IN AN ERA that strains to catch the Workers' every murmur, it is gratifying to hear them sing out boldly in the operas of Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964). His life-long concern over social conditions in the United States finds vigorous and artistic, yet undogmatic, expression in his music.
The show opening tomorrow night at Lowell House is a celebration in song and dance, allegory and symbol of Blitzstein's life and work, in which he strove to be a composer for the People. The program consists of two of his musical plays. "I've Got the Tune" and "The Harpies," both in their Boston premiere, and Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti," which was dedicated to Blitzstein.
Produced by Leonard J. Lehrman, all three profit from originality of staging and orchestration. David Hessney is Lehrman's co-director of music. Long immersed in "the spirit of Marx," Lehrman produced Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" at the Locb Experimental Theatre last year and plans by next year to complete the score for "Idiots First," based on the Bernard Malamud short story, which Blitzstein began but never finished.
An expert on Blitzstein's life as well, Lchrman directs "I've Got the Tune," an opera with autobiographical parallels, and takes the lead with relish. He plays Mr. Musiker, a composer in search of lyrics and a singer for his melody.
Unfortunately, most others will know Blitzstein only for his adaptation and translation of the Brecht-Weill "Threepenny Opera." Few others will catch the similarities in "I've Got the Tune" between pretentious Mme. Arbutus (the advocate here of art-for-art's-sake) and Blitzstein's mother-in-law or hear the echo of his wife's suicide when, at Mr. Musiker's most despairing moment, a character jumps out the window to her death. Elite indeed will be the group that sees physical resemblance between Blitzstein and Lehrman, who has cut his hair in order to look like him.
But the political content will win popular recognition, for it is with anti-war demonstrators that Mr. Musiker's tune finally finds its natural home. Mr. Musiker has already rejected offers from snobby, self-consciously cultured salons, from trashy, materialistic Manufacturers o'Hits in Tin Pan Alley and from a neo-Nazi, Klannish organization that values Mr. Musiker more as a body to beat than as a creative artist. Blitzstein's sympathy with war protesters was lost in the only other production of this opera, when it was given in 1937 as a radio play. Censors transmogrified the workers marching on May Day into school boys on a field day parade. The Cambridge audience is sure to prefer Blitzstein's original text and sentiments.
He reaffirms his sense of solidarity with laborers in other works. "The Cradle Will Rock" (1936), set in Steeltown, U. S. A., attacks the bourgeois who sell out to big business. In "No for an Answer" (1940) he pleads the case of summer workers facing seasonal unemployment. And his opera "Regina" (1949) is based on Lillian Hellman's anti-capitalist play "The Little Foxes."
In 1934 he joined the Composers Collective, the first left-wing, musical-political organization in the U. S., whose members included Bertolt Brecht, Hans Eisler, Earl Robinson, Elie Siegmeister and Aaron Copland. Having decided that "the world is divided into the murderers and the murdered," he wanted to show in his work which is which. His life paralleled his writing once too often: he was murdered in 1964.
As the only link for many years between the neo-classical Boulanger and the expressionistic Schoenbergian schools of music, he developed a highly individual, tonal style that is at once bitter and lyrical. Buoyed up by his melodies, his unaffected words often strike the sincere and ingenuous chord of a folksong.
Taking his composing seriously, Blitzstein once wrote, "I don't feel there is any difference in the quality of a theatre song as compared to a concert song." And theatre songs had the added appeal for him of the American vernacular.
Simplicity often seems to have the scope of an epigram, and the plays at Lowell House seem to universalize Blitzstein's lyrics even more by their free sweep through time and space. Wakeen Ray-Riv is director and choreographer of "The Harpies," set in ancient Thrace. A farce based on Apollonius, it is Blitzstein's first opera to his own text, performed only once before, in 1953 at the Manhattan School of Music. The new staging here and emphasis on dance is a vital response to Blitzstein's dedication to popular art and depends on the spirit of community and expansiveness that the uninhibited rehearsals have tried to build up.
Juliet Cunningham's creative direction refreshes Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti," performed at Sanders Theatre in 1939 and in 1952 at Brandeis, Stylistically indebted to Blitzstein, "Trouble in Tahiti" focuses on a bored suburban couple who seek entertainment from a movie about Tahiti.
In the Lowell House presentation, a Greek chorus sets the stage and beautifully suggests the pair's lifelessness and plasticity by treating them as just two more props to be moved into place. Another innovation is the actual acting out of the Tahitian movie, a touch that makes the suburbanites shrink further into irreality, by graphic contrast with the film characters of their imagination.
TAHITI and Thrace and the world of all the People-all dreamlands? Perhaps, with Blitzstein, we will dare to hope that the last is something more.