Comic Additive Helps Revive Early Bernstein Flop ‘Trouble In Tahiti’

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Charles H. Eaton and Zoie Reams in Minnesota Opera’s production of Bernstein’s ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ (Photos by Cory Weaver)

MINNEAPOLIS — For much of his life, Leonard Bernstein expressed hope that there would emerge an authentic American-style opera with roots in the American musical, much the way German opera grew out of the Singspiel in Vienna, with The Magic Flute as a prime example.

Bernstein anticipated that he might be the one to create such a hybrid, and early in his career he gave an indication of what he had in mind, writing both music and text to Trouble in Tahiti, a bleakly comic, jazzy one-act opera — a satire on suburbia — that was premiered at Brandeis University in June 1952 and broadcast later that year in a production by the NBC Opera Theater. The question for anyone bent on producing Trouble in Tahiti, which runs just 40 minutes, is what to pair it with.

Bernstein, working with the writer Stephen Wadsworth, eventually came up with his own companion piece, A Quiet Place, which picks up the characters of the earlier opera some 30 years later. It was premiered in Houston in 1983. Prompted by hostile reviews, Bernstein and Wadsworth radically revised the work, putting Tahiti as a series of flashbacks into the second act. This, too, was poorly received. Other formats have been tried. In 2023, Madison Opera paired Tahiti with Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins.

Jeremiah Sanders and Zoie Reams in Christopher Weiss and John de los Santos’ ‘Service Provider’

Minnesota Opera tried something else in a production that opened March 9 at the Luminary Arts Center, the company’s new alternate space in the North Loop area of downtown Minneapolis. They followed a fine production of Tahiti with a recent work composed by Christopher Weiss to a text by John de los Santos titled Service Provider. Commissioned by the Washington National Opera, the work was first staged at the Kennedy Center during the 2015-16 season. Like Trouble in Tahiti, it deals with the difficulty we have communicating with each other.

In a series of short scenes, Tahiti gives us a day in the life of a young and prosperous but unhappily married couple, Sam and Dinah, who quarrel at breakfast, neglect their 10-year-old son, and suffer a “screaming silence” during dinner. They’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. (“Why can’t we once have a friendly conversation?” pleads Dinah.) At home that night, they try to talk out their problems but give up and instead go out to see a movie about glamorous, exotic love, Trouble in Tahiti.

To be sure, tales of suburban alienation were not so unusual, even in the early ‘50s. Alcoholic wives, unfaithful husbands, and padded expense accounts were common currency in the novels and stories of John Cheever, John Updike, and, in a comic vein, Peter DeVries. Bernstein added an extra layer of irony to his tale of desperation and longing by incorporating a vocal trio to act as a kind of Greek chorus, singing of idyllic middle-class life in close harmonies and jazz rhythms in the manner of commercials of the era (“Suburbia! Parks for the kids, neighborly butchers, less than an hour by train.”) The message at the heart of the work is conveyed in the wistful number Dinah sings to her psychiatrist, “Love will lead us to a quiet place,” a song not dissimilar to “Somewhere” (“There’s a place for us”) from West Side Story.

Efraín Corralejo and Keely Futterer in ‘Service Provider’

In Tahiti, the problem is we’re over-busy, we take each other for granted, and we place too much value on material goods. It’s the human condition. Whereas the problem in Service Provider, which takes place in a restaurant in the present time, is more specific. It’s those damn phones. They’ve taken over our lives. Beau and Autumn have come to the restaurant to celebrate their third wedding anniversary, and they’re still in love: Beau boasts that they’ve “done it” in every room in the house.

But Autumn can’t stop texting. She asks Dallas the waiter to take their picture. By the time he takes a second picture, she proudly announces her phone already shows 68 “Likes.” Beau gets a call from Charlene, with whom he’s been having an affair. What he doesn’t know is that Charlene is seated at a nearby table, texting like crazy. The fight that ensues — with food flying through the air — is played in slow motion. At the end, Beau grabs Autumn’s phone and smashes it on the floor. She flees, leaving behind her gift to Beau, which he unwraps. It is, of course, a new phone.

Service Provider, which runs just 20 minutes, is a genuinely funny comic opera in the Carol Burnett vein. (Would that many 19th-century comic operas were so pleasingly short.) Kyle Weiler, who staged both operas, displays a flair for precise comic timing and expressive gestures, and his talented young cast, with their strong, well-trained voices, offer exuberantly amusing characterizations. They are: Zoie Reams (Autumn), Jeremiah Sanders (Beau), Efraín Corralejo (Dallas), and Keely Futterer (Charlene).

We first encounter Futterer, Corralejo, and Sanders as members of the jazz trio in Trouble in Tahiti, delivering velvety sounds in perfect sync. Reams, a versatile actress and an opulent-toned mezzo-soprano, offered in the role of Dinah in the Bernstein opera a touching portrait of a desperate and lonely woman who expected so much more out of life. Baritone Charles H. Eaton was equally impressive as Sam, a busy young executive with a growing feeling of panic.

Zoie Reams and Charles H. Eaton in ‘Trouble in Tahiti,’ with conductor Joseph Li and an 11-piece chamber ensemble

Like Bernstein, Weiss sets words clearly, and his writing for an 11-piece chamber ensemble under the smart direction of Joseph Li, who also conducts Tahiti, has a zany, cartoon-like quality that energizes the opera and keeps it afloat.

In his “Notes on Production” for Tahiti, Bernstein suggests that “simplicity of execution” be the keynote, and it seems that designer Benjamin Olsen took that advice to heart in creating his designs for these two operas, one so sad and dark, the other bright and frivolous. And he follows another of Bernstein’s notions, a system of “light, simple screens” — panels in this case — that can be moved about quickly. The result was attractive and easily managed. Amber Brown designed the costumes and Kathy Maxwell the lighting.

Trouble in Tahiti, not widely praised back in 1952, seemed in this production to have been written last week.