FGO Opens Season with a Slimmed Down Version of Mourning Becomes Electra
When Marvin David Levy was a child, his family took him to the opening night of the musical Oklahoma! in New York City, and so started his lifelong love for the voice and the stage. It wasn’t just the singing that appealed to Levy, but also the drama. “I can’t sing,” he said during an interview at his Fort Lauderdale home, “so I make other people do it.” In his twenties, Levy composed a few one-act operas that earned enough recognition to attract the attention of the Metropolitan Opera, which commissioned the work that has become his signature, Mourning Becomes Electra. Levy teamed up with Henry Butler and Rudolf Bing to cut Eugene O’Neill’s six hour dramatic trilogy by the same name — based on Aeschylus’ trilogy Oresteia — into a three-act libretto, resulting in a two-and-a-half hour opera. “O’Neill’s play is a pain,” Levy remarked. “Nobody wants to sit through it, but it’s eminently operatic. He was writing an opera without music.” And how could Electra’s story not be operatic, with hearty portions of murder, adultery, incest, war, and suicide? Mourning Becomes Electra premiered on March 17, 1967 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, conducted by Zubin Mehta, and directed by Michael Cacoyannis. Levy insisted on including the famed director of Zorba the Greek. As the composer tells it, he was living in Rome as he was writing Electra. On a much deserved break, he went to see a Greek movie, starring Irene Papas. It happened to be, you guessed it! Electra, directed by Michael Cacoyannis. “Whoever he is,” Levy remembers thinking to himself, “I want him to direct this show.” The premiere was by all accounts a success. It even returned for a second season at the Met, and was presented in Germany. After that it disappeared until Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a revised version in 1998, with a shrunken orchestration. The opera shrank even more for performances in Seattle in 2003, cut down to two acts, a version repeated by New York City Opera in 2004. For the current production, Levy recounts, Florida Grand Opera wanted the opera to shed yet a few more notes. The composer wouldn’t have it. “C’mon!” he snarled at the thought. “Enough is enough!” Despite the many cuts, Mourning Becomes Electra has been praised through the years by critics and audiences alike. Some have called the work magnificent, and have characterized the composition as atonal. “It’s not magnificent,” Levy objects, “and it’s perfectly tonal, with a few jabs here and there. I’m through criticising the critics, they may say what they want to say.” Much of the critical praise has focused on American soprano Lauren Flanigan, who has sung the role of Christine Mannon (Clytemnestra) in all Electra performances since Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1988, and will do so for FGO’s run. Opera News stated that modern composers love Flanigan “because of her innate musicality, dramatic power and lightning-fast skills and instincts.” With the star and most of the text still in tact, the opera suffered one more setback before its South Florida premiere. Just a few weeks ago, the tractor trailer transporting the production’s costumes from Seattle had an accident and caught fire, just outside of Orlando. But not to worry, the cast will not be performing naked. Opera companies from around the country have been helping put together new costumes. As Levy gets ready to attend a rehearsal of Electra in Miami, he dodges questions about his expectations for the upcoming performances. Perhaps he doesn’t want to jinx the production further. “I could give you all sorts of intricate little details,” Levy points out, “but it’s up to your ears to know what you’re listening to.” After a brief pause, he adds, “I can only give them so much of what I hear. Either they get it or not, and I hope they do.” Florida Grand Opera’s new production of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra opens in Miami on Sat., Nov. 16 at 7:00 p.m. and runs through Nov. 23 at various times at the Ziff Concert Hall at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; www.arshtcenter.org.