Shop at



This month Houston becomes the first city in the South to see and hear Marc Blitzstein's 1949 opera Regina. Today Blitzstein's name is barely recognized by the American public; abroad it is virtually unknown.

Yet in his day, Blitzstein figured among the most widely recognized composers, especially for the theater, where he gave back in music the speech patterns of our entire range of social classes from Greek immigrant waiters to society matrons. No one surpassed his genius for setting American words to American music.

Ironically, it is not even for his own music that he is most remembered, but for translating Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. It was his version, starring Weill's widow Lotte Lenya, that played off-Broadway for seven years in the late '50s and early '60s, resuscitating interest in Brecht in English-speaking countries. Weill's influence on Blitzstein can be found in many works. Indeed, some may regard it as more than coincidence that the two composers shared the same March 2 birthday. This milestone year marks what would have been Weill's 80th and Blitzstein's 75th.

In Regina, the work with which Blitzstein's reputation now largely survives, the composer summed up a life of dedication both to American music and to high democratic ideals. It reflects the musician's personal odyssey through a series of noted teachers (Alexander Siloti, Rosario Scalero, Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schönberg), through other musical influences (Weill, the German exile Hanns Eisler, Aaron Copland, the Soviet composers), and through the 20th-century political movements and social causes he embraced.

Prominent in Blitzstein's work is the theme of the underdog in American societv. As early as 1932, in a choral opera called The Condemned, he portrayed the sentiments of a man on the eve of his execution for his unconventional beliefs. It was an unmistakable reference to the martyred anarchist immigrant laborers Sacco and Vanzetti. The musical modernity and virtual unproduceability of the work relegated it to oblivion. When Hitler took power in Germany soon after, Blitzstein changed musical course. Now considering himself a militant in the anti-fascist united front, he no longer cared to write music beyond the comprehension of mass audiences.

After a number of May Day marching songs and sketches for left-wing revues, Blitzstein produced the work which overnight brought him fame, the "proletarian" opera The Cradle Will Rock. Written at white heat in five weeks in the summer of1936, it was inspired by and dedicated to Brecht, the exiled German poet and playwright who had made his first trip to America with Eisler in 1935 to supervise his play The Mother.

Blitzstein's "play in music," as he called it, glorifies the industrial unionism of the CIO in Steeltown, U.S.A., a mill community controlled by the Big Business villain Mr. Mister. Though painted in bold black-and-white strokes appropriate to the pages of The Daily Worker, The Cradle Will Rock represented less an organizing appeal to workers and more a warning to the middle class that the historical moment now forced the choice between democracy and fascism.

Failing to secure any producer's commitment to a staging, Blitzstein despaired that his opera would ever reach the boards. Then Orson Welles heard the composer play it through. As director of the WPA Federal Theater Project 891 in New York, Welles decided to stage it at the Maxine Elliott Theater.

The large cast went into rehearsal early in 1937, soon followed by the full orchestra required by the composer, who all along feared that some contretemps would threaten the production. For in just this period, after the CIO unions had forced the Big Steel corporations to sign contracts, and while Little Steel held out, tensions between labor and the industrial bosses reached the highest point since early in the century. On Memorial Day, police attacked crowds of striking Republic Steel workers in Detroit and killed ten, seven of them shot in the back. At the same time, workers employed in other WPA projects were staging sit-down strikes protesting personnel cutbacks.

The opera was scheduled to open on June 17th. At the last minute, word came down from Washington - and, some allege, from FDR himself - that the performance could not go on under federal auspices.

Undaunted by the withdrawal of government support, Welles and Blitzstein were determined to rock New York with their Cradle. They located the dusty, unused Venice Theater 20 blocks uptown, and the audience marched. Scores, sets, costumes and props remained locked in the Elliott. An hour late, Blitzstein began, fully prepared to sing the entire score at the piano himself, if necessary; for it was considered a breach of union contract for the actors to appear on any other than the federal stage. But the cast had taken seats in the Venice, and with few exceptions, sang their parts from the house, the audience straining necks to locate the performers. The next morning, newspapers all over the country carried a startling item about an opera banned by the government and produced in unorthodox fashion.

