, Blitzstein joined the Communist Party.
There has always been a debate: art for art's sake? or art for a purpose? The first is Aristotelian, the second Platonic. Blitzstein adopted with passion the concept of art for social reasons, and articulated that philosophy repeatedly in the libretto he wrote for Cradle.
In supporting that point of view, he was not alone. This was the era of Robert Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois and John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat, as well as Ben Shahn's mural for [the] garment workers' resettlement project in Roosevelt, New Jersey. The Depression, the WPA, and the rapidly growing radio audience contributed to the burgeoning of accessible art and the de-emphasis on art for art's sake, the art that had developed from the turn of the century, most particularly twelve-tone music, to the rise of Hitler, who did what he could to annihilate it.
But after the end of World War II, artists once again turned to the abstract. Schoenberg and Stravinsky were living in California, Pierre Boulez was active in France, and Milton Babbitt prevailed at Princeton and Columbia Universities.
In 1949, the year he left the Communist Party, Blitzstein completed Regina, an opera based on Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. Although this choice of subject reveals Blitzstein's continuing hatred of the rich, the score exhibits a magnificent blend of the learnèd and the vernacular. After previews in Boston, it opened on Broadway, as had some recently composed operas by Menotti.
In 1958, the Ford Foundation gave money to the New York City Opera, then under the direction of Julius Rudel, and Regina was included. Brenda Lewis, an active member of this community, made that character her own in a performance that was stunning and memorable, and we're very grateful to have her with us today. (Applause.)
Newly graduated from Columbia's graduate school in Music, and the author of several small pieces that had appeared in music magazines, I was asked to supervise a teaching program there, in which advanced music students could enter into dialogue with composers, librettists, stage directors, and so on. I invited Blitzstein to appear, and we became friends. We lived one block apart in Greenwich Village.
Soon after the American opera project ended, the Ford Foundation gave Blitzstein a $15,000 grant, which was a great deal at that time, to compose an opera, and he returned to Sacco and Vanzetti. [Julius] Rudel offered him a commission from the New York City Opera, but Blitzstein turned elsewhere. That was a bad choice. Why did he make it?
By this time he and Leonard Bernstein had become extremely close friends and colleagues. They met when Blitzstein had traveled to Harvard to attend a production of Cradle, presented under Bernstein, then in his senior year. That was 1939. He loved what he saw and heard, and the connection took off.
In the 1940s, Bernstein, then conducting the [New York] City [Center] Symphony, presented Blitzstein's "Airborne" [Symphony]. In the early '50s, he led Blitzstein's adaptation and translation of Brecht's Threepenny Opera at Brandeis. Blitzstein's version of the Kurt Weill work went on to become one of the most successful of all off-Broadway productions.
As Blitzstein profited from Bernstein, the reverse was certainly true. Bernstein's work in music theatre, in my mind the best creative work he ever did, owes a profound debt to Blitzstein. It was Bernstein who seduced his friend away from the proletarian City Opera and to the Met for SACCO. Throughout his life, the greatest joy for this amazing musician - Bernstein - was to make the Establishment appear ridiculous. Think of the delight he felt, imagining the unashamedly capitalist opera company investing serious money and then being stuck with an opera about two immigrant Italian anarchists. The story making the rounds at the time was that Rudolf Bing, then head of the Met, thought Sacco and Vanzetti were lovers. (Laughter.)
Leonard Lehrman: Like Pelléas and Mélisande, or Tristan and Isolde.
Joan Peyser: Right. But the end result was no joke. The disparity between subject and opera company surely played some role in paralyzing Blitzstein, because he could not move ahead with this work. In the late fall of 1963, just before he was to leave for Martinique, we met on lower Fifth Avenue. He told me he had just wired the Met, apologizing for yet another cancellation of a meeting, in which he was to sing and play some excerpts from the score. He told the Met, and he told me, that he would work on it while he was in Martinique.
But he had no plan to do that. What he did was put those fragments of Sacco - they seemed to me when I later looked at them to constitute perhaps half of the piece - into the trunk of his Peugeot, and drive to a friend in Westchester, where he would store his car while away. As far as I know, he told no one of the location of what had to have become the most important effort of his life. He brought fragments of other theater pieces with him when he left New York.
On January 21st, 1964, Marc went to a bar on Martinique and became embroiled in a fight with three Portuguese sailors, who beat him so brutally, he died the next day.
I knew I needed to tell Blitzstein's story, not only because I wanted to enhance his fame, but also because he seemed to me the perfect vehicle through which to explore relations between the United States and Europe, capitalism and communism, twelve-tone writing and tonality, the then avant-garde and socialist realism, and the effect those dichotomies had on one handsome, charming, witty, graceful, melodically inspired, permanently enraged American composer.
