Lisa Keller, music director
Chas Rader-Shieber, stage director
Can perfect happiness endure? Even when all the stars align, lovers find myriad ways to misunderstand one another in this inspired pairing of Bernstein’s jazz-inflected Trouble in Tahiti and Purcell’s regal Dido and Aeneas. Whether in sunny 1950s suburbia or the majestic Carthage of classical legend, lasting joy is elusive—but the musical journey is more than compelling.
CAST (in singing order)
|Trouble in Tahiti||October 4 and 6||October 5 and 7|
|Trio||Tiffany Townsend||Tiffany Townsend|
|Colin Aikins||Colin Aikins|
|Dennis Chmelensky||Dennis Chmelensky|
|Sam||Patrick Wilhelm||Patrick Wilhelm|
|Dinah||Siena Licht Miller||Anastasiia Sidorova|
|Dido and Aeneas|
|Belinda||Merissa Beddows||Ziyi Dai|
|Dido||Siena Licht Miller||Anastasiia Sidorova|
|Second Woman||Sophia Maekawa||Sophia Maekawa|
|Aeneas||Patrick Wilhelm||Patrick Wilhelm|
|Sorceress||Emily Damasco||Emily Damasco|
|First Witch||Olivia Smith||Olivia Smith|
|Second Witch||Lindsey Reynolds||Lindsey Reynolds|
|Spirit||Charles Buttigieg||Charles Buttigieg|
|First Sailor||Martin Luther Clark||Martin Luther Clark|
A trio sings of the joys of suburbia as the prelude to a day in the life of Sam and his wife, Dinah. As the day begins, they bicker over breakfast—but then attempt to reconcile. Dinah reminds Sam that their son, Junior, will be in a school play that day, but Sam says he can’t go because he has a handball tournament. They bicker anew. Changing the subject, Dinah tells Sam she is running low on money and that the bill for her analyst is due.
Now in his office, Sam denies a loan to one man, while easily granting another; he is confident in his business prowess. Dinah is on the analyst’s couch, recalling a dream. She is in a desolate garden, as she hears her father calling her to come away, but she cannot leave. She is in terror, as the sounds of angry shouting and crying arise. In Sam’s office, he is conversing carefully with his secretary. In Dinah’s dream, she sees her father, but as she runs to him he vanishes. She weeps in frustration.
Sam and Dinah encounter one another on the street. They tell each other that they have appointments, and as they part, both wonder why they seem to want to avoid each other; what went wrong, they both ask themselves. The trio returns, singing again of the comforts of materialism. Sam opines on the true meaning of manhood. Meanwhile, Dinah has just nished seeing an escapist movie called Trouble in Tahiti, which she thinks is awful because it is so implausible. The trio sings of “Island Magic.” Later, after dinner Sam and Dinah bicker as usual, but also try to rekindle their early love. The trio joins in. Sam suggests that they go out to a movie. There’s a new movie, he says; Trouble in Tahiti. They leave, as the trio reprises “Island Magic.”
The Trojan prince Aeneas is romantically pursuing Dido, queen of Carthage. She resists his advances, but when her attendant, Belinda, points out the advantages of such a union, she succumbs.
A Sorceress and her witches plot against Dido, their enemy. They know about Aeneas, and plot to drive him away from Dido, sending him off to sea with his fleet.
Aeneas, Dido, Belinda, and their entourage are enjoying some entertainment. A storm arises, and Dido orders all to safety. Aeneas stays, and is contacted by a Spirit conjured by the witches in the form of Mercury. He is ordered to leave immediately. Faithful to the gods, he agrees, but worries about hurting Dido.
The sailors, in the presence of the triumphant witches, prepare to embark. The Sorceress announces her intention to destroy the fleet once it is at sea.
Aeneas is confronted by Dido after she learns of his decision to leave. He announces that he will defy Jove and stay, obeying love instead. But Dido refuses his offer and sends him away. She dies, in grief, asking Belinda to remember her, but to forget her fate.
Opera mania came late to England. Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which appeared sometime around the late 1680s, is widely regarded as the first British opera, but much else about the work’s origin remains murky. Musicologist Ellen T. Harris, a Purcell scholar, wrote about Dido and Aeneas 30 years ago, and recently stated, “in the intervening decades, we know even less than we did then. We can no longer say with certainty in what year the opera was written, where it had its premiere, who performed it, or even what the original score contained; the very things that normally provide the foundation for our understanding of a piece of music.”
And yet there is some basic context that amplifies our understanding of this baroque masterpiece. The plot line reflects a British fascination at the time for classical themes. At least a decade before Purcell created Dido and Aeneas, one of his mentors, John Blow, produced Venus and Adonis as a masque, a pre-operatic form of musical theater that more closely resembles a static concert.
