Fear of 'Heights'

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2011 - 12:00 PM

Producers have long shunned Bernard Herrmann's "Wuthering Heights." Now Minnesota Opera tackles the only opera by the film composer behind "Vertigo."

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Baritone Lee Poulis is Heathcliff, the brooding protagonist of "Wuthering Heights," in the Minnesota Opera production. In the prologue, he roams the English moors, carrying the bones of his beloved Catherine.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Passion for a woman brought Bernard Herrmann to Minneapolis in 1948. But when he was not courting Miss Lucy Anderson, Herrmann was spending long hours working on his other love -- the opera score for "Wuthering Heights." The famous film composer had mixed success with his paramours in Minneapolis. He and Anderson would marry. Herrmann and "Wuthering Heights" had a more complicated relationship.

Like an overprotective parent, Herrmann could not stand to see his baby, finally whelped in 1951 at a length of 3 1/2 hours, trimmed by producers. He twice scotched potential stagings by refusing "to change a note!" Herrmann made a studio recording in 1966, on his own dime; otherwise "Wuthering Heights" sat on the shelf until Portland Opera in 1982 put up a version that cut the score by more than 30 minutes and omitted the ending. Herrmann was seven years in the grave by then.

Now, more than six decades after Herrmann wrestled with his score in a downtown Minneapolis radio studio, Minnesota Opera has slimmed and refreshed "Wuthering Heights" for a new production that is guaranteed to draw international interest. Several companies will send representatives for a look and the opera company is making an HD video for theatrical release.

Not only is the world marking Herrmann's centenary birth year, but opera observers will gauge whether the lumbering "Wuthering Heights" can work onstage when the tempos are hastened and the repetition is shaken from the score. The creative team hopes it has created a definitive new template based on alterations that might have been deal-breakers for Herrmann.

"He was his own worst enemy," said Bruce Crawford, an Omaha-based film historian who made a documentary on Herrmann and remains a devotee. "[Earlier producers] wanted to make cuts and he wouldn't allow it so he said, 'Forget it.'"

Herrmann is best known for composing scores for "Citizen Kane," "Vertigo" and "Taxi Driver," among many others. The shrieking violins that accompany Hitchcock's famous shower scene in "Psycho" aptly describe his ability to penetrate our subconscious. His music both reflected and created emotion. So perhaps it makes sense that he wore his own feelings on his sleeve. You never wondered what Herrmann was thinking. He would tell you.

"He turned down the score for 'Lawrence of Arabia' because he felt it was too long, and '2001, A Space Odyssey' because the movie didn't make sense to him," said Crawford. "If he didn't want to do something, he just didn't do it."

Attention will be paid

Minnesota Opera's staging is part of the company's New Works Initiative. Artistic director Dale Johnson knew of "Wuthering Heights'" troubled production history and felt the piece deserved a better fate. Conductor Michael Christie listened to the recording (which various sources described as ponderous) and reviewed the score. He and Johnson agreed that the piece could withstand massaging -- Johnson particularly noting instances of repetition in the score.

The goal was to trim it to three hours and 15 minutes, so Johnson was delighted when it recently clocked in at under three hours. On the Opera website, it's listed at 2:50.

"The question is, can we make a piece that will play before today's audience, which expects something a little more fleet?" Johnson said.

Even though Herrmann is long gone, Christie admitted to being nervous recently when Crawford watched a rehearsal.

"It's a lot faster than Herrmann's recording, and the scenes are taut," Christie explained. "We couldn't allow it to be as heavy-handed as it was. It was way too slow and I couldn't imagine it working."

Crawford graciously offered that "Bernard would acknowledge there are other interpretations."

Johnson and Christie feel their production (directed by Eric Simonson) will be a turning point for the opera. Representatives from Washington, Philadelphia and Utah plan to attend, and several others -- Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston -- have inquired. The HD video is being funded by the Opera's New Works Initiative and the company is discussing distribution agreements.

"Quite honestly, they'll look at our ticket sales, too," said Johnson. "It's got title and composer recognition, and things like that work today."

Moody in many ways

Herrmann was an Anglophile who began his romance with Brontë literature when he scored the film based on Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" in 1943. Reports conflict whether he then immediately set to work on Emily Brontë's masterpiece, but certainly a trip to the Yorkshire moors in 1946 with his first wife, Lucille Fletcher, put him in the mood for the tempestuous relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine. Fletcher wrote the libretto (completing it even after they had divorced) and later recalled that the visit to Top Withens, thought to be the original Wuthering Heights homestead, clearly affected Herrmann.

"That grey November day, Benny was moved by the place," she wrote.

Indeed, Herrmann would write how the orchestra should describe the "landscape and weather of each act inasmuch as the novel itself depends greatly upon the oneness of the characters and their environment and also the mood and color of the day."

He worked on "Wuthering Heights," fitting it in around a busy film schedule in the late '40s. Audiences will recognize it instantly as Herrmann's work, "especially at the beginning, that brooding anxiety," Crawford said. What strikes Christie is the sense that Herrmann composed as if he were watching a film in his head.

"The music changes character as one might imagine a camera angle changing," he said.

Herrmann was still on top of his Hollywood game when he jotted on the score that he had finished "Wuthering Heights" at 3:45 p.m., June 30, 1951. He had every reason to be confident, so he stiffed Julius Rudel at New York City Opera and Kurt Herbert Adler in San Francisco when they offered productions if only Herrmann would trim the beast.

Perhaps he overplayed his hand, but that was Herrmann's way. And Johnson, who is very pleased with Christie's swifter piece, nonetheless can understand the composer's affection for his work.

"He was so in love with this piece, and rightly so," Johnson said. "New composers don't want you to cut their work. It's their baby, and we have to support that."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

 

  • WUTHERING HEIGHTS

    Who: Libretto adapted from the Emily Brontë novel by Lucille Fletcher. Composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by Michael Christie and directed by Eric Simonson for Minnesota Opera.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Sat., Tue., Thu.; 2 p.m. Sun.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $20-$200. 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org

    See Inside: Bernard Herrmann Film Festival in Minneapolis features "Cape Fear," "Taxi Driver" and "Vertigo." Page E8.

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