Bernstein at Brandeis: A Conductor’s Premiere Takes Center Stage

By Liza M.

“This is a moment of inquiry for the whole world: a moment when civilization looks at itself appraisingly, seeking a key to the future.”

— Leonard Bernstein, Inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts, Brandeis University, 1952.

Leonard Bernstein conducting a rehearsal for the “Trouble in Tahiti” premiere at Brandeis University in 1952.

Smacked in between his other three most famous works, On the Town, Candide, and West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti was composed in 1951, a composition he first began during his honeymoon. This 45 minute, one-act opera immediately begins with the repetition of the phrase, “the little white house,” set throughout the prelude. Catchy as ever, the opening trio (the narrators of this drama) sings in close harmonies, setting the perfect scene of an almost idealistic suburban town with nuclear families and weather that’s always pleasant. Above all, people are happy, hustling and bustling and enjoying life, including everything from the mundane to the extraordinary. It’s the 1950s, but as the jazzy beats dwindle away from the opener and the music changes its theme and course as the first scene begins, the audience soon starts to realize that such a utopia is not everyone’s reality. Cut to Sam and Dinah, the two main characters in this story; they’re married with a child, but their life is far from perfection as they suffer through the trials and tribulations of marriage, as well as dissatisfaction with each other, themselves, and their environment. Audience members experience an intimate day-in-the-life of the family, which begins with an argument over the breakfast table, followed by Dinah’s garden day dreams, Sam’s naughty indiscretions, awkward street run-ins, personal reflections about parenthood, and a mention of a movie recently released titled Trouble in Tahiti. Ultimately, the couple may or may not be able to overcome the struggles of married life, but the audience is left to believe that regardless of whether the couple chooses to stay together or not, Sam and Dinah have a long road to personal recovery ahead of them. 

Leonard Bernstein (right) in front of the stage set for the “Trouble in Tahiti” premiere.

But Bernstein’s role as Trouble in Tahiti’s composer extends far past his composition abilities. Bernstein first premiered Trouble in Tahiti at Brandeis University in June of 1952 for an audience of close to 3,000 people. At the time, Bernstein was on faculty at Brandeis serving in the music department, a job that began in 1951 and would continue through 1956. It was in 1952, however, that Bernstein initiated the Festival of the Creative Arts (a festival that still exists today), which was the setting for Trouble in Tahiti’s premiere at 11:00 p.m., as an all-day symposium had gone way over schedule. Along with a weak amplification system, the stage outdoors being just barely built, and pressure from his fellow Brandeis colleague Irving Fine to finish the opera just in time for the festival’s commencement, Bernstein felt that his newest composition wasn’t ready to his satisfaction for the performance, and he ended up deciding to rewrite the final scene for the next showing he would have later on that summer at Tanglewood. 

A page from the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts brochure from June 12, 1952.

As a conductor, part of Bernstein’s job was to educate the public by introducing new types of music and probing interesting concepts for deeper reflection. Trouble in Tahiti brings about candid new ideas and critiques of love, materialism, and loneliness during a post-war era, concealed ostensibly by a perfect suburban world and unrealistic ideals of happiness. Each scene evokes different emotions from the audience as the music stylistically changes; Bernstein challenges his audience to find reasons to believe in the imperfections of the characters, to find them relatable, or to feel so far removed from them that you find yourself questioning your own life and life choices. 

The front of the inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts brochure from June 12, 1952.

References:

  • A production of Trouble in Tahiti produced by Opera North in August, 2018.
  • [ http://www.brandeis.edu/arts/festival/images/1952program.pdf ] A scan of the complete brochure from the Inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts.
  • https://bernstein.classical.org/features/what-bernstein-taught-brandeis/
  • http://www.brandeis.edu/arts/festival/history/index.html

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