A Score of Beautiful Bridegrooms

Something incredible is happening this week—the twentieth production of my opera The Beautiful Bridegroom. And then, a few days later, the twenty-first. With double-casting, that means over 150, and maybe even 200 women have performed in this comedy, many of them making their operatic debut. I’ve been asked a few times to talk about the history of this bizarre little piece, most recently by a student in Chicago (sorry it’s taken me so long, Kacey!), so I thought maybe now it was finally time to put it down on paper.

In 2002-2003, I spent a year in Denmark on a Fulbright grant, studying with the fantastic composer Andy Pape, attending the composition seminar at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, and eating some of the worst food known to mankind. We can talk about the lack of sunlight later.

In the process of completing my Fulbright application and preparing for the trip, I read—literally—absolutely everything Danish in the circulating collection of the Boston Public Library. Well, at least those books that had been translated into English. (Although to be brutally honest, I just skimmed the Kierkegaard.) In a collection of one-act plays by the playwright Ludvig Holberg, I ran across The Changed Bridegroom, the last play Holberg ever wrote. What struck me immediately was the cast—six women! There had only been five women in the company Holberg was writing for, so one of the parts had originally been played by a man in drag.

Now, if you know anything about the opera world, you know that for every ten young singers, one is a tenor, one is a baritone, two are mezzos, and the other forty-seven are sopranos. So when you see a story that features a lot of female roles, you get pretty excited.

The play told the story of the aging widow Terentia, who, when trying to arrange a marriage for her elder daughter, decides that she herself should take a husband. A young husband. A very young husband. The dialogue was brisk and funny, the characters were sharply drawn, the action was clear, and the story itself took on the nature of a parody—it was like the age-old commedia dell’arte plot of the old man chasing the young girl, but with the genders reversed! Wouldn’t that make a great opera?

The problem was the ending. Holberg’s play was an eighteenth-century “comedy of character,” where the personality flaw of the main character is exaggerated to the point of ridicule. For that reason, Terentia, looking for love, was utterly humiliated at the end of The Changed Bridegroom, while the other five women stood by and laughed. Sexist ­and ageist? What a horrible ending for a comedy!

I photocopied the play and put it in the back of my filing cabinet. But six women! If only there were a way to solve the problem of the ending…

A few years later I ran into the fabulous Patricia Weinmann, one of the directors of the opera department at the New England Conservatory. The conservatory had produced my opera Works of Mercy when I was a student in 2002, and I still kept in touch with everyone there. Trish and I were at a performance of Mark Adamo’s extremely successful Little Women. Mark’s genius, I argued, was taking an unworkable story like Little Women and finding a way to make it dramatically effective on stage. All of those sopranos! And a strong libretto to boot! No wonder it was so wildly popular with opera companies, and good for him to have accomplished the impossible. “Well, Dan,” Trish asked me, “when are you going to write us an opera for that many women?”

I went back home, dug the Holberg play out of the back of my filing cabinet—easier said than done, I might add—and looked at it again. Terentia was punished at the end. But what was her crime? That she was lonely and wanted to get married? It seemed like a perfectly reasonable desire. Although I agreed with Holberg that it was selfish for her to steal her daughter’s groom, I knew that she deserved one of her own. One who really loved her. After all, if there’s no happy ending, it’s not really a comedy, is it? I did make sure never to bring the man onstage. If Holberg could keep his cast all-female, then dang it, so could I.

I rewrote the story, making sure that all of the problems faced by the six characters were solved relatively adequately by the end. One of the many things I learned writing children’s musicals (ooh, that’s another blog post right there) is that for a show to be successful, every person on the stage has to feel that she is vitally important to the action, with a series of genuine needs that have to be pursued and ultimately either met or not met. This is how actors think of their craft, and it’s the responsibility of the playwright and composer to give them some raw material to work with.

The music itself ended up being the easy part. Partly to reflect the time period, the 1750s, but mostly to indulge my fancy for pastiche, I conceived of the score as an homage to Mozart, the greatest of comic opera composers. My work method was very simple: I took out all of my Mozart scores and stacked them up on my desk. I never opened them, but there they were, winking at me all the time as I banged on the piano and scribbled on my oversized green paper. By the time I was done there was a minuet scene and the entire work was sprinkled with dozens of references and allusions to his operas. There was no effort to try for pure Mozart, obviously—who could possibly presume to do that? This was Mozart filtered through the lens of Prokofiev, that wittiest of all neoclassical composers and a constant source of inspiration to me. If the “Classical” Symphony was Prokofiev pretending to be Haydn, then The Beautiful Bridegroom would be me pretending to be Prokofiev pretending to be Mozart. And let the harmonic chips fall where they may.

Trish handed the reins to director Greg Smucker and music director Dan Wyneken, who had been the pianist and coach for Works of Mercy and who remains one of the most brilliant musicians I have ever had the pleasure to work with. (Side note: although I often complain that there are a lot of composers and librettists out there who have no idea how opera works, there is a large group of people who really do. They are called coaches. They work at your college or university and they are worth their weight in freaking gold.) Greg was filled with brilliant ideas and probing questions from day one, and among other things talked me into completely rewriting the beginning of the third scene, which I’m pretty sure singlehandedly saved the entire opera from being incomprehensible. And Dan suggested so many tiny changes and details that it’s impossible for me to remember after all this time precisely which ones, but suffice it to say that absolutely everything he touched he vastly and miraculously improved. Dan is one of two people I know about whom I can say that when he and I disagree, I simply assume that I am wrong. The other one, of course, is my wife.

And the rest is just a long stream of amazing luck. I was lucky to have, in addition to Trish, Greg, and Dan, a great cast and a great premiere. I was lucky to have Elaine Craine produce it later for Worcester Opera Works with Rebecca Grimes directing, and I was lucky to have received such fantastic publicity from them and the local media. I was lucky to have won the National Opera Association Chamber Opera Competition, which allowed the opera to be seen by even more singers, directors, and voice teachers. And I was lucky that so many schools, workshops, and companies decided to program the opera and that so many musicians worked so hard to perform it so beautifully. Most of all, I’ve been lucky to have been invited to meet and work with so many students across the country. The Beautiful Bridegroom is more than anything a piece for young singers, something I hope will be fun for them to study and something that will help them learn their craft and grow.

Because if there is a secret to the opera’s success, it is undoubtedly that so many opera workshop directors have thought it to be an effective teaching piece. Well, that and luck. And some very old jokes. And an enormous sword. And possibly some lesbians. And you know, putting six talented women on stage doesn’t hurt, either.