Marilyn opera makes it to Vienna

Gavin Bryars’ chamber opera Marilyn Forever opens next month in a Volksoper production at the casino on Schwarzenbergplatz.

It’s a European premiere. (Anyone seen it before? Previous showings have been in Canada and Australia.)

Rebecca Babb-Nelsen plays the windswept role.

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  • Surely more forgettable trash in the manner of that other bimbo, Anna Nicole, also made into an “opera”, a soap opera, that is.

    • Well, as the singer playing the “bimbo” I can assure you, you have severely underestimated the complex person behind the icon. The studio heads, who controlled absolutely everything in Marilyn’s day, chose the “blonde bombshell” identity for her – even choosing her stage name, and if she had refused to play by their rules, she would have simply been out of Hollywood without a chance of ever fulfilling her dream. Marilyn PLAYED dumb blondes, she was not one herself. This opera, which weaves between jazz and modern music, delves into Marilyn’s personal life, her struggles with her childhood trauma of being abandoned by her schizophrenic mother, her longing to take on more demanding roles and her perilous relationships with fame and the men in her life.
      She was a multi-faceted person, one who wrote beautiful poetry, loved literature, was enormously successful and was one of the first women in Hollywood to start her own production company in a business utterly dominated by men.
      You are judging the opera before you’ve heard a note of it and you are judging a complex and talented artist based on a caricature, I would ask you to reconsider or at least be a little less shallow in your ascertation of this piece.
      Thank you,

      • You don’t get the sense of any of this in Arthur Miller’s autobiography “Time Bends”. I was looking for it and didn’t find it there; just a lot of fancy words justifying why this bookish individual fell for her in the first place. As if THAT needed justification!!

        Marilyn made incredibly poor choices in her life, but in the age of grievance and victimhood it suits the political narrative to paint HER the victim. Sigh.

        • May I suggest you take a look at this? Perhaps it will shed a different light on her than the musings of her ex-husband. It’s an article about her own writing, poems and letters – she unfortunately wasn’t around long enough to write her own Autobiography like Arthur Miller, so this is as close as we can get:

          “Marilyn and Her Monsters
          For all the millions of words she has inspired, Marilyn Monroe remains something of a mystery. Now a sensational archive of the actress’s own writing—diaries, poems, and letters—is being published. With exclusive excerpts from the book, Fragments, the author enters the mind of a legend: the scars of sexual abuse; the pain of psychotherapy; the betrayal by her third husband, Arthur Miller; the constant specter of hereditary madness; and the fierce determination to master her art.”
          https://www.google.de/amp/s/www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/11/marilyn-monroe-201011/amp

          The article below was just pointed out to me, it’s a quite elegant defense of her and her character after her death by Ayn Rand. Also very much worth a read!

          Through Your Most Grievous Fault by Ayn Rand

          The death of Marilyn Monroe shocked people with an impact different from their reaction to the death of any other movie star or public figure. All over the world, people felt a peculiar sense of personal involvement and of protest, like a universal cry of “Oh, no!”

          They felt that her death had some special significance, almost like a warning which they could not decipher — and they felt a nameless apprehension, the sense that something terribly wrong was involved.

          They were right to feel it.

          Marilyn Monroe on the screen was an image of pure, innocent, childlike joy in living. She projected the sense of a person born and reared in some radiant utopia untouched by suffering, unable to conceive of ugliness or evil, facing life with the confidence, the benevolence, and the joyous self-flaunting of a child or a kitten who is happy to display its own attractiveness as the best gift it can offer the world, and who expects to be admired for it, not hurt.

          In real life, Marilyn Monroe’s probable suicide — or worse: a death that might have been an accident, suggesting that, to her, the difference did not matter — was a declaration that we live in a world which made it impossible for her kind of spirit, and for the things she represented, to survive.

          If there ever was a victim of society, Marilyn Monroe was that victim — of a society that professes dedication to the relief of the suffering, but kills the joyous.

          None of the objects of the humanitarians’ tender solicitude, the juvenile delinquents, could have had so sordid and horrifying a childhood as did Marilyn Monroe.

          To survive it and to preserve the kind of spirit she projected on the screen — the radiantly benevolent sense of life, which cannot be faked — was an almost inconceivable psychological achievement that required a heroism of the highest order. Whatever scars her past had left were insignificant by comparison.