That single [Columbia University Forum] article launched my career. It prompted Delacorte to commission my first book, the Sunday [N.Y.] Times to ask me to write regularly, and the ASCAP/Deems Taylor committee to give me its first award. Last month, the Music Critics' Association [of North America] asked me to deliver a talk on "How to Write So the Writing Will Sell." I used this piece to make some points. After I finished, Leonard Lehrman stood up at the back of the room, and told me, and everyone else in the room, that the article, which he must have read when he was about seventeen,
Leonard Lehrman: Sixteen, but who's counting?
Joan Peyser: literally changed his life. Later he called and invited me to do what I've done here. Now Mr. Lehrman can report what happened after a used-car dealer opened the trunk of a Peugeot in the spring of 1964. Leonard Lehrman.
Leonard Lehrman: Thank you, Joan. Joan's article happened to come into our mailbox because my mother was a Columbia University alumna. I was very intrigued by what I read, and shared it with my teacher, mentor, the late Elie Siegmeister [1909-1991], who then elaborated on what he knew, which was a great deal, about Marc Blitzstein. Elie was one of the greatest teachers I ever had, and I'd just like you to hear something that was said about Marc Blitzstein as a teacher [which I could also have written to and about Elie]. When I read it again, having read it for the first time thirty years ago, it moved me to tears:
"You are the finest teacher who has ever taught me and the greatest man I've ever known... Somehow because I knew you, I had something to live for. Because your courage and integrity which was in everything you did and said taught me that there are good people left and things to live and fight for."
Q. from audience: Who wrote that?
Leonard Lehrman: Reed Wolcott [, a student of Blitzstein's, Oct. 7, 1963]. Does anybody know where she is [today]?
Q. from audience: Was she at Bennington?
Leonard Lehrman: That's right. We'd love to know, but we don't know where she is. She gave a concert in his [Blitzstein's] memory in '64, and this is quoted in Eric Gordon's  biography (Mark the Music : The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein, pp. 519-20). But this is how I felt about some of the teachers that I had. One of them is here today. That's Robert Palmer, who knew Blitzstein, and to whom I was sent by Siegmeister, and who helped me, when I was a graduate student at Cornell, wrestling with identity problems in a musical way, problems that Joan identified as being Marc's problems: between the vernacular and the sophisticated, the twelve-tone and the tonal, and so on and so forth. (to Joan Peyser): You went through the whole list. (She nods.)
So when Columbia exploded in 1968 [and Harvard a year later], I knew The Cradle Will Rock, having looked at it in Siegmeister's own score, and I said: "We have to do this [at Harvard]!" It took me a year to put together a production. I did everything: I adapted it, and conducted it, and staged it, and was even going to play the Clerk the way Lenny [Bernstein] did [at Harvard], 30 years earlier, but I didn't have to do that - fortunately - although when we took it to a student strike performance at Tufts, several of the actors chose not to endanger themselves, so I ended up playing several roles [there] - including Mr. Mister!
Elie sent me a note: "The soul of Marc hovers over Cambridge tonight!"
Leonard Bernstein found out about the production, and he said: "Well, I'm glad somebody at Harvard still has taste." That was his reaction.
After I did that, I became interested in looking at the unfinished works of Blitzstein, which I'd read about in Joan Peyser's article, and which Siegmeister had also looked at, for an article that he was writing about Blitzstein. So I went down [to Philadelphia] and looked at them, and discovered a passage in Idiots First that was different from anything else I had seen of Marc's, but was practically identical in harmonic structure to something I had just completed, [the Karl Shapiro song cycle, The Bourgeois Poet] which became my Harvard [B.A.] thesis.
So I discovered this affinity, on so many levels. And I couldn't study with Schoenberg - he was dead. But I studied with Boulanger. And while I was at Cornell, studying with Robert Palmer, I also managed to get the experience in working on pieces by collaborators of Blitzstein's:
Just as Blitzstein translated Threepenny Opera, I translated two Brecht plays, Days of the Commune and Roundheads & Pointedheads and produced [and directed] them [in their U.S. premieres] at Harvard[, Yale,] and Cornell.
Just as Blitzstein had written Juno in collaboration with Sean O'Casey, who wrote some of the lyrics for that [musical], I staged [O'Casey's] Bedtime Story, starring Christopher Reeve playing a wimp for the first time in his life. We later said I had taught him how to play Clark Kent!
And just as Blitzstein had been collaborating with [Bernard] Malamud, who Ned Rorem said would have been his ideal collaborator, I collaborated with Malamud: I staged Malamud's only published play, Suppose A Wedding, which later became an opera [of mine], that was performed at Hebrew Union College, and several other places.
So I tried to do everything that Marc Blitzstein did or would have done, and I completed Idiots First, having analyzed it with Siegmeister, with Boulanger, and with Robert Palmer, and then I had to play it for Leonard Bernstein.... That's a story in itself how I finally got to play it for Leonard Bernstein. We can skip over that.
After I completed Idiots First, which was part of a series of operas called Tales of Malamud - I wrote one or two others to go with that - it had three productions, and won several awards in 1978, while I was conducting it and working at the Metropolitan Opera as Assistant Chorus Master.
At that point, after that success, I approached Jimmy Levine about the idea of doing Sacco and Vanzetti [at the Met], and he was intrigued. He sent me to John Dexter, who unfortunately never opened the door to me. I kept trying to get an appointment, and every day I was told, "Not today!" - for six months.
So that didn't happen, at that time. But I've seen Jimmy Levine in the last few months, and he says he's still interested, and wanted to look at the score this summer, while he's on vacation. So Theodore Presser has sent it to him.
Now, in between 1978 and 2001, a lot did happen with this work. I persuaded Josephine Davis, Marc Blitzstein's sister, to give me permission to complete it. But she died in 1986, and her two sons were less certain about that. One of them is Christopher Davis, a writer, who was here last night, along with his brother, Stephen Davis. At Leonard Boudin's funeral, where we were in a receiving line together, trapped for about a half an hour, Christopher Davis told me: "I'm a writer. I wouldn't want anybody messing with my work after I die. I want my uncle's work left in peace." I said, "But I finished Idiots First..." He said, "Well, my mother wanted you to do that. I don't know that I would have wanted you to have done that, had she not wanted it." She was dead. So what changed his mind?
Well, he was very excited last night, so something did change his mind. It took a long time, though. We had a symposium sponsored by the National Opera Association that took place in Boston - an appropriate place - and it was published in The Opera Journal in March 1996. You can read it on the Internet. It's on both my website - http://ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com/articles/operajournal2.html - and the Marc Blitzstein Website [though in January 2002 it was deleted from the latter] - all about Sacco and Vanzetti, how much was sketched, but how little was finished. People have said it was about half finished.
Joan Peyser: I thought it was half finished.
Leonard Lehrman: It wasn't anywhere near half finished. But some of the scenes had been sketched sixteen times. He would start a song that many times, and then break it off. So there was an awful lot to be done. But there were thousands of pages of not just sketches but [his] notations in other people's works about Sacco and Vanzetti. I'm eager to hear about Maestro Coppola's research into Sacco and Vanzetti. Blitzstein met with Gardner Jackson, with Tom O'Connor, with Herbert Ehrmann. And in the back of Herbert Ehrmann's book, The Untried Case, he [Blitzstein] wrote in his own felt-tipped pen: "Act I," "Act II," "Act III" in the Appendix. So that was the only way I could tell what he actually had in mind for the series of events in the opera.
In 1990, we recorded [the Premier CD,] A Blitzstein Cabaret, including the first recording of that song, "Send for the Militia," and an aria from Sacco and Vanzetti, the only aria that he had considered actually complete. Then of course came Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock film. I had originally proposed doing a Marc Blitzstein Songbook, to go with the CD, but somebody else was asked to do it, and then he didn't do anything with it, so the Blitzstein Estate got impatient with him and came back to me because they wanted it out in time for the Tim Robbins film. And when I finished this [volume 1], I showed them some of the sketches I was working on for Sacco and Vanzetti and they said, "Well, we'd be willing to look at anything. No commitment, but we'd be willing to look at it."
So, in the summer of 1999, I was having a semi-centennial concert for works of my own, my students', and my teachers', and Robert Palmer came all the way from Ithaca for that, 'cause I played a piece of his. I knew that he had known Blitzstein. But it was at that time that I learned what I hadn't known before, namely that he had been in Rome on a Fulbright in '61, where Blitzstein was writing this piece, and that Blitzstein had invited him up to his apartment and they had played it together, so he had tremendous insight [into the work].
So I finished the first act in time for his visit [and] played it for him. He wrote a letter to the Blitzstein Estate, [and] then they approved my doing it. That's why I dedicated the opera to Robert Palmer. (Applause.)
Robert Palmer: I'm very honored to be a part of this symposium.
This is a truly historic occasion. It's almost, you know, a cliché, but it nevertheless is the case.
The whole musico-dramatic power of this work could well have been lying in a closet in fragments somewhere. I was able to be here for part of it last night, and I'll certainly be here tonight, and I found it an overwhelming experience. I couldn't even imagine audiences not having this available.
I want to do a little background on my connection with Elie Siegmeister, who was an old and dear friend, probably from about the time I was first connecting with Leonard, but maybe a little before - he was a staunch supporter of my music and a good friend. My late wife Alice and I made many trips to Great Neck to be with him and Hannah, and as I've often told people, it was like getting a shot in the arm, with adrenaline or something, to be with Elie, because I'm rather low-key, and he was the opposite. He also made a visit to our home in Ithaca at one time.
