Mourning Becomes Electra marks a new beginning for Florida Grand Opera and a crescendo for its Fort Lauderdale composer.
By Greg Carannante
ACT I: Present day. A modest house in southwest Fort Lauderdale. A white-haired man sits at the kitchen table, his walker by his side. He is 81. Physically, he is the shadow of his former self. He indulges questions about his life, his towering life’s work. He is articulate, deliberate, witty. His delivery is sotto voce. Though interrupted by lapses in memory, his command is not diminished.
He is Marvin Levy, the illustrious composer of Mourning Becomes Electra, which stoked the opera world when it premiered at the Met in New York in 1967. A new production of the tragedy will launch Florida Grand Opera’s season into a daring new direction.
Artistic director Susan Danis calls it “the Fort Lauderdale version,” incorporating video projections by Broadway designer Wendell K. Harrington. Danis is nurturing Levy’s involvement, culminating with his bow at the end of the Nov. 7 premiere at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
The composer is asked: Could it get any better than to celebrate your masterpiece in your hometown on opening night? He gathers his thoughts, and summoning the pathos of one who has lived for opera, says, “Well it comes at the end of my life, basically, which pleases me, because I’d rather go out this way than any other way.”
ACT II: He is a middle-aged man now, and he arrives in Fort Lauderdale. It isn’t opera that brings him here, though. It is “a whole other soap opera,” he says – something about a friend going through a divorce who asked him to stay at his condo on the beach. “And I just stayed.”
It is 1987. It has been 20 years since Levy’s first 15 minutes of fame when, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Mourning became the surprise hit of the Met’s inaugural season at Lincoln Center. True to its lineage in the Eugene O’Neill play and Greek mythology, the production was provocative, drawing raves and pans, but it enjoyed the greatest success of any American opera produced by that company.
In Fort Lauderdale, he composes orchestral pieces for the Florida Philharmonic – Pascua Florida and Arrows of Time, which premiere in ’88 and ’89, respectively – and soon after serves as artistic director of the short-lived Fort Lauderdale Opera. But it is not long until he is again drawn to Mourning, as powerful revivals in Chicago in ’98 and Seattle and New York a few years later commend it as one of the finest operas created by an American composer.
In 2003 he tells The New York Times that the opera, “certainly has overshadowed my entire career. It plagues me.” Ten years later he is asked: After a lifetime of compositions, does it still plague you?
“Of course. Mourning Becomes Electra became my middle name. I’m always and always will be associated with that opera. Good or bad, I don’t know. I’m not complaining about that either, because it’s not a bad opera. It’s got everything an opera should have … murder, incest, suicide. [Laughs.]
“At the beginning, the opera was not such a huge success – so it got a 25-minute standing ovation, big deal. I don’t mean to denigrate it, but there were plenty of real advocates of it and, yes, it did get real acclaim. And there were people that thought it was crap.
“I knew basically if I stuck with it and kept revising it, that it would come across. And here you are, sitting here talking to me about it, and it finally has. Other people want to do it, and that’s the vindication of the work itself – not me, but the work.”
ACT III: It is 1942. A 10-year-old boy is mad for star soprano Licia Albanese. He has his parents drive him the 20 miles from their home in Passaic, N.J., into New York City to see her sing La Traviata at the Met.
“I wouldn’t go unless she was singing,” Levy remembers, “because I was in love with her. I was just amazed at what I heard and saw. And there you are – after that it was opera all the way. And as soon as I could go to New York myself, I was in the standing room of the Met.”
Almost 25 years later, the boy who loved opera is lying in bed and watching the news when the phone rings. Fate was on the line, in the person of John Gutman, assistant to Met manager Rudolph Bing.
“He said, ‘Now, you must promise not to say a word to anybody yet, but we’re going to do Mourning.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t kid about that.’ So from that point on, I was on the phone with everybody I knew [laughs]. ‘Guess what?’ So the kid from New Jersey was making good.”
Florida Grand Opera, Mourning Becomes Electra, Nov. 7, 9 at the Broward Center, Fort Lauderdale; Nov. 16, 17, 19, 23 at the Arsht Center, Miami; 800-741-1010, FGO.org.
PHOTO: Rayanne Dupuis as Lavinia and Lauren Flanigan as Christine.