In subsequent performances, the cast sang in street clothes on a bare stage, still to Blitzstein' s piano accompaniment. In 1938 The Cradle Will Rock became the first Broadway musical issued on discs. Leonard Bernstein performed the piece when he graduated from Harvard in1939. From that occasion dates the long friendship between Bernstein and Blitzstein that was to yield premieres, recordings and many musical cross-influences. A popular play for left-wing theater companies ever since, it achieved a fully staged production with the original orchestration only in 1960, when New York City Opera revived it with Tammy Grimes.

Marc Blitzstein began his friendship with Lillian Hellman about the time of Cradle. They shared a commitment to humanitarian principles which, as a self-confessed " moral writer," she had shown in her badly received play about labor unions and economic paternalism, the 1936 Days to Come. In 1937 she worked on a filmscript for The Spanish Earth, a semi-documentary by Joris Ivens with a narration by Ernest Hemingway , which presented a forceful defense of the Spanish Republic against Franco's fascism. Together with Virgil Thomson, Blitzstein constructed a score for the film from Spanish folklore recordings. He also wrote film music for Native Land, featuring Paul Robeson. Robeson recorded excerpts of another Blitzstein opera on a labor theme, the less successful No for an Answer. In later years, Blitzstein would write incidental music for Hellman's plays Another Part of the Forest and Toys in the Attic.

In the summer of 1942, when Nazism nearly vanquished the Soviet Union, the composer was 37 years old. Not one to preach what he didn't practice, Blitzstein joined the U.S. Army that August and embarked on a three-year military career based in London. He composed for the Allied cause and directed musical activities for the American Broadcasting Station in Europe. Among his achievements was a concert he prepared in 1943 using a chorus of 200 black soldiers.

The distinguished black tenor Roland Hayes was specially flown to England to join them in Royal Albert Hall. The program contained Earl Robinson's Ballad for Americans, spirituals and classical arias. Blitzstein's men sang "Certainly, Lord," the chorus that later was to bring Regina to a gloriously optimistic close. The London Symphony Orchestra performed Freedom Morning, a short piece on Negro themes which Blitzstein had composed for the occasion.

The Airborne Symphony, an hour-long cantata on the history of flight and an alarm against militarism, came out of the war period. In it, Blitzstein specifically called for a Negro tenor soloist. Premiered by Bernstein in 1946 and twice recorded by the same conductor, the Airborne was revived by Victor Alessandro in San Antonio in 1953, when the armed forces celebrated the 50th anniversary of powered flight. Again, the theme quickly dated itself, but a good listener will hear more than superannuated military slang and appreciate the composer's grasp of a comprehensive American musical style.

Once life had settled clown in the post-war period, Blitzstein hit upon Hellman's The Little Foxes as the subject for another opera. The composer considered it the finest play written in America. He approached the author with the idea, and as he explained to a reporter on the eve of Regina's Boston tryout, "She looked at me in frank astonishment – and she wasn't the last one to do so, either - and said, 'Of course you may do it if you really wish to, but I don't know how you can add anything to the Hubbards that will make them any more unpleasant than they are already."'

By now America was experiencing a second-wave attempt at establishing a native opera, with new works by such composers as Douglas Moore, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber and Kurt Weill. At the end of the 1940s it appeared as though Broadway were the proper stage for this movement, as the opera houses seemed firmly in the saddle of the 19th-century warhorses.

When Regina appeared on Broadway, some in the audience demanded their money back at intermission -they had thought they were to see a musical. But Regina was far more than that. As Blitzstein put it, "I wanted to write something as real musically to Americans as Italian opera is to the Italians." Coincidentally, Hellman's Montserrat opened on a Saturday, Weill's Lost in the Stars on Sunday, and Regina on Monday, October 31, 1949. The following month saw Blitzstein's dance score The Guests produced at the New York City Ballet. Choreographed by Jerome Robbins, it starred Maria Tallchief and dealt with racial or social discrimination.

For Regina's title role, Blitzstein invited Risë Stevens to appear on Broadway. The Metropolitan Opera star declined, stating that works like Regina belonged in the opera house and only there would she do them. The composer settled on an unlikely soprano, a member of the popular radio and stage children's singing trio of the 1930s, the Pickens Sisters. Jane Pickens had graduated to fancy supper clubs and to a regular weekly radio spot on NBC, but had never given up her aspirations for a career in classical music that she had nurtured ever since studying at the Curtis Institute of Music with Marcella Sembrich. The part of Regina is exceedingly difficult to perform eight times a week; Stevens' refusal is easily understood.