So it was with a considerable bond already existing that Leonard came in '72 to us at Cornell. We had had a Doctor of Musical Arts program since '57 - one of the first ones in the East. And it was very clear from hearing Leonard's music that he had a natural affinity for Blitzstein, but he had his own voice. And what I always tried to do with my composition students was not, as some composers - you know, the way Hindemith and others do - to have copies of my own music. I tried to find each student's voice. I even went so far as to improvise in their styles - to say, "All right, this phrase is a little short, why don't you just extend it so - ?" And I could play easier than I could talk, and it seemed clearer.
One of Leonard's operas was Karla. Idiots First he was completing, one that Blitzstein had already done part of. But KARLA was his own opera, and one of the arias from that was so beautiful, I remember it stayed with me for quite some time.
So I think the next thing is to tell you my connection with Marc Blitzstein. I had known him at Tanglewood in the 1940s, and in the 1960s I was fortunate enough to have a senior Fulbright to Italy, so I took my family to Rome for a year, and I had a second Guggenheim which was primarily for travel, so I felt extremely fortunate. I'm not sure that I knew Marc was there. It's unclear. But he did call me up. He may have gotten my number through the U.S.I.S. I'm not sure. And in Rome, on the Piazza della Colonna...
Leonard Lehrman: We visited Italy last summer. We visited the graves of Sacco and Vanzetti and their birthplaces, and we looked up the place where you met him in Rome, and here are some photographs of it.
Robert Palmer: ...I had a very nice lunch with him, and he invited me up to his studio. My major impression of him was that he was such a kind, gentle man. We immediately had an affinity. I don't know. It's hard to explain. He had just finished, I believe, Leonard says, the first complete, maybe the only complete, scene, Act I Scene 3?
Leonard Lehrman: That's right.
Robert Palmer: So he had it there, and he played some of it for me, but we got to one place where it got impossible. So what we did - I played a lot of four-hands in my day - I used to play for conducting classes at the Eastman School - so I was playing the bass, his left hand was here, and his right hand was there, and my right hand was over in between his two. That's how I remembered it. When Leonard showed me the scene, I said, "Yes, this has to be the one," because I remembered the physical setup of our doing it four-hands.
Leonard Lehrman: We had to revise it to make it more practical, obviously.
Robert Palmer: So we actually did finish playing that, and he told me more about what he was planning, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life to meet such a person and to share music with him. And that's basically it. (Applause.)
Joan Peyser: I think as long as we're still located in Blitzstein/Lehrman Sacco, before we go to Coppola's, which is finished and was performed to magnificent reviews recently, we should end up our period with Blitzstein with some remarks by Brenda Lewis, who knew him well and in fact had him as a guest.
Brenda Lewis: I don't know what I'm doing here. (Laughter.)
Audience: The mike is right in front of you.
Brenda Lewis: Mike? Do I need the mike?
Audience: No! (Laughter.)
Brenda Lewis: Thank you. After eighty years of shouting, I should know how to fill the hall! I'm very honored to be among this august group. I am not a composer. I am not a writer. I am not a journalist. I'm a person who was lucky to be involved with someone like Marc, who was a wonderful human being. The summer before [his death] my connection became closer, not only because of the REGINA, which gave me one of the prize roles of my life, and that I think is Birdie, if you'll pardon me. (Laughter.)
When the opera was done first, on 42nd Street, at the 46th Street Theatre, pardon me, I did Birdie, and for me that was one of the great roles of my life, because this was a human being that I could relate to. And I felt that through her I could bring other people into her state of mind. I think the drunk scene of Birdie in The Little Foxes was probably the first thing that Marc wrote [in his setting] of the piece, because it is the most perfect, untouched, from beginning to end. He uses Hellman's words as she wrote them, not any text of his, and he delineates through the music the total breaking down, collapsing, of a human being who was caught in a social situation - a bad marriage, but in a social milieu where her substance had to be used, so that the rapacious family of the Hubbards could attain their goal. And that for me was the most important role that I think I've ever done in my life. The [role of] Regina was a breeze. (Laughter.) The Regina was really in a sense a role like Carmen. If you can get up, sing all the parts, and have a wonderful time doing it, you'll have success, because the audience will enjoy it too. And that's how I felt about it.
