An interview by Terrence McNally
December 21, 2002
WB They’re two things happened that might have happened on the same day. I get a call from Ardis. She said that Bruno has just come back Italy and she said, “Well now Bruno said, ‘Why doesn’t Bill do, what you call it in English, Uno Squardo dal Ponte?’” -- View from the Bridge in Italian. And I get a call from Arnold, Arnold Weinstein. Now often, it seems to happen a couple of times a year people have decided on their own recognizance to make an opera out of Death of a Salesman or All My Sons, or one of the other major plays. And they will send whatever music is already done to Arnold and Arthur.
Arthur will ask Arnold in to look at this thing, having been an experienced librettist. Arnold would be a good person to be able to say, “Yes, this is viable and so on and so forth.” The usual problem has been -- and I’m probably getting ahead of the story -- is that people tend to set the whole play. So, it becomes extremely burdensome and problematical but . . . So they were listening to yet another setting of Death of Salesman, and they both felt that it really wasn’t adequate and Arthur asked Arnold “Which of my plays do you think would be a really good opera?” He says, “Well, the one that comes to mind right away is A View from the Bridge. And a matter of fact, Lyric is looking for the next opera for us to do with Bill Bolcom.” And our mutual agent, Sam Cohen, had brought Arthur to hear some of my pieces in concert over the years. So he knew my work. I hardly knew Arthur at that point. So they called up and said, “Arthur and I want to do A View from the Bridge.” So I suddenly was drafted from two sides of the coin. What should I do? Now the big question is if you are going to go to all the trouble of setting an opera and making all that music and so on, there’s got to be some aspect that you can do in an opera that really makes it worth while. There’s got to be something that you can do that will not just be a nice honor to the play, or the book, or the movie you’re dealing with, but some aspect that maybe can explore something that the play couldn’t do.
TM Or add a dimension.
WB Yes. In this particular case it was the use of the chorus. And that was obvious right away. Over the years I had seen several productions of A View from the Bridge, including one from Actor’s Workshop many years ago. I remember one at Circle in the Square with Robert Duval playing Alfieri and, and then more recently there was one on Broadway with Michael Meyer. And the chorus can’t talk because once you have them talk it’s simply out of the budget. You can’t afford them (TM Right.) when, once they open their mouths. Well, of course in opera, you’ve got a chorus and they can’t only open their mouths, they can sing. So, that changes the role of Alfieri who’s the lawyer into a leader of a chorus. So the first thing I turned to Arthur and Arnold and said was, “Write me a lot of chorus, Give me plenty of chorus. Give me everything to make that chorus as real and . . ..” And of course, this delighted Arthur because he could have them speak. He suddenly could have them sing. He could suddenly have them, you know, be there in a real sense so that at the end of the whole play or opera they can converge, but as not just silent people but as people who had spoken. (TM It’s very effective too.) Yeah. Well that’s the whole point, so that’s why it was worth doing.
TM But once you agreed on the subject, did it happen rather quickly? Did you see a way to do it? Did you hear a musical style, a vocabulary?
WB I kind of did. What I did was I started making all kinds of sketches. What I do when I’m dealing with a very big piece is that I have a kind of bin for it. And I just throw in these little bits of ideas I have. Kind of like a big morgue. And it, finally when it’s high enough, I can start thinking about what the first page might sound or look like. And once I know what the first page is, then the rest will come. But, until that could happen, it would take a couple of years. I also had outstanding commissions to take care of. But Arthur and Arnold gave me a first draft of the first act, maybe in about, maybe a year after we had decided this would be the next opera. (TM Right.) And, I still sat on it for a while. And then the second act came too, and I also sat on it. But, this was, of course, attendant toward many changes as it went by. I’m a very, kind of an open-ended person with Arnold. We both have been willing to change all kinds of things. And he has tune ideas, I have word ideas, and after forty-plus years of collaboration it’s awfully hard to tell where one person ends and the next one begins. So, there’s that sense of that kind of cohesion which we’ve always had.
TM But you did begin with a full libretto?
WB I did begin with a more or less full libretto. At least I had the first act and then I had the second act and so. And over and over, the same uncanny thing would happen. I would find myself, not necessarily always assigning these little bits of music for here or there, but all of a sudden something would fall into place and it would be exactly that. The most uncanny thing was when I was getting toward the end of the second act, and I realized I needed an aria for Marco, the older brother of the two Sicilians who are the illegal immigrants, because it seemed to me necessary to have something from him. We had only heard of Marco very little throughout the whole play even. And you see that his menace at the end of the first act where he raises that chair and he comes after Eddie. (TM Right.) But you haven’t heard from Marco. So, I called up Arnold and I said, “Can you write me an aria for Marco before the last scene?” He calls me back in three days and he said, “Will you allow me to call Arthur about this?” And I said, “Will I allow you? Of course,” And Arthur came up with the aria in three days. I took it back to my morgue and looked at the sketch and the sketch had written two years before fit exactly the words that Arthur had just given me (TM Extraordinary.) for this aria. And this sort of thing happened, it must have happened a dozen or so times in the writing this thing, that somehow we had all been enough on the same wave length that something as specific as that would happen and it did.
