Front, left to right: Robert Norman (Tritone), Jamie Chamberlin (Marilyn), Lee Gregory (Rehearsal Director and The Men), Danielle Marcelle Bond (Marilyn), Adrian Rosales (Tritone). Photo courtesy of Long Beach Opera.
Marilyn Monroe needs no introduction, at least, not in the traditional sense. The very epitome of glamor and celebrity, everyone is at least familiar with the idea of Marilyn.
What people are likely less familiar with is the personal landscape inside of the iconic movie star. Gavin Bryars' new opera, Marilyn Forever, tackles this less explored terrain, illuminating Marilyn three dimensionally and challenging the clichés that so often shroud her legacy. In a brand new production mounted by Long Beach Opera Marilyn Forever makes its U.S. Premiere.
I talked just before the opening with the composer of Marilyn Forever, Gavin Bryars, one of the more diverse and important composers in contemporary music currently living, and with Andreas Mitisek, Artistic/General Director of Long Beach Opera and stage director of this production, to discuss the opera, its creation, this production, and the ever-fascinating woman on which it is based.
Above: Gavin Bryars, composer of Marilyn Forever. Photo courtesy of Zaleski Enterprises. Below, left: Bryars playing bass. Photo courtesy of Alf Solbakken.
JR: I wanted to start talking about Marilyn herself and your interest in her. Did it start when you saw The Misfits? I read that you had a very intimate love for that film when it came out. Did it begin then or was it something that had started a while before that?
Bryars: That film . . . really touched me. I've said before when [The Misfits] came out there was a brief period where I saw it every night. There were a lot of great performances in it and the screenplay is really beautiful . . . Before that I'd seen a lot of Marilyn's films and liked a lot of them . . . but I think it was The Misfits where I saw that she really could act. I had a sense of some really hidden depths that I hadn't been aware of before.
JR: At what point in time did you come across Marilyn Bowering's poetry about Marilyn and how did the two of you come to adapting that into Marilyn Forever?
Bryars: Well that was much later. I moved to the west coast of Canada, not permanently, but I go back and forth. I went there initially in 1998 to work on a film and ended up marrying the director. My wife is a Russian-born film director who immigrated to Vancouver Island, and my son was born there. I met Marilyn [Bowering] because there's this very rich and interesting artistic community on the island. We got to know each other well. She gave me some of her books and I set some lines from one of her novels as a song with orchestra for Hong Kong. Gradually we became friends and spent time with each other every summer. She gave me this book of poetry about Marilyn Monroe she wrote called Anyone Can See I Love You which is a beautiful book and she gave me a copy of her radio play, which she'd done with BBC Scotland as well.
JR: Was the radio play adapted from her book?
Bryars: She used the poems and the same situation that we use in the opera as a structure for that radio play. It's Marilyn herself in this sort of recording studio and there are three men there. They form a jazz trio: a bass player, sax player and a pianist. In the course of the radio play, each one of them becomes one of her three husbands and she sings songs that she sang in her life. So basically, it's a performance of her movie songs interspersed with reflections on her life. I thought it was an intriguing dramatic situation. Especially since it was in this sort of enclosed world. I've done three big main stage operas so I thought making this sort of intimate piece, something that essentially was much more portable with a small cast and minimal resources for staging, would be interesting. I saw this as sort of the nucleus of an idea. The radio play didn't work in itself as a chamber opera but Marilyn worked up a libretto and we spent a couple weeks in Banff, Alberta about five years ago developing it. Then after lying dormant for a little while we came back to it and finished it about two years ago.
JR: How has the opera's representation of Marilyn changed from the one that appears in the poetry? Has the focus of her character shifted drastically or is it in a similar zone?
Bryars: I think it's in a similar zone. With Marilyn being exposed through the poetry there is a range of emotional depths, resonances and characteristics that one would likely not expect publicly. It stays within that sort of world, but of course by creating a dramatic entity, we can bring out many more things in terms of relationships. The poetry is just a single voice but here there are outside situations that she is responding to and things happening around her. It all becomes richer. There is no strict narrative in the piece, although there are narrative moments, and so in a way it is abstract in the same way that first existed in the poetry.
JR: After working on such big operas in the past, what were the challenges of writing something on a smaller scale?
Bryars: In a way I found it not easier, but less dense. I didn't have to write for a whole orchestra and a massive chorus and a cast of thirteen. Those productions are always very expensive and you have the weight of all that on your shoulders. Most stage operas are a very tricky thing; you work for however long and then you maybe have five performances seen by, say, 3000 people, so it's a lot of work for very little at the end. In this case, because the dimension is much smaller, and because the instrument resources are very similar to what I use in my own ensemble, I was already very familiar with how the human voice works in that kind of resonance. I luckily felt very comfortable writing this piece. Also, I've written things for jazz performance in the past but usually those have been arrangements for other people's work. When I've done that I kind of had to become a different person. Most of the time I've avoided jazz in my main compositions. Here, however, was a chance to integrate jazz music in some way and to make this sort of ambiguous flow between styles, which the opera unquestionably has.