          She preserved her vision of life through a nightmare struggle, fighting her way to the top. What broke her was the discovery, at the top, of as sordid an evil as the one she had left behind — worse, perhaps, because incomprehensible. She had expected to reach the sunlight; she found, instead, a limitless swamp of malice.

          It was a malice of a very special kind. If you want to see her groping struggle to understand it, read the magnificent article in the August 17, 1962, issue of Life magazine. It is not actually an article, it is a verbatim transcript of her own words — and the most tragically revealing document published in many years. It is a cry for help, which came too late to be answered.

          “When you’re famous, you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way,” she said. “It stirs up envy, fame does. People you run into feel that, well, who is she — who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe? They feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, you know, of any kind of nature — and it won’t hurt your feelings — like it’s happening to your clothing. . . .I don’t understand why people aren’t a little more generous with each other. I don’t like to say this, but I’m afraid there is a lot of envy in this business.”

          “Envy” is the only name she could find for the monstrous thing she faced, but it was much worse than envy: it was the profound hatred of life, of success and of all human values, felt by a certain kind of mediocrity — the kind who feels pleasure on hearing about a stranger’s misfortune. It was hatred of the good for being the good — hatred of ability, of beauty, of honesty, of earnestness, of achievement and, above all, of human joy.

          Read the Life article to see how it worked and what it did to her:

          An eager child, who was rebuked for her eagerness — “Sometimes the [foster] families used to worry because I used to laugh so loud and so gay; I guess they felt it was hysterical.” A spectacularly successful star, whose employers kept repeating: “Remember you’re not a star,” in a determined effort, apparently, not to let her discover her own importance.

          A brilliantly talented actress, who was told by the alleged authorities, by Hollywood, by the press, that she could not act.

          An actress, dedicated to her art with passionate earnestness — “When I was 5 — I think that’s when I started wanting to be an actress — I loved to play. I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim — but I loved to play house and it was like you could make your own boundaries” — who went through hell to make her own boundaries, to offer people the sunlit universe of her own vision — “It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you’ll let the whole world in on only for a moment, when you’re acting” — but who was ridiculed for her desire to play serious parts.

          A woman, the only one, who was able to project the glowingly innocent sexuality of a being from some planet uncorrupted by guilt — who found herself regarded and ballyhooed as a vulgar symbol of obscenity — and who still had the courage to declare: “We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.”

          A happy child who was offering her achievement to the world, with the pride of an authentic greatness and of a kitten depositing a hunting trophy at your feet — who found herself answered by concerted efforts to negate, to degrade, to ridicule, to insult, to destroy her achievement — who was unable to conceive that it was her best she was punished for, not her worst — who could only sense, in helpless terror, that she was facing some unspeakable kind of evil.

          How long do you think a human being could stand it?

          That hatred of values has always existed in some people, in any age or culture. But a hundred years ago, they would have been expected to hide it. Today, it is all around us; it is the style and fashion of our century.

          Where would a sinking spirit find relief from it?

          The evil of a cultural atmosphere is made by all those who share it. Anyone who has ever felt resentment against the good for being the good and has given voice to it, is the murderer of Marilyn Monroe.

        • I would recommend you take a look at this – it is about Marilyn‘s own writing, poems and letters – perhaps this will shed a different light on her than the memories of her ex-husband in his own (arguably self-serving) autobiography.

          Since Marilyn wasn’t around long enough to write her own autobiography, her poems letters and other writing are as close as we can get to hearing her side of the story:

          “HOLLYWOOD
          Marilyn and Her Monsters
          For all the millions of words she has inspired, Marilyn Monroe remains something of a mystery. Now a sensational archive of the actress’s own writing—diaries, poems, and letters—is being published. With exclusive excerpts from the book, Fragments, the author enters the mind of a legend: the scars of sexual abuse; the pain of psychotherapy; the betrayal by her third husband, Arthur Miller; the constant specter of hereditary madness; and the fierce determination to master her art.”

          https://www.google.de/amp/s/www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/11/marilyn-monroe-201011/amp

          Alternatively, you could read Ayn Rand’s stunning defense of Marilyn and her character published after her death in the L.A. Times – very much worth a read.

