(See critical acclaim for Burning Bright.)
Is it flesh and blood—or the heart—that makes us into parents? John Steinbeck's play dramatized this timeless question, and Frank Lewin's opera illuminates it with a colorful, melodic score.
In 1950, Lewin—then a composition student at Yale—saw Steinbeck's play at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. The play was on its way to Broadway. Lewin was deeply impressed by its universal theme: a middle-aged, childless man who craves an heir to carry on his tradition. The story seemed ideally suited for an opera, and it left a deep impression. In 1967, Lewin took out an option to turn the play into an opera. Over the next ten years, in the time available from his work in film and television, Lewin did research and worked on the libretto. In 1977, he began composing the music; he completed the score in 1989. The opera had its premiere at Yale University in 1993. It was staged again in 2000 by the Opera Festival of New Jersey.
As in Steinbeck's play, each act illustrates a different tradition: circus performing, farming, and seafaring. In addition, the opera gives the story a strong American flavor--music and text incorporate various American ethnic traditions, among them Irish tunes and Scottish rituals, Appalachian ballads, Hawaiian and English sea lore. An orchestral interlude before the final scene is accompanied by mesmerizing projections: enlargements of microphotographs, and images from outer space.
The story: Joe Saul's young wife, Mordeen, is determined to give her husband the child he yearns for. She secretly submits to the advances of young Victor and becomes pregnant. But the biological father insists on his rights, and a violent confrontation pits the two men against each other. In a poignant final scene, Joe Saul accepts the child as his own.
For his work on the opera, Lewin received two fellowships from the Composer/Librettist Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as two fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, including a Distinguished Artist Award. The premiere at Yale University received a major grant from the Opera/Musical Theater Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Recording: Albany Records, Troy 469-71
The National Endowment for the Arts
The New Jersey State Council on the Arts
CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR BURNING BRIGHT
Opera News: "The work has narrative sweep and passion, in a tonal idiom with plenty of harmonic richness and color. Words are expertly set, and the timeless story is effectively told."
Gramophone: "Lewin provides rapturous and evocative writing that enables the characters to come across as flesh-and-blood figures."
New Music Box: "An opera that is as American in timbre and sound as John Steinbeck's literary voice."
The Steinbeck Newsletter: "Burning Bright works better as an opera than it does as either a novel or play.... Not only does Lewin's music admirably suit Steinbeck's drama, but his libretto in some ways improves on Steinbeck's play.... It is certainly modern music but not militantly so, nor does it resemble that of any other composer."
American Record Guide: "It is a tribute to Lewin's understanding of the dramatic function of music and his skills as a composer that he was able to produce a three-hour piece that held the audience's attention."
Opera: "For the past 40 years Lewin has pursued a career writing film, television, and theatre scores in addition to a substantial amount of concert music.... The dramatic effectiveness of his opera score and good sense of theatre is not therefore unexpected."
Opernwelt: "Arioses, Deklamatorisches und Volksliedhaftes gehen bruchlos ineinander über. Und Lewins Musik ist dankbar für die Stimmen."
["Passages of arioso-like, declamatory, and folk-song character blend seamlessly. And Lewin's music is beautifully suited to the voices."]