Marc and I remained friends. We were very simpatico. And the summer of '93 - not '93, '63! - he came to stay at our house in Weston. We fixed an apartment for him over an old barn, provided him with a piano, and a little car to tootle around in. And it was a pleasure having a house guest whose splash in the pool you would hear at six o'clock in the morning, who found eggs from our little bantam hens for my daughter who was at that time three years of age; and he would find fresh eggs for his breakfast, and by the time he had his breakfast the fresh coffee wafted into the house. And we were all wide awake at seven, but he was at the piano at seven. He was a very regular, disciplined man. He swam in the morning, worked 'til noon, had his lunch, swam again, rested perhaps, and at 5:30 he would appear on our terrace with the tray and all the fixings for the best martinis you ever drank. And he was very precise about how many times he waved the vermouth cork over the gin. (Laughter.)
His loss was a loss not only for the music world, but a loss, in a sense, for humanity.
This was a man for whom his art was his weapon, in trying to make a better world, and that was his whole life thrust. I don't care what philosophy you want to call it. But Marc's aim in life was to use what creativity, what came out of him, to say that there can be a better world. We can heal the breach: People don't have to prey on one another. I think if you will look at all his work, you will see that his whole heart, his thrust, his musical sense always said that to you. And in the most successful pieces, that message reached home. And that's why a man like Leonard, who was inspired by that message, and who I know has the same message in his life, that's why I think in a sense he felt drawn to these works, and I don't think he's had a moment's rest 'til he decided that he was going to finish Sacco and Vanzetti. He has done it, and I hope all of you will come and hear it. It is a powerful work. Thank you very much. (Laughter.)
Joan Peyser: Now I'd like to introduce to you Anton Coppola, who was born in 1917 in New York City. Therefore he was ten years old at the time of the execution. And I think it would be interesting for us to learn how a New York person in an Italian neighborhood became entranced and committed to this piece, and when you started working on it.
Anton Coppola: Well...
Audience Member: Use the mike?
Anton Coppola: No, I don't think I'll need that, because, like my colleague, Mr. Lehrman, I'm a conductor, and I'm used to yelling at everybody! (Laughter.) Don't you remember that, Brenda?
Brenda Lewis (shakes her head): O my God yes! (Laughter.)
Anton Coppola: So, in any case, I was brought up in the Italian ghetto of East Harlem in the early '20s, and of course the Sacco and Vanzetti story was very much on everybody's mind. I will say that, generally speaking, the attitude of the Italian community was in sympathy for Sacco and Vanzetti, but not politically, because the Italian community must have felt, and did feel, in fact, that, "Well, here's one of us, two of us, who apparently have gotten in trouble, and they shouldn't have gotten in trouble. I mean, we're all trying to make a living here in America, and to bring up our families as well as we can, whereas these fellows, they're anarchists. They're against the government. During the First World War they avoided the draft." And so in those days, if your name ended in a vowel, that was another thing against you. And so these are the things that the Italian community felt, well, in regard to Sacco and Vanzetti: "Too bad about them, but maybe they shouldn't have done what they did." Because no one really knows whether they committed the crime or not. For the longest time there has been the so-called split theory, that Sacco was probably guilty, and Vanzetti certainly not. But no one really knows, because as far as I'm concerned, and I make that clear in my opera, they took the mystery with them to the grave. So we don't really know.
What my opera did do, I think, was to try to show the socio-political atmosphere that existed at the time, in the 1920s, which means the results of the trial - to end the way it did. My question is: "Were they given a fair trial?" Of course they were not given a fair trial. We all know that. On today's terms, given the contradiction of testimony, and the undeveloped forensic science at that time, the case would have been thrown out from its very inception, and especially since the judge, a judge called Thayer, was heard to say, "I'm going to see those anarchist bastards hanged if it's the last thing I do!" Imagine a judge saying that today. What would be the result?
But then to go back to the genesis of the opera. I suppose that somewhere in the subconscious of my mind, the story of Sacco and Vanzetti was fomenting, although I never thought too much about it. Except that about six years ago, when I was in New Orleans, I was conducting some opera there, and I had some time on my hands, because in New Orleans we never rehearsed in the morning. We always started in the afternoon and then worked into the evening. So therefore, for some reason, I began to think about Sacco and Vanzetti, so I went to the local library and asked them to give me everything they had on it, and they had five volumes, which I immediately digested. I wrote a kind of a treatise of it, a summary, of what I had read.
Then I found myself on the west coast and my nephew, the movie director, Francis Ford [Coppola], invited me to his house, because I was there conducting some operas and he said, "On your day off, come and have dinner with us." And at dinner I read this treatise. And he said, "That's very interesting." He called his secretary: "Just file that away, for future reference. I'll get to it when I can."