Others in the original cast included William Warfield and William Wilderman. Brenda Lewis sang the role of Birdie; later she would assume the title role and record it for Columbia. In parts excised from later productions, and thus from the recording, the well-known jazz trumpeter Bill Dillard played as the leader of a New Orleans-style ragtime band and nine-year-old Philip Hepburn danced up a storm as Chinkypin. This youngster once delayed a matinee performance for 15 minutes because he had forgotten and gone off to school that day. Aline Bernstein designed the costumes and Horace Armistead the set. Anna Sokolow supplied the dances, and Maurice Abravanel conducted.

Regina is for many reasons an unusual piece, even for the opera house. Most notable is the absence of a love story, though the plot is suffused with relations gone murderously awry. Blitzstein saw Bizet's Carmen as an inspiration, for it, too, with its spoken passages, is in the opera comique tradition, and similarly seems to emerge out of a bouquet of dance forms. In Regina can be found hymns, blues, foxtrots, ragtime, polkas, field songs and an entire musical palette of the burgeoning 20th century.

The critics both damned and praised the work. Some condemned it for having spoken dialogue, and others for being too operatic. Some compared it unfavorably with the original play, a criticism less meaningful today, as the play is not so fresh in the public memory. Blitzstein's old friends on the left saw Regina as less successful propaganda than The Cradle will Rock, although Hellman's play, set in Alabama at the turn of the century, could be read as an indictment of America's economic royalism. After one performance a reporter buttonholed Aaron Copland and asked him for a comment. Caught up in the excitement, the dean of American composers replied that "With Regina Mr. Blitzstone has created a milestein in the theater,"

When he read the more favorable reviews, Blitzstein felt that he could at last make a little money from his new show. But this was not to be. Regina was too far ahead of its time. Ironically, it paved the way for the Broadway success of Menotti's The Consul, a moving opera but musically far less interesting. Menotti's conservative, if not Cold War theme, however, appealed to the critics, whereas the broad hope for black freedom in Regina had perhaps unsettled them.

Regina closed after seven weeks, a 20th of the time it had taken to write it. The producer, Cheryl Crawford, showed her confidence in the work by storing all the sets and costumes in hopes of a revival when the public was ready.

In 1952 Regina received a concert performance with Hellman narrating, an occasion she describes in Scoundrel Time, her account of the McCarthy period. The following year, the impoverished New York of Crawford's City Opera made use foresight and staged Regina, with some musical tightening and less spoken recitative. The company revived it last in 1959, and it has since been produced in several other cities.

Regina was Blitzstein's last work to achieve anything near critical acclaim, though financially he did better with The Threepenny Opera. Reuben Reuben, an original musical for which he wrote both libretto and score, and starring Houston's Evelyn Lear in her first stage role, met with the Boston critics' disapproval in 1955. Through from a musical point of view it is one of the composer's most brilliant scores, it never got to Broadway. Four years later, another show did: Juno, based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. Featuring, incredibly, Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Booth as dancing singing-actors, Juno aimed with its bittersweet Irish theme for the kind of success recently enjoyed by My Fair Lady. The music is several cuts above the Broadway standard, but the whole production became too weighty to carry the story. After two weeks it folded.

In the early 1960s Blitzstein turned back to opera. Under a Ford Foundation grant he began a three-act work for the Metropolitan Opera based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Simultaneously, he adapted two short stories by Bernard Malamud into one-act operas. Tragically, these projects were cut short by the composer's sudden, violent death at the hands of three rowdy sailors in Martinique, where he had gone in the winter of 1963-64 to compose.

It was an immeasurable loss to American music, for though Blitzstein had long since become a secondary figure with a string of failures trailing his name, he represented the vanguard of the theater and music world's social conscience. Even the ebullient generation of the 1960s never turned out as sophisticated and committed an artist as Marc Blitzstein. Those who despair at the widening gap between the contemporary composer and the general public still must return to his achievements for study and inspiration.