While conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein was not generally thought of as an opera conductor, he did achieve great distinction as just that from time to time. Many treasure memories of Bernstein’s work at the Met, (Falstaff, Cavalleria Rusticana, Carmen), as well as his recordings of works he conducted in Europe (Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff again, the Verdi Requiem, etc.). My own memories of Bernstein and opera tell quite a different story without contradicting Bernstein’s undeniable musical brilliance.
The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center For The Performing Arts in Wash., D.C. opened in 1971 with the world premiere of Bernstein’s Mass. For the rest of that decade and well into the next, Bernstein was a frequent visitor there. My first personal contact with him came on the night of the first annual Kennedy Center Honors in 1978. I spent most of the first part of the program in the Press/V.I.P. Lounge of the Opera House, relaxing and waiting to play host during the intermission. Most of that time was spent having a drink and chatting with Gregory Peck, who arrived a few minutes after the program had begun. At intermission time, a large and very illustrious crowd began to pour in. As usual, we had background music coming through speakers in the ceiling and I was unconsciously swaying to the rhythm when I caught Leonard Bernstein’s eye. Bernstein was also gently swaying, and he danced across to me, took my hand and began to twirl me around. Our dance was quite brief and lighthearted and he was soon circulating to greet friends and acquaintances, but the Maestro certainly made a vivid first impression. I had long admired his work and had had many opportunities by that time to appreciate it, but that hardly prepared me for the personal impression this most uninhibited of personalities could make.
The following year, the Vienna State Opera made their only Kennedy Center Opera House visit, offering two weeks of opera conducted by the likes of Bernstein and Karl Bohm, combined with Vienna Philharmonic concerts in the Concert Hall. This late 1979 visit marked the end of the Kennedy Center’s greatest decade, a period during which impresario Martin Feinstein had managed to arrange visits by the Paris Opera, Deutsch Oper, Berlin, the Bolshoi Opera, La Scala and finally, the Vienna State Opera. Such ballet companies as The Bolshoi, Stuttgart, and London’s Royal Ballet also graced the Opera House stage during those years, as well as the still-annual visits by the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. The Vienna stay opened with Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Bernstein.
Bernstein and Vienna delivered superb Beethoven, but during the Leonore Overture #3, played as an Interlude before the final scene, Bernstein’s terpsichorean talents burst forth, leaving our little dance of the previous year in the dust. I was sitting quite near the pit and, just prior to the piece’s magnificent finale, was startled to see Bernstein suddenly crouch down low and jump straight up in the air, nearly clearing the top of the pit! He seemed to have been shot from a cannon, or at least to be using a trampoline to magnify the drama of his downbeat.
When he was not conducting, Bernstein was always smoking. It didn’t seem to matter to him where he was, as he normally seemed oblivious to his surroundings anyway. A couple of years after the trampoline exhibition, my friend M. C. Gardner and I attended a showing of a film of Wagner’s Parsifal in a film theater in New York City during one of my frequent opera visits there. Before the Prelude was finished, we were being disturbed by constant talking behind us, accompanied by the smell of tobacco smoke. The voice sounded familiar. True, the talking was only about Parsifal and was deeply knowledgeable, but that hardly seemed the time for a 4 1/2 hour dissertation. Turning around, I immediately found my suspicions confirmed, for there was Bernstein, surrounded by the young people in his retinue, who constantly hung onto every word the Maestro uttered. Clearly, the Maestro was oblivious to the fact that he might be disturbing others who might prefer their Wagner with neither commentary nor tobacco and the management was not about to attempt to deal with this man who went about running his own universe with little or no sense of a larger world around him.
We took the coward’s way out and moved to a different part of the theater, free from both the seminar and the smoke. Hours later, sitting in a box overlooking the main floor, we were amused to see a large empty circle all around Bernstein and company, the theater otherwise almost full. Bernstein’s versatility with tobacco was, however, hardly exhausted by that smoky Parsifal.
In the 1950’s, Bernstein wrote the one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti for television, which was very successful. Years later, in the 80’s, he wrote a sequel to the work, A Quiet Place, which was not well received. Bernstein proceeded to revise the new work into a full-length opera, with Trouble In Tahiti included as a flashback. It was this version which was chosen to reopen the Kennedy Center Opera House after it had been closed for major renovation. The Maestro himself was there to supervise the rehearsals. As usual, a large “desk” had been placed on top of some rows of seats in the center of the orchestra section for the director to observe, make notes and communicate with the stage. What was not usual was that, among other major improvements, the carpeting was all new and still unseen by the public.
There sat Bernstein day after day, again chain smoking, and nonchalantly putting out his cigarettes on the new carpet! When the preparations were over and the opening rapidly approaching, a staff member had to carefully cut out a large section of carpet with a carpenter’s knife, take it to the carpet manufacturer for an exact match in size and color and glue it back in place. If one knew where the area was and was looking for it, it was quite easy to see, but as it was in the center, audience members never seemed to notice it in a crowded theater and with no particular reason to look down. For those of us who were aware of it, it served as a constant reminder of the man who was easily the most eccentric genius ever to grace us with his presence.
Of course, hearing Bernstein’s many records, including his relatively few operatic recordings, as well as his wonderful 1970 Met Cavalleria with Corelli in inspired form, one easily forgets the oddities of this man whose life was devoted to music and whose art we are still able to share through his rich recorded legacy. But when the music stops playing, a smile always comes to my lips as I remember some very strange nights at the opera.