I forgot all about it until about six months later he called me and said, "You know, that treatise that you wrote." He said, "I'm very interested in doing perhaps a documentary on it, a television documentary, in the same way that Burns did for the Civil War. Not just for one night, but it'll cover three or four nights or something like that." On the basis of that, purely on speculation, I composed four or five pieces. Then I saw him in New York. I played the pieces for him and he said, "Oh, Uncle, what you have here is an opera. This sounds like an opera to me. And anyway I'm not going to be able to do anything about that project that we talked about because - I'll have to put that on a back burner - because I have some other things that I have to take care of first."
Okay. Well by that time there was no stopping me. (Laughter.) I decided to keep going. So of course I wrote the libretto myself, on what I had read, based upon that synthesis I had written.
I decided from the very beginning that Sacco and Vanzetti would have to be sung bilingually. That is, when the Italians were among themselves, they would sing in their native tongue, and it was only when they were compelled to communicate with the so-called American community would they speak, would they communicate in English.
Of course, people like Sacco and Vanzetti began to think about the community around them, let's call it the American-speaking community, as a hostile community, and part of the fault was their own, of course, in that they were anarchists - they were fervent radicals and devoted anarchists. To echo Brenda's words, they felt that this was a world that should be made better. In fact, in my opera I have Sacco actually saying, in a speech as he addresses the court: "This is a beautiful world. Why not we make it a better one?" This was the philosophy that they fervently believed in.
I had always conducted at the Opera in Tampa, and the lady who's in charge of that organization, called Judith Lisi, she became sort of my patron saint, in that she knew I was writing this opera, and she took me to lunch one day and said, "Maestro, I want to hear it." So she put all the wheels in motion that made it possible for the world premiere, which occurred last March.
I don't think I have anything else to say. (Applause.)
Joan Peyser: In the July issue of Opera News, there's a review of the Tampa production, and I think even a modest appraisal has to call it a rave. It was a rave review. A three-hour work, magnificently done. Huge forces. Huge chorus. Many soloists. Tremendous orchestra. Mr. Coppola conducted. And all we can hope for, and Opera News hoped for it in print, [is] that some other companies, in the City perhaps, will have the courage and the wherewithal to put it on. So here's a man who set out, completed it. It must be very gratifying to you. You got the whole thing done. That's very different than [sic] the Blitzstein thing which was cut off in the middle. And before we open it up to the audience...
Leonard Lehrman: Could we have some interactions among the panel?
Joan Peyser: Sure. Go ahead.
Leonard Lehrman: The Coppola opera is about Sacco and Vanzetti from the Italian point of view, I think. The Italian-American point of view. And Blitzstein's, I would say, was much more an internationalist approach.
Anton Coppola (nods in agreement)
Leonard Lehrman: There is a scene in [the Blitzstein in] Italian. Unfortunately we don't have supertitles here, but it's at the beginning of the opera and it's fairly short.
Your saying that they spoke two different languages, one among themselves and one among others - they spoke Italian among themselves and English to others - reminds me of something Elie [Siegmeister] used to talk about. He kept urging me to consider making Call It Sleep, Henry Roth's novel, into an opera, where the characters speak in very different tones. They're supposed to be speaking Yiddish, but of course the novel was written in English. When they speak among themselves, the language is very literary, but when they're not, it's much more street language. I've never been able to conquer that problem, although it keeps coming back to me as something to think about doing. Of course before we had the advent of supertitles, I don't think such a bilingual opera would have been practical.
But in terms of the way Blitzstein was looking at it, it was much more, as I say, internationalist, and in fact there's a very famous statement that David Riesman, who was also a teacher of mine, at Harvard, made around 1960, in print: "The Sacco-Vanzetti case united the liberals; the Rosenberg case divided them." Just last night, we had here a cousin of Manny Bloch, who defended the Rosenbergs. And Jo Davis told me that when Marc was writing Sacco and Vanzetti, he was thinking of the Rosenbergs. Of course he was writing it at the time that The Crucible -the opera - [by Robert Ward after Arthur Miller's play] was being written.
Anton Coppola (nods in agreement)
Leonard Lehrman: In fact there's a reference in the [Blitzstein] opera: "We're not in the time of the Salem witch hunts, thank God!" And I just wanted to mention that my cantata, WE ARE INNOCENT [recorded by Opus One on LP, with soloists, chorus and orchestra], based on the letters of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was one of the steps that I didn't mention earlier, that I felt I had to take before I could really tackle Sacco and Vanzetti in the way that Marc would have. So we have two very, very different approaches to the same subject.
Marc also said at one point [to Don Ross, N.Y. Herald Tribune, Feb. 29, 1960]: "I have enough material to write not one but six operas on Sacco and Vanzetti. But never fear. I will write only one." Well, now there are two. And in fact there's a musical also. Have you heard the Flemish musical?
Anton Coppola: No, I haven't, though I heard about it.
Leonard Lehrman: Helene [Williams] and I met with the Flemish authors in Brussels last summer of a musical which is called SSacco and Vanzetti , and which they are hoping to do in New Haven in November [since then postponed to April 20, 2002].
