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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Susannah production notebooks, week 2

Continuing a series of random, informal, anecdotal "notebook" entries for our upcoming production of Susannah, a piece whose depth and authenticity I am still coming to appreciate, such is its greatness.

Like a great work whose "staying power" presence comes upon you gradually, a slow-dawning realization... For me, Susannah has not been a "love-at-first-sight" kind of affair, as I had Verdi or Britten.. It has been, as the brilliant bard Tim Minchin aptly describes it, "the creepy-uppy-kind"...

For me, that experience endears a work and/or its creator to me in a particularly deep way. I feel this way, for various reason, about "greats" varied as Hindemith, Rachmaninov, Marilyn Monroe, Job, Melville, Poe, and among many others, Ella Fitzgerald. I've had this experience with operas like William Tell, Les Huguenots, and Norma - works I didn't love at first sight/hearing as I did, say Les Troyens, Werther, or A Midsummer Night's Dream... So I guess that's another way of saying I think Susannah has earned a spot in such company...

(Here are some additional notes from this past weekend, as we finished up our first week of rehearsals):

...muse on Joan of Arc, especially Lillian Hellmann’s 1954 adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark (another McCarthy era, Crucible/Susannah-like parable/allegory, uniting history and current events around a unifying theme of injustice exposed…

Interesting that Bernstein was the composer for Hellmann’s play, her artistic response to the HUAC – she famously refused to name names: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit the latest fashion.” It is a shame she is more famous than read, or produced... It is a shame she and Bernstein could not see eye-to-eye artistically on Voltaire for their original Candide, but that's another thread for a different labyrinth...

Bernstein, however.... The Lark score features medieval-influenced a cappella choruses; inventive and very Bernstein-ian. He composed one set of secular French chanson, and a set of Latin mass texts. Later in Bernstein's life they would, at the conductor Robert Shaw’s suggestion, be re-purposed as his increasingly popular Missa Brevis…)... Can we connect Bernstein's and Hellmann's Joan of Arc to Dreyer's classic 1928 film (featuring the great "mad" poet and performance-artist, Antonin Artaud)?

Another parallel between Bernstein and Floyd was their ambiguous status as “gray” or pink-list suspects. (On the Waterfront compares interestingly with Susannah, musically and historically, I believe... both the political contexts surrounding these two allegorical melodramas, and the influence of Bernstein and the so-called "Hollywood" style on Floyd connect the composers...)

Though never called before the HUAC, Bernstein was on the network broadcast blacklist, and none other than Lenny himself had his passport nearly revoked, almost causing him to miss an historic debut as the first American to conduct at La Scala (where the prima donna was none other than Callas!) Bernstein had a more extensive FBI file than most of his classical musician colleagues (many such files, I understand, are accessible online).

Interesting that Bernstein and Floyd both became unwitting cultural ambassadors – Bernstein as a conductor (his first network broadcasts not only effectively signaled the end of the so-called “Bernstein ban” but heralded a period of unprecedented international fame for an American artist…); Floyd, as the composer of Susannah, chosen to represent the US at the 1958 Worlds Fair in Brussels…

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