The lasting greatness of Dido and Aeneas derives from two essential factors: the remarkable conciseness of the drama, and the striking beauty of the melodies. Similarly, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti unfolds with a theatrical economy and musical vivacity attested to by the great success the work had as a television production in 1952, just months after the live premiere. Critics compared it favorably to the best broadcast dramas of the time.
Trouble in Tahiti was not only Bernstein’s first opera, but in some respects, his only one. Candide does double duty as an opera and a musical; and A Quiet Place, which was presented by the Curtis Opera Theatre last season, is essentially a continuation of the plot of Tahiti. (The original version of A Quiet Place actually included all of Tahiti as one of the acts, although the Curtis presentation was a new revision that excluded it.)
Bernstein was encouraged to embark on an opera by his friend and mentor Marc Blitzstein, to whom he dedicated the completed work. Many commentators have surmised an autobiographical aspect to the libretto, which centers around a troubled marriage in a stereotypical Eisenhower-era suburban family. There are certainly some obvious references, including the fact that Bernstein gives the protagonist in the story the same name as his own father: Sam.
The broader context of Bernstein’s biography finds a less secure case for a self-referential sense of the opera. Bernstein’s own marriage was unusual, particularly in the regard that his wife acknowledged and accepted his homosexuality. Yet they were deeply committed to each other and the union produced three children. Their marriage bore no substantial resemblance to that of Sam and Dinah. It is probably more useful to view the evolution of this opera over three decades as a reflection of a great artist’s engagement with his complex world.
Lisa Keller is an opera and voice coach at the Curtis Institute of Music. She was educated at Catholic University, receiving a degree in piano performance; and at the Brevard Music Center summer program. She received her master’s degree from Duquesne University, where she studied with Metropolitan Opera coach Warren Jones. Upon finishing her graduate work, Ms. Keller was invited by Pittsburgh Opera general director Tito Capobianco to join the company as principal répétiteur, as well as coach and accompanist for its young artist program. She later served as pianist and vocal coach for the Hartt School of Music, Connecticut Concert Opera, and West Chester University School of Music.
Ms. Keller has studied with Maurizio Arena and served as vocal coach for the Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera program in Oderzo, Italy. She has served on the music staffs of Opera Philadelphia, Opera Colorado, New Jersey Opera Theater, Wexford Festival Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Santa Fe Opera. She was principal pianist for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent performances of Salome; workshops of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain; and, with Opera Philadelphia, the world premieres of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD by Daniel Schnyder and Breaking the Waves by Missy Mazzoli. In the 2017–18 season she was musical director and pianist for the Curtis Opera Theatre’s Impressions of Pelléas.
Ms. Keller joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in 2004.
Mike Inwood has designed the lighting for several Curtis Opera Theatre productions, including Eugene Onegin, Ariadne auf Naxos, Rinaldo, Dialogues des Carmélites, and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Philadelphia productions include: Small Mouth Sounds (PTC); ANDY: A Popera (Opera Philadelphia/Bearded Ladies Cabaret); Rizzo (Philadelphia Theatre Company); Peter and the Starcatcher, Into the Woods, and White (Theatre Horizon); and Pandemonium (Nichole Canuso Dance). Regional productions include: La traviata (Boston Lyric Opera and Pittsburgh Opera), the world premiere of HIR (Magic Theatre, San Francisco), God of Carnage (Perseverance Theatre, Alaska), and Life Sucks (Company of Fools, Idaho). New York productions include: Miles for Mary (Playwrights Horizons), Small Mouth Sounds (Signature Theatre), Out Cold/Zippo Songs (Brooklyn Academy of Music), The Essential Straight and Narrow (The Mad Ones/New Ohio), and An Iliad (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival). Mr. Inwood earned a 2010 Emmy Award for his work as part of the NBC Sports lighting team at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.
Isaac Martin Lerner is a New York-based dance artist. Classically trained in ballet, Limón, and Graham techniques, he has also worked with choreographers Adam Barruch, Take Ueyama, and Doug Varone. Since graduating from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, he has danced for Dugal Dance Projects, David Parker’s Bang Group, Defunes Dance, Des Moines Metro Opera, and many project-based companies in New York.
Mr. Lerner began choreographing in college. His Space Between premiered in Atlanta as part of the Dance Canvas “introducing the next” series, and was subsequently performed at the 2018 Nu-Vu Festival in New York. After dancing for Des Moines Metro Opera in its 2016 production of Gluck’s Orfeo et Eurydice, he returned to the company in 2018 to choreograph for Dvorák’s Rusalka and Copland’s The Tender Land.
The Curtis Opera Theatre season is sponsored by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation.