Mourning Becomes Electra

In English with English Captions

About the Composer

Marvin David Levy (pronounced “LEAVE-ee”) was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1932. His musical training took place in New York City: he studied piano as a high schooler at the Juilliard Preparatory, completed a B.A. at New York University (majoring in music, with minors in English and philosophy), and earned an M.S. in composition and musicology at Columbia. While still in college, Levy joined the staff of the now-legendary American Opera Society and saw how opera was produced from the inside out. Since then, he has never been far from the inner workings of an opera company.

Throughout his life, Levy has been both composer and administrator. He helped create the Fort Lauderdale Opera from the existing opera guild and served as its artistic director for five years. Under his leadership the company produced critically acclaimed performances of both standard operas and more avant-garde works. Levy also formed an alliance between the opera company and the local board of education and school districts, helping bring opera into the lives of students. He continues to reside in Fort Lauderdale, and takes an active role in the city’s cultural life.

Levy wrote his first opera, The Tower, when he was 24 years old. This comic biblical fable premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 1957. Other early operas include Sotoba Komachi, based on a Japanese Noh drama, and Escorial, which launched the career of American baritone Sherrill Milnes. Levy’s best-known opera is undoubtedly Mourning Becomes Electra, based on Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy. He has also written two oratorios, For the Time Being and Masada, and composed plenty of music for orchestral and chamber groups as well as music for films. Recent works include two commissions premiered by the Florida Philharmonic, Pascua Florida and Arrows of Time, as well as the musicals The Grand Balcony and The Zachary Star.

Premiere of a Revision

The Metropolitan Opera in New York City, America’s leading opera company, moved into its current home at Lincoln Center in the fall of 1966. To celebrate their new opera house, the Met commissioned two new operas that year: Antony and Cleopatra, by Samuel Barber, and Mourning Becomes Electra, by Marvin David Levy. In those days, the Met was great at producing old-fashioned standard operas and not used to presenting world premieres. Neither premiere that season was an unqualified success.

Samuel Barber’s opera on Shakespeare may have been a bad idea from the beginning. Antony and Cleopatra is a notoriously difficult play, involving dozens of scene changes and a huge number of small roles—not the stuff great operas are made of. And Barber, whose masterpiece Vanessa premiered at the Met in 1958, was adept at composing music for intimate psychological drama but less experienced with the epic scale of Antony.

As for Mourning Becomes Electra, Levy’s opera was critically acclaimed—Leonard Bernstein called it “a tremendous achievement, a remarkable work, stunningly performed”—but Mourning vanished after two years. For one thing, in its original version, the opera was difficult and costly to perform, demanding an orchestra of over 90 players. It also made great demands on the audience, featuring as it did the atonality that was de rigeur among serious American composers during the 1960s. Atonal music has never attracted a large audience, which an opera needs if it is to succeed at America’s large opera houses.

In 1998 the Chicago Lyric Opera produced a revised version of Mourning Becomes Electra. Levy revised his score: he thinned out the orchestration, making it easier on his singers and mandating fewer players, and unapologetically reharmonized portions of the opera, removing much of the trendy atonality. Today the musical establishment is less likely to sneer at a composer who writes tonal music—which definitely would have happened in the 1960s—and Levy is finally free to write as he sees fit.

For its 2003 production of Mourning Becomes Electra in its new opera house, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle Opera has asked Levy for a second revision. In Seattle, the opera will have one less intermission, certain structural changes, and a new ending.

Listening to Levy

Like all operas worthy of being performed, Mourning Becomes Electra is a great singers’ opera. Composer Levy explains why he writes music that showcases the singers: “Any florid singing is never used merely decoratively—it’s an emotional expression or extension. It’s a second language to me. Any time my characters become upset or nervous, I’ve noticed my vocal lines become florid! After becoming aware of what I was doing naturally, I can tell you now that with the revisions, what I’ve done is a twentieth-century bel canto opera—not based on serialism. There is a return to romanticism, and I feel freer about doing it—I’m old!”

In traditional bel canto opera, which flourished in Italy in the early nineteenth century, a small orchestra provides the beat and the singer expresses the character’s emotion with catchy tunes that always engender wild feats of vocal acrobatics. This kind of opera had become cliched and old-fashioned by the end of the century. When Levy wrote the first version of Mourning Becomes Electra, in the mid-twentieth century, serious composers used big orchestras and arcane harmonic languages—serialism, dodecaphonism, atonality—to express the inner lives of characters who no longer sang pretty tunes. Levy uses a good-sized orchestra (smaller in the revised version), but he also writes warmly lyrical music for his singers, melodies rich in individuality and emotion.

At every moment, his music serves the drama. Levy and his librettist, Henry Butler, have distilled each scene from Eugene O’Neill’s sprawling play to its essence, and Levy’s music gives body and power to that dramatic essence. Watch out in particular for three great dramatic moments: the central quartet, in which Lavinia and Orin spy on a love scene between Christine and Adam; the great mad scene for Christine that follows the murder of Adam; and Lavinia’s impressive final soliloquy, in which she accepts her fate and enters the house, singing “Welcome me! Orin, Mother, Father, House of Mannon! Welcome your daughter.”

American Opera at Seattle Opera

Seattle Opera, famed for its productions of German operas, especially the works of Richard Wagner, also has a history of presenting great American operas. In the early days of Seattle Opera, the company produced operas by Americans Carlisle Floyd, Robert Ward, and Thomas Pasatieri. The first new production of Seattle Opera’s current general director, Speight Jenkins, was Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe. More recently, American fare at Seattle Opera has included Floyd’s Passion of Jonathan Wade, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, and, presented by Seattle Opera’s Education Department, Mollicone’s Face on the Barroom Floor. The 2003/04 season at Seattle Opera features the premiere of Levy’s revised Mourning Becomes Electra as well as Puccini’s Italian-American spaghetti Western, La fanciulla del West.

Recommended Recordings

There is no commercial recording of earlier versions of Levy’s opera.

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