“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.”