First produced in Banff, Canada back in 2010, then in Long Beach, California in 2015, Marilyn Forever – an opera by composer Gavin Bryars and librettist Marilyn Bowering (based on her 1987 poetry collection, Anyone Can See I Love You) – makes its European debut in English with German surtitles at the Schwarzenbergplatz Casino in Vienna on selected dates from April 13-May 2nd. Rebecca Babb-Nelsen stars as Marilyn.
“Starting from the last night in the life of Marilyn Monroe, 5 August 1962, the scenes of the opera unfold in front of the audience like pieces of a puzzle that together make up the myth of Marilyn: moments of her life, set pieces from her poems, her relationship with Arthur Miller, the identities of the orphan Norma Jeane and the fictional character Marilyn, the discrepancy between their personal ideals of love and artistry and the outward appearance of the sex symbol. The eight-member chamber orchestra is complemented by a jazz trio on stage.”
The first season at The Shed, a new multi-arts centre opening at the Hudson Yards next year, will include Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, an intriguing collaboration depicting Marilyn as the Spartan queen famed in Greek mythology, whose incomparable beauty was said to have sparked the Trojan War, as Andrew R. Chow reports for the New York Times.
“On Wednesday, the Shed’s artistic director, Alex Poots, revealed the first batch of commissions for the Hudson Yards venue’s inaugural season.
The ambitious, genre-melding performances will begin in the spring of 2019, and include a musical series conceived by Steve McQueen and Quincy Jones and a collaboration between the poet Anne Carson, the actor Ben Whishaw and the opera singer Renée Fleming.
A newly commissioned piece by Ms. Carson entitled Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, based on Euripides’ Helen, will be shown in the venue’s more intimate theater space. (The play draws a line between Helen and Marilyn Monroe, who was baptized as Norma Jeane Baker.)
‘I asked Ann, Would you ever consider writing a dramatic monologue for a performer?’ Mr. Poots recalled. ‘Within six to nine months, she sent me the first draft and said: ‘I’ve written this for Ben Whishaw. And he’ll do it.’ Mr. Whishaw will perform it with Ms. Fleming.”
Robin De Raaff’s opera, Waiting For Miss Monroe, was staged at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam in 2012, starring Laura Aikin as Marilyn. A CD recording is now available, with a 4-star review from The Guardian‘s Andrew Clements.
“In Waiting for Miss Monroe, De Raaff and his librettist Janine Brogt concentrate on the last few months of the star’s life in 1962, including her famous appearance at President Kennedy’s birthday party, the problems surrounding her final film, and her lonely death, when she is confronted by memories of her former self, Norma Jean, and rejected by all the men who formerly worshipped her. De Raaff and Brogt are emphatic that what they devised is not a biopic but a fictionalised work that attempts to explore Monroe’s inner world, as revealed in her conversations with a young woman, Eve, who arrives to take photographs of her, which are intercut with the film studio confrontations and the Kennedy party.
It all works convincingly enough up to a point. The text is sung in English and some of Raaff’s vocal writing, wide-ranging but fundamentally tonal, curiously echoes passages in the later work of Michael Tippett, The Ice Break especially, though Raaff’s orchestral writing is much more unbuttoned and eclectic. Yet the passages of melodrama, when the characters resort to spoken dialogue, somehow breaks the operatic spell; it’s as if the music is abdicating its expressive responsibilities in a work that otherwise doesn’t flinch from the having the most commonplace exchanges sung. The score is haunted by the ghosts of songs associated with Monroe, especially I Wanna Be Loved By You, though the references are never too explicit. It is an intelligent if not entirely successful attempt on a tempting but, perhaps in the end, a dramatically intractable subject.”
Norman Rosten (1913-1995), a poet and playwright dubbed the ‘Bard of Brooklyn’, was a friend of Arthur Miller from their college days at Ann Arbor in Michigan. He met Marilyn through another mutual friend, photographer Sam Shaw, in 1955. Norman and his wife, Hedda Rosten, soon grew close to Marilyn, and he was one of the last to speak with her at length the day before she died. Marilyn would bequeath $5,000 for the education of his daughter, Patricia Rosten, in her will.
In 1973, Norman published a memoir, Marilyn: an Untold Story, and he also provided the text for Sam Shaw’s pictorial tribute, Marilyn Among Friends. Sadly, Arthur Miller would never forgive Norman for going public (although Miller wrote about Marilyn in his own autobiography, and drew on her memory in several plays.)
Among Marilyn’s fans, however, Rosten is regarded as a ‘mensch’, and one of her few associates to emerge with much credit. In an article for the Huffington Post, the children’s author and illustrator, Melanie Hope Greenberg, shares her own fond memories of Norman.
“In the mid-1980’s I had read excerpts of a memoir about the iconic celebrity, Marilyn Monroe, in the New York Post. It was written by Monroe’s close friend, Norman Rosten, Brooklyn’s first poet laureate, novelist, playwright, and college friend of Arthur Miller, Monroe’s husband. I remember riding home on the subway and recognizing Rosten from his photo in the newspaper as we both departed the Borough Hall Station in Brooklyn Heights. I never dreamed that a few years later he and I would collaborate on a reissued book of poetry and publish a picture book together.
During the late 1980’s a community of writers and poets gathered in Brooklyn Heights at a children’s bookstore on Montague Street. Cousin Arthur’s Book Shop was a delightful resource in our neighborhood. The shop featured children’s events as well as poetry reading for adults … I officially met Norman Rosten at the front counter of Cousin Arthur’s where they gave away the free cookies.
During that time I was also a freelance graphics artist designing Cousin Arthur’s news and event posters. The Tramontes hired me to work on a book their poetry press planned to reissue and publish. Songs For Patricia, Rosten’s book of poetry for his daughter, was originally published in 1951. Norman’s teacher and poet friend had a print shop for book production at Wingate High School in Brooklyn. Norman and I traveled together and bonded during our ‘Wingate H.S. Adventure’. He was a ball of energy at 73 years old. I was more than half his age and out of breath chasing him up the school’s stairwell to the print shop.
Norman became a mensch mentor. He was grounded and did not take himself too seriously. He was wise and aware of the glories and pitfalls of fame. A kind neighbor and gentleman whenever I saw him on the street. I understand how Marilyn Monroe must have felt safe with Norman and acknowledged as an artist.”
While researching this story, I learned that composer Ezra Laderman, who collaborated with Norman on a Marilyn-inspired opera, died in March 2015. From Laderman’s New York Times obituary:
“Mr. Laderman (pronounced LAD-er-man), was a prolific composer of symphonic, chamber and vocal music, as well as a bevy of works for traditionally neglected instruments like the viola and the bassoon. But on account of its subject matter, it was Marilyn, commissioned to honor the 50th anniversary of the New York City Opera, that made him known to the general public.
Mr. Laderman’s eclecticism was on abundant display in Marilyn, which received its world premiere at City Opera on Oct. 6, 1993, with the soprano Kathryn Gamberoni in the title role. The opera, with a libretto by the poet Norman Rosten, was performed under the baton of Hal France; Mr. Laderman’s score fused tonal, atonal and serial elements with jazz, folk and pop motifs evocative of Monroe’s era.
The production garnered advance publicity round the world, with every performance sold out well ahead of time. The reviews were mixed at best, with some critics embracing the score for its stylistic range but others dismissing it as a pastiche.
In an interview with The Hartford Courant in 1994, Mr. Laderman was asked what lessons he had drawn from the critical response to “Marilyn.”
‘One lesson is that a lot of people apparently thought Marilyn Monroe was not a suitable topic for an opera,’ he replied. He added: ‘I disagree.'”
The Long Beach premiere of Gavin Bryars’ opera, Marilyn Forever, has attracted a lot of media coverage. Poet Marilyn Bowering, who wrote the libretto, spoke to the Hollywood Reporter:
“Back in the late-1980s, Bowering was approached by a TV producer, who also happened to be named Marilyn, about collaborating on an unspecified project. Nothing ever came of it until the producer finally said, ‘My name’s Marilyn. Your name’s Marilyn. What about Marilyn Monroe?’ Out of that partnership came Anyone Can See I Love You, a series of Monroe’s interior monologues dramatized for BBC Radio and later reworked as a collection of poems.
Apart from being blessed with acting talent and ethereal beauty, Monroe had an intangible quality that made an indelible mark on the popular psyche. Bowering thinks it may have to do with a period in her adolescence spent living with her aunt Ana Lower, who introduced Monroe to the Church of Christian Science, where she remained a follower for eight years.
‘That teaching, which kind of puts you in charge of how you see the world and the world is made of love, had a real influence on her and made her this unusual person who didn’t seem to feel guilt about her sexuality,’ says Bowering. ‘It fed into this kind of idealism about love. There was an absolute kind of love, which would never be achievable and would turn out disastrously in real life, but there’s a sense she was always searching for these kind of ideals.’
Drawing on his early days as a jazz bassist, Bryars (who will sit in on bass for the March 21 performance) incorporates mid-century jazz melodies in his opera, sometimes referencing pop songs of the era. ‘Marilyn was a product of popular film and music,’ says Bryars about creating what director Andreas Mitisek calls ‘a meta-world reflecting on her life, career and relationships.’
‘My initial take is that’s really interesting,’ says Bowering about director Mitisek’s novel approach. ‘I think the whole process has just reminded me of the essential aspects of it, the bits. That’s poetry basically, the things that deal with human emotions. That is really what matters. And a lot of the other stuff, in any art form but particularly mine, can fall away and it doesn’t matter. But these things, which really are about how people feel, are all that matters.'”
“The production and direction is by the company’s artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, and he took the liberty of dividing the lead role, Monroe, in two. Thus, we get a Marilyn in her bedroom, drinking, taking pills, recalling her life on one side of the stage, and a ‘public’ Marilyn, re-enacting those memories on the other. A single male role, Rehearsal Director, transforms into her several lovers (including Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio, though they are never named). A male duo, the Tritones, serves as chorus, commenting (sparingly) on the action.
Mitisek added live video, as well as some documentary footage, to the mix, all projected on scrims draped across the stage, creating an effective dream world. The division of Monroe worked well enough, but may not have been necessary. The part doesn’t always seem clearly split between the public and private character.
At any rate, soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond played the more private Monroe in a recognizable way, sensuous, nervous, making love to the camera. She sang sumptuously, expressively. Jamie Chamberlin gave the public Monroe a nice star-struck vulnerability, in shimmering tones, comfortable with the jazz. Lee Gregory sang the male parts with a fresh eloquence. Robert Norman and Adrian Rosales were the capable Tritones.”
“Live video projected large did help make each Marilyn more present, but the video also amplified the contrast between standard-issue upbeat and downbeat doppelgäangers. Watching the 80-minute performance, I kept thinking that the operatic Marilyn was given exactly the kind of typecasting that the real Monroe was trying to escape.
But Bryars’ score is her exit route…Bryars’ eloquent score has an overriding melancholic quality with an effortless flow between onstage jazz and the more symphonic style of the pit band. Vocal lines are all flowing melody, mostly unresolved. Period-style pop songs in the style that Marilyn might have sung emerge in and out of the general musical material, as though moods of Marilyn, although Bowering’s pop lyrics miss the Tin Pan Alley zing by a mile.
The maudlin Marilyn here dims the light of the bright Marilyn. The true Marilyn was both, and her allure wasn’t, as it feels with this text and this staging, mimickry. With the help of Bryars’ bluesy wonder, very good singing throughout and Bill Linwood’s expert conducting, Marilyn struggles to come alive. Just as she did so sadly, yet so wondrously, in real life.”
Writing for L.A. Weekly, Christian Hertzog was more critical:
“Marilyn Forever sounds like the title of a campy revue at the Cavern Club, but Long Beach Opera’s production at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro is a morose meditation on stardom, sex and self-destruction.
Unfortunately, this U.S. premiere never comes together. Is it the fault of Marilyn Bowering’s vague libretto, a jumble of half-factual, half-imagined episodes from Monroe’s life? Could it be 80 nonstop minutes of Gavin Bryars’ brooding, amorphous music? Is it director Andreas Mitisek’s unclear telling of the story, or his bizarre decision to split the role of Marilyn between two singers?
Bowering’s libretto is a memory play. Monroe lies dying on her bed, incidents from her life oozing through the barbiturate fog — a late arrival at a studio, an inability to sing (or act?), a boudoir scene with a man (possibly Arthur Miller), a mysterious booty call.
Is the libretto too ambiguous for its own good, or does it have latent possibilities for creative staging? Hard to tell here, as Mitisek’s design and direction either disregarded the libretto’s instructions or did a poor job rendering them comprehensible.
Mitisek divides the single role of Marilyn into two separate parts: overdose-suicide Marilyn (portrayed by Danielle Marcelle Bond) and past-memories Marilyn (Jamie Chamberlin). This drains the lead part of its bipolar showmanship. The role should spotlight a singer’s acting skills as she bounces back and forth from woozy, dying Marilyn to sex symbol or troubled wife.
The libretto uses familiar iconography: Monroe as an insecure woman whose radiant sexuality blinded men to her other traits. Bryars gives Marilyn’s part no compelling melodies, and the musical differentiation between her dying and lively personas is too subtle. To do justice to this character requires a singer with a dazzling, oversized voice and a magnetic stage presence.
Chamberlin possessed a firm, focused voice, but there was no brilliance to it. Her acting didn’t exaggerate enough the feminine qualities of Marilyn, winding up a mere simulacrum of Marilyn’s potency instead.
Bond’s voice had a bit more oomph, and she sold us on the pathetic, fading Marilyn, but it’s unclear if she could shift dramatically and vocally into the powerful movie star, if she were to one day inhabit the full role.”
Today’s Los Angeles Timeslooks at Gavin Bryars’ opera, Marilyn Forever, which has its US premiere on March 21 at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro. Bryars has previously worked with revered artists such as John Cage, Brian Eno and Tom Waits. (Marilyn will be played by two different singers: Danielle Marcelle Bond, and Jamie Chamberlin.)
“Working with Canadian poet and novelist Marilyn Bowering, Bryars combines languid jazz trio passages with somber, primarily low-register woodwinds, horns and strings to weave a broodingly emotional portrait that probes Monroe’s troubled mind and yearning spirit instead of laying out her biography or re-creating moments from her films.
This is a poetic and philosophical Monroe, whose lines include ‘all life on this planet is a film gone too far’ and ‘you think desire evolves in stages? No, it’s all one moment of strange beauty.’
Bryars, 72, said his Monroe was consistent with the Marilyn who briefly became his obsession in 1963 when he was a 20-year-old philosophy student at Sheffield University. The Misfits, the 1961 drama that was the last film for Monroe and co-star Clark Gable, arrived at a local cinema, and Bryars was there every night, sitting through a forgettable second feature to see it over and over without having to pay an extra admission.
After becoming friendly with [Marilyn] Bowering, a neighbor on Vancouver Island, Bryars began reading her books. One is Anyone Can See I Love You, a series of poetic monologues spoken by Marilyn Monroe that was published in 1987 and adapted as a BBC radio drama.
‘I thought [Bowering] grasped many of the important things I found in Marilyn,’ Bryars said. ‘Often, she plays the dumb blond, the bimbo as it were, but you always have a sense of something else, something in depth and intelligent behind that facade.’
Bryars asked Bowering if she’d help him turn her Marilyn into his protagonist, and in 2010, they began developing the opera in a retreat at Banff in the Canadian Rockies.
The composer said he quickly vetoed including or elaborating on songs Monroe had sung in films — for the purely practical reason that it would have been expensive to secure the rights to use them. Instead, he wrote a couple of 1950s jazz standards-style ballads of his own for scenes in which Monroe is recording a song or slow-dancing with one of the men in her life, all played by a single baritone.
With Marilyn Forever, he said, librettist Bowering had no problem revising her book and radio script to go with the musical flow and propel the drama.
The 2013 premiere of Marilyn Forever in Victoria[Canada] and the recent Australian staging featured the same director and core musicians from Aventa Ensemble. Now Bryars will have to let go and see what Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic director, will make of it.
[Mitisek] has decided that Marilyn Forever should have two Marilyns — a soprano for the public figure and a mezzo-soprano for the inward, private woman.”
Forever Marilyn, an opera by Gavin Bryars (based on Marilyn Bowering’s 1987 poetry collection, Anyone Can See I Love You), has received a National Endowment for the Arts after several years in development, reports the L.A. Times.
“The NEA is giving Long Beach Opera $30,000 to help it dive into the Marilyn Monroe myth with the U.S. premiere of Marilyn Forever by composer Gavin Bryars and librettist Marilyn Bowering, scheduled for two performances in March at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro. It premiered last year in Victoria, Canada, cast with two singers — one playing Monroe and the other a ‘chorus of men’ in her life. The accompanists were a chamber orchestra and a jazz trio that included Bryars on bass.”
Marilyn Forever is an opera by British composer Gavin Bryars, with a libretto by Canadian poet Marilyn Bowering (author of Anyone Can See I Love You, a 1987 volume about MM.) Marilyn Forever was previously workshopped in Canada, with singer Eivør Pálsdóttir in the title role. Now the Long Beach Postreports that Marilyn Forever is heading to California, opening at the Long Beach Opera in March 2015.
Amsterdam’s latest opera, Waiting For Miss Monroe, is reviewed in today’s Financial Times.
“Coming hot on the heels of Simon Curtis’s reverent film My Week With Marilyn, Raaff’s Waiting hits a similar note of literalistic hagiography. Though the medium of opera could have afforded the makers the chance to explore more distantly associative territory, Raaff and his team have stuck with a handful of well-explored biographical reflections. The opera’s three scenes trundle through Monroe’s fabled lateness on set, her fear of the film camera, her love affair with drugs and alcohol, her insecurity, her birthday hymn for JFK, and her death (a duet with her former self, Norma Jeane).”