Joan Peyser: Okay?
Leonard Lehrman: Okay.
Joan Peyser: I think I'll inhibit my own wants now because we want to have some interplay with the audience.
Questioner 1: I'd like to ask Mr. Coppola, You said you got carried away by your own emotion in SACCO. What theme was that? Can you articulate that?
Anton Coppola: What theme musically?
Questioner 1: Well no, not that; philosophically. What was happening?
Anton Coppola: I think mostly the fact that here were two men who were affected by society. Then it occurred to me: "In what way will these two men themselves affect society?" That became the theme of my opera, let's call it my emotional inspiration.
Questioner 1: Thank you.
Questioner 2: I for one want to know: What happened when the used-car dealer opened the trunk of the Peugeot?
Joan Peyser: Well, it was a stunning revelation, because there had been an incredible amount of activity, of upset: He went down to do this, and he didn't. Where is it? I mean they went through all his materials in Martinique and New York trying to find the score. And then when it was found later in the spring - the death was on January 22nd - I did get a chance to just briefly look at it. And there was an awful lot of material - I think Leonard can tell you - because there were so many sketches...
Leonard Lehrman: We'll get to that. What happened was that Leonard Bernstein gave a memorial concert to Blitzstein [April 19, 1964] and announced that the score was lost. There was a gasp [from the audience], and it was announced in the paper, and this used-car dealer read that in the paper, happened to open the trunk and found it, and I think sent it to Bernstein. Did you see it then, when it was at Bernstein's?
Joan Peyser: Yes, but then Bernstein didn't really choose to finish it. Can we just leave it at that? Or have you got a lot more? Okay, go ahead.
Leonard Lehrman: It's true. He chose to finish Idiots First. Or he tried to.
Joan Peyser: That's another work.
Leonard Lehrman: That's another work. And then later in the year he announced that he'd given up on that. [I finished it nine years later, and he endorsed it.] Sacco and Vanzetti I was under the impression he never thought could be finished, or [never] wanted to, but just last month at the Library of Congress I found a letter [from a man in Boston] asking him to finish it, as late as 1980. And I got an email message just a couple of weeks ago from Daron Hagen, a composer who had studied with Bernstein at Tanglewood, who told me that Leonard Bernstein asked him if HE would finish it, in 1984. So it never left Bernstein's consciousness, that this maybe, somehow could be done.
Joan Peyser: Though he chose not to do it.
Questioner 3: I'm a little confused. I've never had the pleasure of reading the 1966 article. But as it's quoted in the biography, you're quoted as saying [p. 536] that Blitzstein's "style and sense of values had long since" gone away.
Joan Peyser: I haven't read Eric Gordon's book, I have to tell you.
Brenda Lewis: It's a good book.
Joan Peyser: Listen, I've come as a favor to Leonard.
Leonard Lehrman (putting his hand on Joan Peyser's shoulder): Joan is here as a favor to me because I asked her a question. I said: "You haven't written anything about Blitzstein since 1966, have you? And if not, why not?" And then I said to her, "Well why don't you come and do something if you haven't written anything?" So she's come. She really has. And I appreciate it.
Joan Peyser: But I never, never would have said that. Was that in quotes or was it a paraphrase?
Questioner 3: It's in quotes, and he is saying that it contributed to the decline in popular attention that Blitzstein had at that point.
Joan Peyser: I just reread my piece. I didn't say that.
Leonard Lehrman: That's a paraphrase.
Joan Peyser: That's why I haven't read the book. Anybody else?
Vincent Curcio: I have a question. We're all going to be lucky enough, if we haven't heard it already, to hear the Blitzstein and Lehrman version of it, and I would like to know from Maestro Coppola: What was your musical approach to Sacco and Vanzetti ? Is it verismo? Is it serial? And why did you take the musical approach you did to the material?
Anton Coppola: I wrote what I heard. In other words, I listened to the Muse. I was inspired by the words that I wrote myself, the way that Wagner wrote the music to his own dramas, in the same way that Leoncavallo wrote his I Pagliacci, to his own words. In other words, I followed the contour - the prosody was based on the contour of the words themselves. Therefore, when the libretto was in Italian, Italian music I suppose occurred to me. When they were in the other area of their lives, the English-speaking, then the music was no longer Italian but rather, in my mind, seemed to be American music. But then again, I must confess that because of my profession, because I've been exposed to so much operatic literature, that I cannot deny influences that were there. I mean, if something sounds Puccini-ish, well, why not? If something sounded Verdi-ish, why not? Or by the same token Debussy, or even Britten. Or even Wagner. Whatever it was. As I said before, I wrote whatever I heard.
