The night of the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, March 17, 1967, burns in my memory. I had not attended the opening night of the first world premiere that season, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, and it was exciting to see what the Met would do with its second world premiere in only a few months.
What didn’t send me that night was Levy’s music. It had its moments, but it seemed needlessly dissonant. No one had the chance to sing a lyrical line, and the whole, while dramatic and very theatrical, lacked aural satisfaction. I went back later that season, and though the second time the music was more agreeable—the “Death becomes the Mannons” theme was memorable—my impression didn’t change. The next season, the Met revived the opera, and I had a similar reaction.
When it was announced that a new version was being presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1998, I was reluctant to attend. It seemed a waste of money to fly to Chicago for an opera that I remembered with no affection. When it opened there, however, the response of many of my colleagues was so positive that I thought it was my duty to go, and to Chicago I went.
The performance was revelatory to me. From the first rise of the curtain, I was gripped by the music and how it amplified the strong O’Neill play. Since that first Mourning in New York, there had been a very fine presentation of the complete, six-hour play on Broadway to which I had gone. I had enjoyed it a lot, so was quite attuned to the story. Still, it was the music that did—as it always does for me—the trick: Lauren Flanigan in a bright green dress knocking out high notes as though they were in the middle of her voice, while projecting a compellingly driven persona as Christine; Jason Howard playing Adam Brant as a very sensitive, sympathetic participant; Kevin Langan as a strong, doomed General Mannon—all these were important, but I was really floored by how much I liked the music. Before I went, I had read with some disbelief that Levy had removed many of the discords originally inserted to please his composer peers in 1967. Whatever he did, the music now made perfect sense to me. It was not Rigoletto or Pelléas, nor was it Salome. But it was vibrant, expressive, very individual music, good to hear, in every case expanding the extraordinary plot. O’Neill’s original play was discursive; the libretto reduced the text to a very melodramatic story. Levy’s music added the necessary depth. I was often left in that performance literally gasping as one event happened after another. Again and again I thought, “They can’t do that,” just before they did.
That night, I was also more than gratified at the number of ensembles. The great theatrical strength of opera, Wagner notwithstanding, is its ability to do what the spoken theater cannot do: namely, to have people “talking” at the same time. In a play, it would be gibberish. In opera, we expect it. The problem with many contemporary operas (often adapted from plays) is that the composer simply sets the play. He or she does not utilize opera’s unique ability to have two, three, four, or a hundred characters simultaneously singing different points of view. Levy never failed to insert ensemble writing whenever he could. His quartet on the ship, for instance, is one of the most lyrical and expressive moments in contemporary opera.
At the end of Act I, I discovered by chance that the man sitting next to me was the composer. As I was surprised that I had enjoyed the act so much, I virtually exploded to Levy when I found out who he was. He might have been taken aback, but I was so enthusiastic that he was willing to discuss with me what he had done and why. He also mentioned then how much the conductor, Richard Buckley, had done to make the piece really work.
I began talking to Levy right then and there about bringing the opera to Seattle. As the evening progressed, my desire to do so didn’t lessen, but I did have ideas about further changes that I thought would help make the opera even better.
I remember walking with Levy down a quiet street near the opera house in Chicago after the performance, going I know not where, and talking enthusiastically to him about the opera. He was willing and, indeed, eager to undertake a further revision, to consider my ideas, and to see the work presented in a third and, this time, absolutely final version.
This excerpt was taken from Speight Jenkins’ article "Fresh Revelations: The Evolution of Mourning," which first appeared in Seattle Opera Magazine, Fall 2003.