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Bob Bernard's Corner: And the Angels Sing--Gavin Bryars' Chamber Opera "Marilyn Forever"

Only in America …..

nobody claimed me but a city.
 L.A. had to feed me.
 L.A. had to

 not let me die.
    From Marilyn Bowering's poem, "Norma Jean", in “Anyone Can See I Love You” (1987)

 

Only in America could this child, born to a mentally-ill mother (and undocumented father) in a Los Angeles charity ward and raised in a series of foster homes, come to be the featured performer at a celebrated gathering for our Head-of-State:

Happy birthday!
You and I are on intimate terms

with eternity.
    From Marilyn Bowering's poem, "Happy Birthday, Mr. President", in “Anyone Can See I Love You”

Author Marilyn Bowering’s cycle of poems, a by-product of the drama she wrote for both the stage and BBC radio some years’ back, became a primary resource for her libretto of composer Gavin Bryars chamber opera Marilyn Forever. This opera premiered in Victoria, Canada in 2013 and will now have its U.S. premiere under the auspices of Long Beach Opera [LBO] at the historic Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro on March 21 and 29.

The opera’s overall plotline is akin to that used for the 2004 musical biographical film of the life of Cole Porter “De-Lovely”, where, as he is about to die, Porter's life flashes before him in the form of a musical production staged by the archangel Gabriel. Managing the action in Marilyn Forever is a generic composite Stage Director, but one obviously more Billy Wilder than, say, John Huston. Bowering’s poetry from her book is quoted throughout the libretto.

The opera’s orchestration is innovative: an on-stage jazz trio (saxophone, piano and string bass) being supplemented by a nine member chamber ensemble in the orchestra pit. The saxophone often dominates the musical background, much as saxophonist Bernt Rosengren’s playing did for Roman Polanski’s 1962 Polish film “Knife in the Water”. Phil Dwyer, a Member of the Order of Canada, played the sax for the opera’s premiere. Maestro Bill Linwood, the conductor for the world premiere, will reprise that task for LBO.

Soprano Jamie Chamberlin and mezzo Danielle Marcelle Bond will split the role of Marilyn for LBO’s production, Danielle portraying the ‘real’ woman and Jamie the ‘on-camera’ Marilyn. Both have sung recently with our predominant opera companies. Jamie, a member of the Los Angeles Opera [LAO] chorus, was Lucy in LBO’s production of Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cherry Town, and Ms. Bond recently sang the role of Witness #3 for LAO’s Ghosts of Versailles and that of the British Dancing Girl for LBO’s The Death of Klinghoffer.

The single male principal performer’s role is chameleonic in nature: he begins as the Stage Director, morphs into (and reiteratively transfers back from) transient scenes as Marilyn’s three husbands – L.A. police detective James Dougherty, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, and writer Arthur Miller. Baritone Lee Gregory, recently seen at LBO as the Captain in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer and as William in Glass’ The Fall of the House of Usher, will take on this role.

               

Soprano Jamie Chamberlin (left), Baritone Lee Gregor, Mezzo Danielle Marcelle Bond

By definition, every live operatic performance is unique, but the U.S. premiere will be extraordinarily so, because:

  • Composer Gavin Bryars, now a member of LBO’s Artistic Committee – besides being in attendance - will play the double-bass as part of the on-stage jazz trio.
  • At a few specific points of the score, the featured saxophonist is granted the ultimate artistic freedom to “ad-lib”. The most prominent example of this is heard in the opera’s closing fifteen bars, which follow these post-mortem thoughts of Marilyn from her final home in Pierce Brothers Westwood Cemetery:

A walled garden, a small chapel,
a lawn dotted with headstones, 
In the walls are burials, layer on layer.

I am in the Corridor of Memories.
Sunshine falling over the walls like broken glass.
Inside, enclosed, safe.

    From Marilyn Bowering's untitled poem in “Anyone Can See I Love You"

..... Only in Los Angeles.

 

 

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Author: Judy Lieb
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