          Through Your Most Grievous Fault by Ayn Rand

          The death of Marilyn Monroe shocked people with an impact different from their reaction to the death of any other movie star or public figure. All over the world, people felt a peculiar sense of personal involvement and of protest, like a universal cry of “Oh, no!”

          They felt that her death had some special significance, almost like a warning which they could not decipher — and they felt a nameless apprehension, the sense that something terribly wrong was involved.

          They were right to feel it.

          Marilyn Monroe on the screen was an image of pure, innocent, childlike joy in living. She projected the sense of a person born and reared in some radiant utopia untouched by suffering, unable to conceive of ugliness or evil, facing life with the confidence, the benevolence, and the joyous self-flaunting of a child or a kitten who is happy to display its own attractiveness as the best gift it can offer the world, and who expects to be admired for it, not hurt.

          In real life, Marilyn Monroe’s probable suicide — or worse: a death that might have been an accident, suggesting that, to her, the difference did not matter — was a declaration that we live in a world which made it impossible for her kind of spirit, and for the things she represented, to survive.

          If there ever was a victim of society, Marilyn Monroe was that victim — of a society that professes dedication to the relief of the suffering, but kills the joyous.

          None of the objects of the humanitarians’ tender solicitude, the juvenile delinquents, could have had so sordid and horrifying a childhood as did Marilyn Monroe.

          To survive it and to preserve the kind of spirit she projected on the screen — the radiantly benevolent sense of life, which cannot be faked — was an almost inconceivable psychological achievement that required a heroism of the highest order. Whatever scars her past had left were insignificant by comparison.

          She preserved her vision of life through a nightmare struggle, fighting her way to the top. What broke her was the discovery, at the top, of as sordid an evil as the one she had left behind — worse, perhaps, because incomprehensible. She had expected to reach the sunlight; she found, instead, a limitless swamp of malice.

          It was a malice of a very special kind. If you want to see her groping struggle to understand it, read the magnificent article in the August 17, 1962, issue of Life magazine. It is not actually an article, it is a verbatim transcript of her own words — and the most tragically revealing document published in many years. It is a cry for help, which came too late to be answered.

          “When you’re famous, you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way,” she said. “It stirs up envy, fame does. People you run into feel that, well, who is she — who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe? They feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, you know, of any kind of nature — and it won’t hurt your feelings — like it’s happening to your clothing. . . .I don’t understand why people aren’t a little more generous with each other. I don’t like to say this, but I’m afraid there is a lot of envy in this business.”

          “Envy” is the only name she could find for the monstrous thing she faced, but it was much worse than envy: it was the profound hatred of life, of success and of all human values, felt by a certain kind of mediocrity — the kind who feels pleasure on hearing about a stranger’s misfortune. It was hatred of the good for being the good — hatred of ability, of beauty, of honesty, of earnestness, of achievement and, above all, of human joy.

          Read the Life article to see how it worked and what it did to her:

          An eager child, who was rebuked for her eagerness — “Sometimes the [foster] families used to worry because I used to laugh so loud and so gay; I guess they felt it was hysterical.” A spectacularly successful star, whose employers kept repeating: “Remember you’re not a star,” in a determined effort, apparently, not to let her discover her own importance.

          A brilliantly talented actress, who was told by the alleged authorities, by Hollywood, by the press, that she could not act.

          An actress, dedicated to her art with passionate earnestness — “When I was 5 — I think that’s when I started wanting to be an actress — I loved to play. I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim — but I loved to play house and it was like you could make your own boundaries” — who went through hell to make her own boundaries, to offer people the sunlit universe of her own vision — “It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you’ll let the whole world in on only for a moment, when you’re acting” — but who was ridiculed for her desire to play serious parts.

          A woman, the only one, who was able to project the glowingly innocent sexuality of a being from some planet uncorrupted by guilt — who found herself regarded and ballyhooed as a vulgar symbol of obscenity — and who still had the courage to declare: “We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.”

          A happy child who was offering her achievement to the world, with the pride of an authentic greatness and of a kitten depositing a hunting trophy at your feet — who found herself answered by concerted efforts to negate, to degrade, to ridicule, to insult, to destroy her achievement — who was unable to conceive that it was her best she was punished for, not her worst — who could only sense, in helpless terror, that she was facing some unspeakable kind of evil.

          How long do you think a human being could stand it?

          That hatred of values has always existed in some people, in any age or culture. But a hundred years ago, they would have been expected to hide it. Today, it is all around us; it is the style and fashion of our century.

          Where would a sinking spirit find relief from it?

          The evil of a cultural atmosphere is made by all those who share it. Anyone who has ever felt resentment against the good for being the good and has given voice to it, is the murderer of Marilyn Monroe.

    • Stormy Daniels is a porn star getting her 15 minutes. Marilyn Monroe was an actress and pop icon loved by millions of people so there’s no analogy. But forgetting that, if we’re going to throw out operas about irreputable women, should we start with Traviata?

        • Rebecca, thanks for adding such vibrant color to the complexity and humanity of Marilyn Monroe. Shortly after MM’s death, The Los Angeles Times published an article by Ayn Rand on the philosophical and cultural implications of her life and death. It’s always stuck with me. I have copied it below in case you care to read it.

          (Fyi, I also “Instagrammed” you and will enjoy following your career.)

          Best,
          Michael

          _____________________________________

          Through Your Most Grievous Fault
          by Ayn Rand

          The death of Marilyn Monroe shocked people with an impact different from their reaction to the death of any other movie star or public figure. All over the world, people felt a peculiar sense of personal involvement and of protest, like a universal cry of “Oh, no!”

          They felt that her death had some special significance, almost like a warning which they could not decipher — and they felt a nameless apprehension, the sense that something terribly wrong was involved.

          They were right to feel it.

          Marilyn Monroe on the screen was an image of pure, innocent, childlike joy in living. She projected the sense of a person born and reared in some radiant utopia untouched by suffering, unable to conceive of ugliness or evil, facing life with the confidence, the benevolence, and the joyous self-flaunting of a child or a kitten who is happy to display its own attractiveness as the best gift it can offer the world, and who expects to be admired for it, not hurt.

          In real life, Marilyn Monroe’s probable suicide — or worse: a death that might have been an accident, suggesting that, to her, the difference did not matter — was a declaration that we live in a world which made it impossible for her kind of spirit, and for the things she represented, to survive.

          If there ever was a victim of society, Marilyn Monroe was that victim — of a society that professes dedication to the relief of the suffering, but kills the joyous.

          None of the objects of the humanitarians’ tender solicitude, the juvenile delinquents, could have had so sordid and horrifying a childhood as did Marilyn Monroe.

          To survive it and to preserve the kind of spirit she projected on the screen — the radiantly benevolent sense of life, which cannot be faked — was an almost inconceivable psychological achievement that required a heroism of the highest order. Whatever scars her past had left were insignificant by comparison.

          She preserved her vision of life through a nightmare struggle, fighting her way to the top. What broke her was the discovery, at the top, of as sordid an evil as the one she had left behind — worse, perhaps, because incomprehensible. She had expected to reach the sunlight; she found, instead, a limitless swamp of malice.

          It was a malice of a very special kind. If you want to see her groping struggle to understand it, read the magnificent article in the August 17, 1962, issue of Life magazine. It is not actually an article, it is a verbatim transcript of her own words — and the most tragically revealing document published in many years. It is a cry for help, which came too late to be answered.

          “When you’re famous, you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way,” she said. “It stirs up envy, fame does. People you run into feel that, well, who is she — who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe? They feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, you know, of any kind of nature — and it won’t hurt your feelings — like it’s happening to your clothing. . . .I don’t understand why people aren’t a little more generous with each other. I don’t like to say this, but I’m afraid there is a lot of envy in this business.”

          “Envy” is the only name she could find for the monstrous thing she faced, but it was much worse than envy: it was the profound hatred of life, of success and of all human values, felt by a certain kind of mediocrity — the kind who feels pleasure on hearing about a stranger’s misfortune. It was hatred of the good for being the good — hatred of ability, of beauty, of honesty, of earnestness, of achievement and, above all, of human joy.

          Read the Life article to see how it worked and what it did to her:

          An eager child, who was rebuked for her eagerness — “Sometimes the [foster] families used to worry because I used to laugh so loud and so gay; I guess they felt it was hysterical.”
          A spectacularly successful star, whose employers kept repeating: “Remember you’re not a star,” in a determined effort, apparently, not to let her discover her own importance.

