The time is the early 1930s, the place is New York City. A shipping magnate faces financial disaster as the Great Depression tightens its grip on the United States.
Meanwhile, his socially ambitious wife has arranged for a fancy dinner party. The guests include a washed-up alcoholic movie star, an unprincipled businessman with a career in politics beckoning and his pampered socialite of a wife — who’s having an affair with her doctor, another guest at this glittering gathering.
That’s the tangled setup for “Dinner at Eight,” a comedy/drama by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, first produced on Broadway in 1932. The play caught the tenor of a desperate, riches-to-rags era and a movie adaptation quickly followed, with a starry cast including Lionel Barrymore and Jean Harlow.
Now, eight decades later, Kaufman and Ferber’s play is being resurrected by Minnesota Opera as part of its New Works initiative. The company commissioned librettist Mark Campbell to recast the story into operatic form, with music by veteran composer William Bolcom.
The 78-year-old Bolcom first read the play in the late 1990s, but it was the global financial crisis of 2008 that snapped his focus back to the story’s potential as operatic fare. “I was attracted to the fact that it has a definite message which applies to the present,” he said.
Today, Bolcom senses an even greater correlation between “the upset and lack of equilibrium” felt when the play premiered and “the kind of troubles we’re facing right now.”
Campbell, who is in his 60s, feels the contemporary resonance of “Dinner at Eight” even more acutely. Given the current state of politics, he said, “I think our audience will identify with the characters in our opera who are all finding their way in perilous times.”
The show’s 1930s characters, he added, have lost none of their freshness or recognizability.
“I have been a New Yorker most of my life and this circle of characters is still identifiable to me. It’s a very American story, and an excellent fit for Bill’s very American music.”
Bolcom’s “very American” score features a colorful mix of different idioms and influences — think Broadway swagger and brassy marching band rhythms, interspersed with more intimate passages.
Bolcom is known for his refusal to adhere to a single musical style, which can be a frustration for those charged with assessing his work. “It has been the bane of critics,” he said. “They don’t know where to put me.”
But he says this “polystylism” comes from his particular approach to writing operatic scores. “In opera,” he said, “the music comes from the melding of word and note to define character. I operate from the point of view that characters should sing from the music they know. So I try to imagine the kind of music that would have been in their vocabulary.”
The result, said Minnesota Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson, is a “Broadway/opera hybrid” that appeals to music theater audiences as well as opera enthusiasts.
American opera boom
In addition to the Bohèmes, Butterflys and Traviatas that are the staples of most major opera companies, Johnson brings more than 20 years of experience staging world premieres and other contemporary works for Minnesota Opera. Highlights include Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Silent Night” in 2012 and last year’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” both commissioned by Minnesota Opera and given their world premieres at the Ordway Music Theater.
A commitment to new works “has always been in the DNA of the company, from way back when it was called Center Opera in the mid-’60s,” said Johnson. “We have always done new operas that reflect the sociological issues of the day.”
For his part, Campbell believes the company’s success with new works has helped dispel the notion that contemporary opera spells box-office disaster in America.
“In the last 10 years,” he said, “the number of contemporary operas in this country has increased dramatically. Opera companies who were previously frightened to program new work are now finding they must program new work.
“I honestly think Minnesota Opera and its New Works Initiative played a major role in this ascension. Some people are calling this the ‘Golden Age of American Opera,’ ” Campbell said.
That Golden Age is set to continue, especially here in Minnesota. “Black Sox,” a baseball opera about the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, is Minnesota Opera’s latest commission, with a premiere scheduled for the 2018-19 season. Another project — “adapting a rather prominent children’s book, by a rather prominent children’s author,” Johnson teases — is also in the pipeline.
Meanwhile, “Dinner at Eight” is ready for its debut. Johnson is thrilled to be unraveling a piece with some serious substance in addition to being funny.
“I think this play helped audiences endure the Depression by showing the upper classes in a comic and somewhat negative light,” said Johnson. “Perhaps the opera can bring to light some of the same ideas for our own turbulent times.”
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.