Joan Peyser: Bernstein actually had said this was a problem with his writing original music, because he had a life immersed in conducting other music, and that it was very hard to push that from his brain.
Anton Coppola: How can you do that?
Joan Peyser: That's right. So you know every time he started work he said, "Oh my God, it sounds like this..."
Leonard Lehrman: One of the great works of the twentieth century starred Brenda Lewis and was conducted by Anton Coppola at its premiere, and that was Lizzie Borden. Was that a piece that influenced you also, or not?
Anton Coppola: I suppose in a way, once again, in my subconscious mind, maybe it did. I mean I conducted the world premiere of Of Mice and Men. I suppose some of that must have.
Joan Peyser: I think we should mention each of these composers' names. The first was Jack Beeson; the second Carlisle Floyd. Let's give them a little plug here! (Laughter.)
Anton Coppola: Speaking of influences, did Wagner deny that he was influenced by von Weber? Of course not.
Leonard Lehrman: He denied Meyerbeer, though.
Anton Coppola: I would understand why he would deny Meyerbeer. (Laughter.) I think everybody would deny Meyerbeer. (Laughter.)
Leonard Lehrman: A propos influences, as a matter of fact, you will hear, if you listen closely, a quote, three times, in one of Sacco's arias in Act II, from a work that was dedicated to Marc Blitzstein, written by Leonard Bernstein. It's Trouble in Tahiti. It was the first Bernstein work that I conducted, and it was at that production, of Marc Blitzstein's I've Got the Tune and The Harpies, and Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, at Harvard, that Bernstein came up for, on December 5, 1970, and gave me his blessing to complete Idiots First . So we're sort of returning the debt. And of course Eric Gordon's book and many others have pointed out the enormous number of debts that Bernstein owed to Blitzstein, in terms of borrowing from his work. You know the opening of Regina.
Brenda Lewis: The opening of REGINA is "Maria" [from West Side Story].
Leonard Lehrman (goes to piano and plays (from memory) the opening of Regina, Act I)
Joan Peyser: Any other questions?
Questioner 4: Mr. Coppola, is your work going to be produced in the future? Is there any theater that has contacted you, wanting to do so?
Anton Coppola: There's been quite a bit of excitement, a little bit, you know, like the bees are now buzzing around the honey. Already Taormina in Sicily is thinking about producing it. Already various regional opera companies in America want very much to consider it. The big problem, the question that is often asked, is why it is that American operas are not often produced. I think you [Joan] used the word "courage." Courage on the part of the impresarios in America. Because they don't have the wherewithal, they don't have the means, to produce operas unless they are more or less the standard fare, because they must depend on box office receipts. Whereas in Europe, many of the opera companies are subsidized by the government, so therefore the opera impresarios can afford to be more courageous. It's very likely that my opera will see more productions in Europe than in America.
Leonard Lehrman: I wanted to ask you something, though. I read that there were a few opera companies that had rejected the opera for various reasons. Now of course Marc's opera had terrible problems at first because the National Federation of Music Clubs passed a resolution against it [right after it was commissioned], saying it was un-American. There were 47,000 or so signatures against it. It was actually terribly scandalous, and very discouraging for him, of course. Richard Flusser is here. Do you remember him talking with you about that?
Richard Flusser: No, I don't.
Leonard Lehrman: You talked with him about the opera, but not about that?
Richard Flusser: Right.
Anton Coppola: You're worrying about a political objection?
Leonard Lehrman: Political objections in 1960 and 1964. But what happened when - I heard that the Cleveland Opera, for example, had rejected the Coppola Sacco and Vanzetti? Was that a political objection?
Anton Coppola: No, the Cleveland Opera was not. They're very seriously considering it. But once again, most of the opera companies will tell me, "Coppola, we'd love to do it, but we've already projected our programs two or three years in advance." And they have to do that. So therefore it's unlikely that we're going to see some productions of my opera before 2004.
Leonard Lehrman: On the other hand, be aware that next year is the 75th anniversary of the execution and the 25th anniversary of the exoneration.
Joan Peyser: Of the exoneration?
Leonard Lehrman: Yes, in 1977.
Brenda Lewis: By Michael Dukakis.
Anton Coppola: Where their names were cleared of any guilt whatsoever.
Leonard Lehrman: That's right. And as I said in an article that appeared in The Forward just yesterday, if we can't get it done by next year, then at least let's think about the Blitzstein Centennial in 2005. Maybe The White Barn would be the place to do a Blitzstein season? There are so many works of his. (Applause.)
Joan Peyser: Okay. I think we were told we would have one hour, and we've exceeded that, so, unless there's one more very pressing question, I'd just advise you all to attend the performance for which you have a ticket, and I hope you enjoy the experience. I haven't seen it yet.