A Quiet Place

An opera in three acts
by Leonard Bernstein
and Stephen Wadsworth
Incorporating Trouble in Tahiti (music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein)

Most sequels follow quickly, or not at all. But most sequel writers are not also world-renowned conductors, composers, educators, and television personalities—in other words, not Leonard Bernstein, who wrote Wonderful Town, Candide, West Side Story, Chichester Psalms, Kaddish and Mass (among many other works and engagements) between the premieres of his opera Trouble in Tahiti in 1952 and its sequel, A Quiet Place, in 1983.

Together, these two works—the only operas Bernstein wrote—reflect the vast changes in the American cultural landscape between the 1950s and the 1980s. Trouble in Tahiti takes a satirical look at 1950s American suburban life, gently exposing the illusion of contentment through its candid portrait of a couple's failing marriage; A Quiet Place offers a darker and more emotionally wrought examination of the same family thirty years later. What was satirical, melodic and jazz-inflected in the earlier chamber opera becomes deeply psychological and percussive, moving fluidly between tonality and atonality.

In 1980, when Bernstein discovered that a 30-year old writer named Stephen Wadsworth had a similar idea of writing a sequel opera to Trouble in Tahiti, they began working together and quickly discovered that they had several common goals. On a personal level, they both felt a need to write about death and loss, for Bernstein's wife Felicia had died two years earlier, of cancer, and Wadsworth's sister Nina had been killed in a tragic car accident one year before. Artistically, they both wanted to write an "American" opera—a through-sung opera that would use vernacular speech and music to explore American middle-class problems, and which would draw upon the American musical theater tradition as well as contemporary opera.

Repurposing musical and dramatic motifs from the earlier work, and picking up the story after three decades have passed, A Quiet Place tells the story of a contemporary American family struggling to connect, forgive, and accept one another's differences after the death of a loved one. They all yearn for and remember moments of intimacy, but struggle desperately to achieve it in the present. Though often dark and emotionally searing, A Quiet Place is interspersed with moments of communion, and ultimately ends on a hopeful note with a promise of reconciliation.

A triple commission from Houston Grand Opera, the Kennedy Center, and La Scala, A Quiet Place premiered in Houston on June 17, 1983, as a two-hour, one-act opera that followed Trouble in Tahiti on a double bill. The reviews were mixed and extreme. Some critics rejected the unusual subject matter and hybrid form, while others lauded the work for its musical sophistication and inventiveness. After the premiere, conductor John Mauceri urged the writers to re-conceive the relationship between the two works, and in the year that followed, Bernstein and Wadsworth trimmed parts of the original A Quiet Place and interpolated the 40-minute Trouble in Tahiti into the new work, as two flashback scenes.

The revised version—now a three-act opera containing all of Trouble in Tahiti—created a more immediate dialog between past and present, and between the original musical motifs and their reprises. The new A Quiet Place premiered at La Scala in June 1984, conducted by Mauceri and directed by Wadsworth. Very well received in Italy, it then moved to the Kennedy Center the following month. It was subsequently performed in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, but has not been staged professionally since Bernstein's death in 1990.

It may be that A Quiet Place was simply ahead of its time. As Bernstein said of his only full-length opera and final stage work, "It sounds like no other work by me or by anybody else I know of.... It has a special language and sound all its own. The American language has never been treated in this particular way before." However, much has changed in American opera in the past twenty years. Crossover works that blend a variety of musical styles and which explore contemporary subject matter are now much more common. In this new environment, A Quiet Place will finally enjoy its New York premiere this fall in a new production by New York City Opera, directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Jayce Ogren.


Sam's wife Dinah has recently been killed in an alcohol-induced car crash.
Act I Aria "You're Late" - Chester Ludgin, bass
Their two grown children, Junior and Dede, return home for their mother's funeral with Dede's husband (and Junior's lover), François. Sam has been estranged from his children for many years—Junior, who is mentally ill, had fled to Canada to dodge the Vietnam draft, and Dede and François live with him there to care for him. After the service, Sam excoriates the three of them, venting his anger, sorrow and confusion in a blistering, wrathful aria ("You're Late").
Act I Finale "Hey Big Daddy" - John Brandstetter, baritone
Junior, confronted by his Father's anger, loses all self-control, stripping off his clothes burlesque-style and accusing his father of killing his mother ("Hey big daddy"). They come to blows over Dinah's coffin, which crashes shut. Sam storms out, followed by Dede and François. Junior, alone, looks over the wreckage of the funeral as an orchestral Postlude, perhaps the most yearning, searching, searing music Bernstein ever wrote, closes the act.

