Arthur Miller's 1955 Broadway hit makes transition to opera

If ever a play sounded like an opera, it's Arthur Miller's 1955 Broadway hit 'A View From the Bridge.'

It has all the ingredients: Italian immigrants, forbidden love, lust, betrayal, fights and murder. And in fact, one of Miller's early drafts of the play is titled 'A View From the Bridge: An Opera.'

That idea languished until 1995, when the Chicago Lyric Theatre commissioned Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom to create an opera from the classic play about working-class Italians in 1950s New York. Bolcom sat down with librettist Arnold Weinstein, and Ñ liberally aided by Miller himself Ñ the two completed the work in 1999.

The result premiered in Chicago to favorable reviews, and 'View' was received even more warmly at the Metropolitan Opera in November last year. The third staging will be by Portland Opera with three performances at Keller Auditorium.

Composer Bolcom will be on hand for the premiere and spoke by phone from the University of Michigan, where he has taught since 1973.

'This must have been at the back of Miller's mind from the beginning,' the cheerful Bolcom says. 'Writer Martin Gottfried was working on Miller's biography, and he found an early sketch of the play with that title.'

The first performance of the play took place in London, directed by Peter Brook. 'At that point it was one act, like a poetry play in blank verse,' Bolcom says.

'View' is the story of longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Richard Paul Fink) as he falls from grace, choosing his 17-year-old niece Catherine (Ann Panagulias) over his wife, Beatrice (Pamela South). Then Marco (Mark McCrory) and Rodolfo (Todd Wilander) Ñ two illegal immigrants Ñ move into the family home, and Catherine and Rodolfo fall in love. It's too much for Eddie, who boils over and sets in motion a tragic chain of events.

Weinstein, Bolcom and Miller himself collaborated closely to create the opera.

'Most of the hard work was done by fax,' Bolcom recalls. 'Arnold was in New York at the Chelsea Hotel. Miller would come to town, and I'd fax them 10 or 12 pages and they'd suggest changes.'

Bolcom says Miller told him he'd never thought of 'View' being adapted as an opera, but many critics suggested the idea over the years. The story hangs somewhere between opera and Greek tragedy, Bolcom says, with a large chorus traipsing silently about the play.

Actors' union requirements meant that having the chorus speak would have bankrupted most theatrical productions, Bolcom says. But the chorus has to be around for a key scene at the end.

'The nice thing about opera is that we can have them sing. Alfieri (Robert Orth, who was spectacular as the Mikado a couple of years back) is one of them and now he can be their leader.'

Play takes pivotal turn

The story of 'View' may well be one that was told to Miller when he was a young man working manual labor jobs in New York, Bolcom says. 'He did a lot of physical work; he was a carpenter and a dockworker before he went to university.'

Bolcom added two scenes for the Met production including a key aria for Eddie's wife, Beatrice, which was applauded by New York critic Peter Davis.

But the scene Bolcom is really proud of occurs in the second act when Eddie is asking his friend Alfieri how he can get rid of the two immigrants before his niece falls for one of them.

'You never hear him call immigration, but you know he does,' Bolcom says. 'The whole scene is very tight, and it's one I'm very proud of. When you get something just right, there's a certain inner peace.'

Soprano Pamela South has performed with Portland Opera for 24 years. Audiences may remember her in 'Manon' (1991), 'Faust' (1989) and 'The Pearl Fishers' (1988). Her husband, Christopher Mattaliano, takes over as Portland Opera director July 1, and she's excited to be moving here.

South grew up in Salmon, Idaho, listening to Charley Pride and Patsy Cline. She was singing country songs in bars while studying at the University of Montana when she was overheard by voice teacher Esther England and persuaded to try opera. South learned six arias phonetically, 'without having a clue what they were about,' and went on the audition circuit, racking up win after win. Her next stop was the San Francisco Opera, where she stayed for 11 years.

Extra aria tells all

Portland Opera Director Robert Bailey saw the first production of 'View' in Chicago and immediately called South's manager to offer the role of Beatrice. South saw the Met production in November.

'I have tremendous moments in this opera,' she says. 'I'm the Elmer's glue, the referee, the one trying to hold everything together. Eddie's like a big kid Ñ it's almost like he's my son. The marriage would never have lasted these days, but in the '50s that was the way you did it. I think she loves Eddie and he loves her too.'

Neither Eddie nor Beatrice has to be a stereotype, South says. 'I think everyone can see themselves in these characters. It's not all black and white Ñ Eddie's not Archie Bunker.'

South loves the additional aria that was written for her.

'It's Bea's chance to come out and say: 'Why are you doing this? How can we change things?' It adds to my character, and it shows the two really do care for each other.'

South says she puts herself into a bubble and sorts through all her life experiences Ñ the pain and the joy Ñ to bring a character to life.

'And what's related to Beatrice is what fits,' she says.

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