JR: How many incarnations of the Opera have happened so far?
Bryars: This is actually the third. There were the two premier performances in Victoria [Victoria Island, B.C.] and then we took that same production to Australia. This, however, is a completely new production and a completely new cast altogether. It is the same conductor that was with it in those different cities, though.
JR: How is this production different from the previous one?
Bryars: Well here for example, Andreas came up with this idea where he wanted to have two different Marilyns on stage; one that tends to be the public star and the other, the more private version of her. Sometimes they both sing at the same time as well. I was curious about that. Immediately, I found that idea sort of provocative. What he has done here is very, very beautiful and really interesting. There are a lot of special moments. I also applaud him about using the two Marylins and not asking me about it. I think he was absolutely right in that because once I've done a piece and it's out of the way, it's everyone else's music. It's like, Mozart couldn't go around crying because some kid plays his piano sonata really badly. It has to go out there and it sometimes has to be given bad performances. It's not at all that this is being given a bad performance here, quite the contrary, but it has to take its own risks. It has to go out on its own, like children growing up. I have to go on as well because I have other things to write and do.
JR: You're playing the bass on the opening night here and you played bass with this opera in the past. Is it difficult making the transition between being a creator and being a performer?
Bryars: Not at all. To be honest, I prefer it to just sitting in the audience because that just feels so passive. In this case, however, I'm there as part of the team, as one of the musicians. I don't have to be there, but I can be. It's really nice. In a way, that's sort of how I view things. I am a practical musician when I work with my own ensemble and I direct from my base as just one of the musicians. That seems to me to be the essence of how to make music: to work as colleagues with the players.
Andreas Mitisek, Artistic/General Director of Long Beach Opera. Photo courtesy of Long Beach Opera.
JR: Why is premiering and presenting new works so important to you and to Long Beach Opera in general?
Mitisek: I think it goes not only for opera but for every art form. If we just repeat what's already there we don't get to explore more of our world. Would you only want to see movies from the good old times? They're great of course but nothing there tells new stories or tells things in a new way. Marilyn's may not be a new story but it is a great new view of her story.
JR: How does this opera fall in line with that vision and what was it about this work that made you choose to make it a part of your season this year?
Mitisek: Well, Marilyn Monroe doesn't really need much of an introduction. She's an LA girl, you know? Marilyn Forever is an opera that needs to be seen in Los Angeles for the simple fact that it is about someone from here. I also think it's a really beautiful work that has a lot of poetic qualities. It shows the private side of such a world-famous icon. I also think it's a very touching and moving piece. She was a very lonely person. She deserves to be heard.
JR: When you are directing an opera, what are the initial challenges and the first things you have to think about when you're getting something up on its feet?
Mitisek: Initially reading the work and letting it sink in is the first step. I read the work and then thought about what to do with it. The first thing that came to me was that there are two different Marilyns we are experiencing here. With this in mind, I decided to cast the role with two different people even though it was written for only one singer. I split Marilyn in half here so in this production we see both the starlet and the private representation of her simultaneously on stage. It is interesting to see how this shifts the dynamic between the public and the private lives she lived. It becomes a very fascinating journey. Besides splitting Marilyn's character, I wanted to play with the element of film and to have the action on stage being filmed and projected with lots of close-ups creating an even further intimacy with the material.
JR: There are challenges with the singers it seems, because the music exists, like Marilyn, between two very different worlds as well. Isn't that right? One, the more popular jazz style of singing and the other in the more classical realm.
Mitisek: Yes. I think that also makes the work very interesting because it doesn't just stick to one world, it exists in many. In fusing jazz together with classical elements it creates a great diversity here. It was so exciting yesterday to have Mr. Bryars play on stage during the rehearsal. That he is playing opening night with us is quite the honor.
JR: When dealing with someone as iconic as Marilyn Monroe, with so many perceptions about who or what she was/is, how do you go about honoring that history but also finding your own voice and vision in this material?
Mitisek: We are not really using any Marilyn footage ourselves. We use some photos that we filmed and the live footage, but it's important that it's not about impersonation for the singers here. They may be dressed partially like her but I hope this takes things beyond that, beyond the clichés that we know. In fact, I think that's what this work does. It really helps us look beyond the facade of the Marilyn we know from the movies. We don't want to really go out and try to “do Marilyn” because you know, there was really only one.
Marilyn Forever has only one of its two performances left on Sunday March 29th at 2:30pm. It takes place at the beautiful, art deco Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro. Tickets are available online.