Act I Postlude
Later that night, Sam reads in Dinah's diaries of her unhappiness and despair, and her anger towards Sam. Nevertheless, he misses her. In a flashback of their lives thirty years ago, Sam and Dinah fight - he escapes to his office and she to her analyst, where she relates a dream of being trapped in a dead garden, but hearing a voice telling her of another garden where 'love will lead us to a quiet place' ("There Is A Garden"). Dede enters, ending Sam's reverie, and together they go through Dinah's closet: Dede tries on Dinah's dress and Sam is stunned at the resemblance - father and daughter finally connect with one another.
Act II Aria "There is a Garden (Trouble in Tahiti)" - Wendy White, mezzo-soprano
Meanwhile, François confronts Junior about his outrageous behavior at the funeral parlor. Junior has a psychotic episode in which he imagines his father shooting him as a child, and taunts François, claiming that Dede will always belong to him alone. François gets Junior into bed and asleep, and he and Dede meet outside where he sings her a passionate aria about how much she means to him ("I've Been Afraid"). More memories are triggered for Sam. In another flashback, Young Sam, having won a handball trophy at the gym, sings a virile aria, "There's A Law", about winners and losers, putting himself squarely in the former category. Meanwhile, Dinah goes to the movies and sees a terrible musical, which she mocks in the bravura aria "What A Movie". At home later that night, the two are unable to reconcile. After faltering, half-hearted attempts at addressing the widening gulf of silence and resentment between them, Sam suggests they go see a movie – "something about 'Tahiti'". As Dinah dresses to see the same terrible film she saw just a few hours ago, they mourn the magic lost between them, now available only on the silver screen. Back in the present, Sam watches over his sleeping son, unable to bring himself to kiss him goodnight.

Act II Aria "Mommy, are you There?" - Beverly Morgan, soprano
The next morning finds Dede weeding her mother's garden ("Mommy, are you there?"), and she and Junior play games from their childhood. François and Sam enter and join in. At the height of their game of tag, François hurtles into Sam's arms – Sam embraces him and welcomes him to the family. Sam reads passages from Dinah's diary, including one in which she expresses her love for her family and wishes that they could learn to accept one another. Moved, Dede suggests they might stay on with Sam a few days – but they lose the thread of the tentative happiness they'd found as a discussion of who will sleep in which room becomes another fight. Dede starts to run off and Junior tosses Dinah's diary into the air. Junior tells Sam "it hurts so much to mean so much to you" and Sam finally embraces his son. François in turn reaches out to Dede, who takes a tentative step towards him as the curtain falls.

All audio selections from Vienna Staastsoper live recording, 1986. Released by Deutsche Grammophon 1987. Reissued by ArkivMusic and available for purchase here.

Photos Courtesy Houston Grand Opera


Read the complete Village Voice review (PDF)

"A bold, ambitious, and very interesting opera, containing some of Bernstein's most richly wrought music." —The New Yorker

"Wadsworth's words are deeply felt and ring right, and Bernstein's setting of them is virtuosic …. Individualistic, vivid and powerful." —Dallas Morning News

"A masterful music drama and a deeply moving statement on the subject of human tolerance." —Houston Post

"A huge success and the birth of a powerful new opera." —Village Voice

"One of Bernstein's most impressive scores ... the orchestration is as characterful as you could wish – punchy and seductive by turns." —Gramophone

"The richness of [Bernstein's] infectuously percussive pop-classical musical palette is astounding, with powerful juxtapositions of onstage singing and spoken dialogue, an offstage Greek chorus and perhaps his most imaginative orchestration ever." —USA Today

"An arresting piece of musical theater that is like no other." Dallas Morning News

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