TM For an audience that’s going to be tuning in next week, would you like them to read the play before the broadcast?
WB Well I don’t think it would hurt to read the play. There’s enough of the connections between the play and the eventual opera that I think it wouldn’t hurt to clarify what you’re going to hear simply by having a good idea of the basics of it. It’s a very simple, straightforward story. It could be told in a page and a half. I always think of Giovanni Verga or Isaac Babel, one of those devastating page and a half stories that, you know, (TM Right.) out of which, in the case of Verga, there’s the famous opera Cavalleria Rusticana comes from a Verga story. And it’s a kind of thing that you could do in a page and a half one of those, you know, pages and a half that just burn because they’re so short and they’re so sharp. But, what happened with, of course, with A View from the Bridge was -- and I think this was one of the reasons it was a more successful play in the second incarnation -- is that the characters became farther from a kind of a thumb-nail sketch toward a fully realized character in each case. You have a Beatrice who is just only hinted at in the first version, suddenly she becomes a very important person. Enough so, for example, that we felt in the second version, which we’re hearing here in New York, that I wanted to have another aria for Beatrice. Again, Arthur accommodated us and gave us a new one.
TM An aria which I did not hear in Chicago, obviously. (WB That’s right. It’s called “When am I going to be a wife again?” It took that one particular line.) Line, I remember from the play, yes.
WB And added to it, and gave you much more of a sense of her realness and her needs. Catherine Malfitano, who sings this particular part has told me, I remember when I called her first, she said, “Why are you adding this thing?” And then later, when she started working on it (TM Which is unusual, singers are . . .) Most of the time they say “Thank you, I want more.” She said why are you adding this, and I said, well you’ll see and then she got to know it and she understood later. She said, “You know I’ve got a big aria later.” which I had made, as a matter of fact, out of a little two-person scene between Beatrice, her character, and Catherine the niece, and I just took out all of Catherine’s answers. And that turned out to be an aria which is called, “Was there ever any fellow that he liked for you?” And all I had to do was just take out Catherine’s “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe” whatever they all were. And there was your aria. So she said, Catherine, “You made it possible for me to deal with two subjects instead of both at the same time.” One of the subjects is “Why am I not having a good marriage with you, Eddie?” which gives us time to do this for this new aria, and the next one is “Catherine, you’ve got to leave the house.” So she didn’t have to do both jobs at once. (TM Right.) Which made it far easier for her. The same was true with the one that we added for Eddie Carbone in the scene with Alfieri the lawyer. Which actually came straight from the play. Arthur said you take it from here and go down there and it turned out to be setting exactly. I mean, I just took what was out of the play and just did it.
TM Again, this is new music from the (WB This is new music . . .) Chicago.
WB And I’d actually done that also for in the second act for Alfieri which was the one he sings before Eddie comes to see him the last time before he goes off and makes the fateful phone call. And then again, I had also picked it straight out of the play because there are a lot of things that actually already cry for that kind of heightening of language in Arthur. So, there they were.
TM I know this piece was directed by Frank Galati who I’ve had the pleasure of working with on two or three projects. And I know Frank always addresses the company the first day of rehearsal. And, I’m told that when he spoke to the company for these new rehearsals for the Metropolitan performances he was very eloquent about 9/11 -- the events of 9/11 -- and how it impacts on an audience viewing this opera for the first time.
WB Well, I think the thing that really struck him was the fact that we have this paean to New York, “The New York Lights.” And Catherine Malfitano has said that it was such a shame that people wouldn’t have had that aria to listen to, to more or less help them grieve and feel (TM How true.) that sense of immediacy and love for this town. And it’s just the warmth and the specificity of all those things, to talk to an opera group to tell them what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, which isn’t always common, that I think gave people a real sense of the theater behind this opera.
TM But I think that’s a wonderful reference point in which to listen to the opera when it’s broadcast next Saturday (WB Yes.) of a part of New York that is gone and, and how we’re going to miss it and hear, hear this music in a very different way now. (WB Right.) Well, thank you so much for taking the time and great good luck with this piece and I look forward to it traveling successfully around the world, not just these shores.
WB Well, I only hope for that and it seems to be already happening with Dead Man Walking. You’re all over the place now.
TM Well, congratulations to us both.
WB Well, that’s great. (TM Thank you.) What a pleasure.