Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 5:44 am | Overcast 52º


UCSB Opera Causes ‘Trouble in Tahiti’

One-act Leonard Bernstein work will be performed this weekend.


The UCSB Opera Theatre seems to have undertaken a commendable exploration of modern one-act operas. Last quarter, it performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea; this quarter, it’s Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. Once again, the opera will be fully staged, with sets and lighting by Mark Somerfield and choreography by Paul Martinez, but with pianists Chiacheng Naomi Sen and John Ballerino sitting in for the orchestra. The show will be directed and conducted by Steven Kronauer.

Bernstein was his own librettist. Some reviewers initially suggested that the two characters, Sam and Dinah, are really Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre, who had just married in 1951, but internal evidence — a catalogue of grievances many years long, a son in high school — makes this unlikely. Probably, the couple represents Bernstein’s parents. After all, his father’s name was Sam, and one of his grandmothers was named Dinah.

"It has nothing really to do with the South Sea Islands," Bernstein said. "It has to do with Scarsdale or Ozone Park or Wellesley Hills or all these places that are named (in the opening chorus). All the music derives from American vernacular roots, as do the words. And the words are very carefully set so that they will sound in the American cadence and with the American kind of syncopated, almost slurred quality."

The composer was determined that "under no circumstances should Trouble in Tahiti ever sound or look like an opera in the conventional sense ... That’s why I purposely chose a subject which is nonheroic: the man is an anti-hero and the wife is an anti-heroine — the direct opposites of the usual operatic hero and heroine. They are an unhappily married suburban couple. The chorus, which is the only other character in the piece, consists of three people. They are a little trio, sort of born of the radio commercial who huddle around a microphone and sing in rather Andrews Sisters style, commenting on the glories of American suburban living. In the course of this day, starting with breakfast, we see this couple together and apart at various times through seven scenes, and we see how deeply unhappy they are with each other and with themselves, and how much romantic longing they have for whatever it was they did have at the beginning and seem to have lost. That isn’t exactly telling a story. It does have progress, and you do have the feeling of moving through."

Kronauer says the opera has been "updated," but I am not sure what that means. Perhaps, the chorus/trio has been refashioned to suggest a television sit-com. Certainly an unhappy marriage is not likely to strike anyone in 2008 as an antiquated proposition.

Performances of Trouble in Tahiti are scheduled at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday in UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. Tickets are $15 general admission and $7 students, and are available at the door on the evening or afternoon of the performance.

Click here for more information about UCSB Music Department events or call 805.893.7001.

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