          A brilliantly talented actress, who was told by the alleged authorities, by Hollywood, by the press, that she could not act.

          An actress, dedicated to her art with passionate earnestness — “When I was 5 — I think that’s when I started wanting to be an actress — I loved to play. I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim — but I loved to play house and it was like you could make your own boundaries” — who went through hell to make her own boundaries, to offer people the sunlit universe of her own vision — “It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you’ll let the whole world in on only for a moment, when you’re acting” — but who was ridiculed for her desire to play serious parts.

          A woman, the only one, who was able to project the glowingly innocent sexuality of a being from some planet uncorrupted by guilt — who found herself regarded and ballyhooed as a vulgar symbol of obscenity — and who still had the courage to declare: “We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.”

          A happy child who was offering her achievement to the world, with the pride of an authentic greatness and of a kitten depositing a hunting trophy at your feet — who found herself answered by concerted efforts to negate, to degrade, to ridicule, to insult, to destroy her achievement — who was unable to conceive that it was her best she was punished for, not her worst — who could only sense, in helpless terror, that she was facing some unspeakable kind of evil.

          How long do you think a human being could stand it?

          That hatred of values has always existed in some people, in any age or culture. But a hundred years ago, they would have been expected to hide it. Today, it is all around us; it is the style and fashion of our century.

          Where would a sinking spirit find relief from it?

          The evil of a cultural atmosphere is made by all those who share it. Anyone who has ever felt resentment against the good for being the good and has given voice to it, is the murderer of Marilyn Monroe.

          • Wow, Michael, thank you so much for your kind words and for the wonderful gift of this essay!
            “If there ever was a victim of society, Marilyn Monroe was that victim — of a society that professes dedication to the relief of the suffering, but kills the joyous.”
            What a profound summation of the Icarus-Flight that was Marilyn Monroe’s life.
            Thank you!

  • Even better, we can solidify the Washington-London axis with an opera devoted to that most lovable of historical characters: Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor.

  • Saw the US premiere three years ago at Long Beach Opera. The earlier productions at Vancouver and Adelaide used one Marilyn, but LBO general director Andreas Mitisek split the role between two singers to represent the public and private Marilyns. One male singer played the men in her life, a Billy Wilderesque stage director and husbands DiMaggio and Miller but unnamed. It called for a small pit ensemble and an onstage jazz trio playing lightly tonal music, but it didn’t make a strong impression at the time and hasn’t stayed with me.

  • Soon, there will be an opera about Lana Turner, too. And one about Veronica Lake. And one about Jean Harlow. All of them tragic, over the top “blondes”.

    These will be followed by an opera about Montgomery Cliff, of course. And one about James Dean. And one about Liz and Dick, by a modern day Otto Nicolai.

    John Garfield would be the stuff of at least two competing productions. And Laurence Harvey’s life and times are calling for a new Menotti, at the very least. Don’t get me started on Errol Flynn…

    The reservoir is inexhaustible…

    • It is not just about cashing in on the proclivity some people may have to enjoy gossip. My hobby is reading biography largely because I learn so much about life and society and history from reading about the lives and times of others, lessons that I sometimes can apply to my own life. In fact, I frequently reference stories and anecdotesthat I have read in biographies on this blog to make an educational point. (People have been using Bible stories about others’ lives for educational purposes and personal guidance for over 2500 years and probably other folk stories and myths for much longer). Good performing art, like literature (actually, it IS a form of literature) makes profound statements in interesting and exciting ways by focusing, rather than generalizing, about something or someone. If it is a true story it is even more interesting and exciting because without the requirement to “suspend disbelief” we have more of an incentive to pay attention to or to try to discern the message. Good, insightful theater and opera about the lives of famous people? I can’t get enough.

      • Sharon, I was being only half dismissive or ironic, actually. If Montgomery Clift’s (!) and Veronica Lake’s lives are not the stuff they make operas from, nothing is. The problem is rather that these names are not as bankable as Monroe, Walt Disney (recent opera by Philip Glass) and Anna Nicole Smith (bigger cleavage).

  • …. something vague like “make out” starts looming in my head after reading your head of the topic …. o’k , let it be like that : ” did you make it out the sense of this production? ” , other meanings we will leave for adolescence audience and all whom it may concern 😉

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