An Interview with Stephen Wadsworth
Leonard Bernstein’s centenary has been particularly healthy for his legacy as a composer. While “West Side Story” has been an uninterrupted success since its premiere in 1957, it also became almost like a mortgage that Bernstein spent the rest of his years paying off with other creative struggles. His compositional talent, which lay in a fluency with eclecticism and a natural feel for melody, was given to him in an era where serious music was by default serial. The works he wrote after leaving the New York Philharmonic in 1969 were regularly panned in the newspapers.
Today, pieces such as the Violin Concerto or the 1971 Mass have been recorded countless times. Still, there’s more out there to discover. Particularly his ambitious, deeply personal, and only “real” opera, “A Quiet Place.” It’s a dark portrayal of a nightmarish family, focused on the character of Junior, the gay son of parents alienated from each other. The story is autobiographical, the music among Bernstein’s most complex. This personal libretto is by Stephen Wadsworth, whom I met at Juilliard recently (as part of a documentary for the French-German TV station ARTE), where he teaches. Wadsworth is open and hilarious—a clue, no doubt, to why he was able to survive years of working with the famously difficult Bernstein unscathed.
VAN: When I think of Bernstein, I think of the movie version of “West Side Story” and the endless reruns of the concerts he conducted on TV. This was in the 1980s. You met him around the same time. How famous was he by then?
Stephen Wadsworth: Well, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” had been a disappointment. His more experienced collaborators, it seemed to me, were sort of over him. They had thrown up their hands at Lenny. Everything written during the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s was like, “Leonard Bernstein is the great disappointment in American music. He’s never been able to write West Side Story again.” People wrote the most scathing, horrible things—and very personal.
How did you end up working with him? You were young back then and didn’t have any connections.
I’d read somewhere about how he was having trouble finding a librettist. He tried some old collaborators and they had talked, but nothing had worked out. And he wanted to write an opera. So I wrote and I said, “I met your daughter on the last day of Harvard. I dropped out. She graduated. And…could I come and interview you? P.S. Interested in librettos.” And he called me back! He said, “Come on Tuesday afternoon and bring me a scenario for a sequel to ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ and I will give you an interview.” I said, “Fair!”
It obviously worked out.
I had to get recordings of everything, including “Trouble in Tahiti,” and really, really listen to his music, get scores from the library and everything. And I had to do it fast, because it was quite late on that Friday. I don’t think I slept for two days. I did a treatment of “Trouble in Tahiti,” taking that couple many years later. They were a couple disappearing into a sort of bland, elderly existence, not knowing how to deal with mourning and grief many years after the fact of Junior’s death. And so I took that to him, and it was kind of a neat, well-thought-out little thing.
It also had this had this grief business in it and that was real. I had recently lost my sister, and he responded to that, because Felicia had died not a year before. And my sister had died two years before. He said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we both…”
What was he like back then?
He always had at least two cigarettes going and there were always a few glasses of watered-down Scotch around the room. He was a mess. He was suspicious and very into telling me what was wrong with me. And so I went through a three hour marathon meeting with this man, half the time having this fantastic talk about things that were of mutual interest to us. And the other half…when he said to me, after two and a half hours, “You know your problem? You hate yourself,” what I answered was, “I wish I had a mirror, so I could hold it up and you could say that again.”
Did his bad mood have to do with the recent death of his wife Felicia?
He loved Felicia comple—…deeply. She was his best pal. I think it was a fantastic marriage. Was it missing maybe some things? I’m sure it was. Most marriages are, but his was in the spotlight. I think there was a way in which he really felt responsible for her death, because he left her for Tommy Cothran, which blew her world apart. And very shortly after she got cancer. So he went right there and he stayed there. But to my knowledge, he never let go of the guilt and the genuine grief just over missing her.
I’d always thought of him as such a star in the ‘60s and ‘70s, charming and confident.
I felt there was a tremendous doubt that wasn’t coming from him. I mean, there was also lots of doubt coming from him, which was a beautiful thing. He knew it was going to be living hell to get this opera out of himself. But there was a lot of unkindness about him that came up whenever people saw me and they knew that I was doing this. They were like, “Good luck. That’ll never happen.”
What was the day-to-day process of collaboration with him like?
I’ll give you an example. By the winter of 1980 or ’81, he’d only written little bits of “A Quiet Place.” But then in 1982, we went to Indiana University, and the dean there said they’d do some workshops of his music. And he went to sleep for nine days. He slept for probably 22 hours out of every 24. He’d only drag himself out of bed for meals. At one point I went up to his room, and he had taped these black garbage bags to the windows. I asked him if he wanted a sandwich and if he wanted to live. He said to me, “Oh baby, I’m so sorry.” I left and went downstairs.
Suddenly, he’s playing the piano. I go upstairs and he’s butt naked on the piano stool playing the old popular song, “Who put the snatch on the Lindbergh baby?” All of the garbage bags were sort of half torn down. And he was sitting there like he’d been born about 20 minutes ago. He was like, “Hi. What should we do?”
How did Bernstein reconcile his conductor self with his composer self?
There was one time when he had quoted from the Brahms Second Symphony, a melody and a few of the harmonies, and I was like, “Oh, it’s Brahms Two.” And he was like, “Fuck you!” Absolutely furious. He’d say, “You know, I go off and I conduct Brahms Two and Mahler Five, and then I try to take time off and not think about them, and then I write music and there they are.”
The premiere of “A Quiet Place” took place in Houston in 1983. How did it go?
The people in Houston had all come to see an Egyptian princess and some elephants, you know? Then they came to the opera and saw a little white house in the suburbs and all of their nightmares about their lives or their childrens’ lives played out on stage. They thought it was the most horrible thing they’d ever seen. Oh God, it was just a little too much [laughs].
Bernstein was planning a “Holocaust opera” at some point in the 1980s. Were you involved in that?
He said that he wanted to write an opera that involved a lot of different languages, and was related to World War II. That’s all I knew. It was supposed to be about a work of art that traveled from hand to hand to a bunch of different characters who were in different positions vis-à-vis the war. But as I worked on it, I started to go in a different direction. We would talk, talk, talk. I wrote a lot of scenario material for it. But at a certain point, I thought to myself, “If I go right now into another piece with Lenny, then it will really be the first 10 years of my career that is all about Lenny. And maybe it’s better, since I can’t really get fully behind what he’s thinking, if I say, ‘Let’s not write this one.’” So I flew to New York and told him. This was 1985. We had dinner, just the two of us. He just sat there like someone pulled the plug and all the air was going out of him. He said, “Well, I have to go to bed.” And he pulled himself up and walked off and went to bed.
How has the American opera world changed since your work with Bernstein?
Only recently, in the last five or 10 years, do we have a lot of American operas which are now about the future or the present of America and Americans. A lot of young American composers and librettists are really beginning to explore vernacular in various ways. It’s exciting now that these little opera companies around the States will do a new piece, and that piece will be the bestseller in the season. Things have really changed. You can do “Traviata” and a new piece, and the new piece sells more tickets than “Traviata.” This didn’t happen in 1983, especially with our piece.
With hindsight, are you satisfied with your first piece as a librettist?
I meet young composers all the time who are like, “Oh my God. I love that opera!” They love that it’s screwed up and wrong and too big in places and doesn’t always work. But they love the fact that the form of it is about what the piece is about: not being able to connect, yet being able to connect ultimately. I cannot articulate what I want from you, but I end up getting it somehow. And the shape and all the problems of the piece I think feed that in a way. So ironically, I think that it may end up being a piece that will be remembered and played in a hundred years. I have a sort of unshakable belief in that. I probably won’t be around then, but whatever. ¶