Blitzstein's opera Regina was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and the Koussevitsky Music Foundation in May of 1946. A musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman's 1939 play The Little Foxes, the work evolved over three years of intensive composition - plus an additional decade of revisions and refinements. At one point, the assignment seemed so daunting that Blitzstein, who had composed The Cradle Will Rock in less than six weeks, was moved to write, "I wanted to make an opera of The Little Foxes, but [does] The Little Foxes want to be made into an opera by me?"
Hellman's play offered a powerful look at the blossoming of industrial capitalism in turn-of-the-century Alabama. In developing his opera, Blitzstein moved beyond the principal character of the play - the money-grabbing Hubbard clan - and added new characters suggested by the drama and its setting. He surrounded the family with employees, neighbors and relatives; he built up the roles of the young field workers. The result retained the play's principal conflict - between the declining aristocracy and the middle-class industrialists - but extended its effects across a broader canvas.
The sounds of Dixieland jazz were crucial to Blitzstein' s expansive adaptation; to him, they represented "the first voice of protest of the colored people in a secular way." By mid-July of 1946, Blitzstein had resolved to include a rag-time band onstage and, within a few weeks, began writing the opera's first set-piece, a number for the band'sleader entitled "Naught's a Naught". In the ensuing months, he expanded the tune into an elaborate musical prologue that introduced a group of diverse characters and, as they lifted their voices in song, intertwined spirituals of the old South with the rhythms of ragtime - playfully at first, then exultantly.
Protests from Lillian Hellman hastened this prologue's demise. Throughout 1948 and 1949, Hellman sent lengthy missives to Blitzstein voicing specific objections to his adaptation; predictably, most of these focused on elements that strayed from her play. The prologue was a constant thorn in her side. On September 7, 1948, she labeled it "unworthy" and "unnecessary". Following this attack, Blitzstein halved the scene and removed all the dialogue. (He had already deleted most of the "Naught's a Naught" lyric earlier that year, for reasons now unclear.) Unhappily, the result was skeletal: musically unsatisfying, dramatically muddled. The prologue had never been designed to further Hellman's plot; now, sadly it no longer serviced Blitzstein's vision.
Blitzstein devised one other extensive addition to The Little Foxes: an ensemble scene to close the second act. As early as May 15, 1946, he contemplated "a ball given by Regina," one that would incorporate period dances, advance the story-line and, as in the prologue, allow disparate characters to reveal themselves through commentary and confrontations. He scripted a passage in which Regina carefully chose and candidly described her guests, composed a suitably embittered response for the ensemble, and let the jazz band comment on high-tone Southern pretensions. The character who symbolized the faded aristocracy found comfort in a servant woman's spiritual evocation of the Blues; the new South rejected the old during a highly romantic waltz.
This scene underwent minor revisions until the summer of 1949 - at which time producer Cheryl Crawford, who had optioned the work for Broadway, demanded that Regina be reduced from three acts to two. The Party scene, essential to Blitzstein's grand scheme but not to the unfolding of the plot, was an unfortunate casualty: almost fifteen minutes were eventually deleted.
Regina premiered at the 46th Street Theatre in New York on October 31, 1949. The critical reception was largely favorable - Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times called it "a remarkable achievement" - but the production was not a popular success. Four years later, a City Centre Opera production restored the work to three acts, reinstated much of the party sequence, but made other equally damaging cuts. The critical and popular acclaim accorded this revival prompted the company to mount a new version in 1958. Sadly, this version - which was ultimately recorded - strayed furthest from Blitzstein' s original intentions by eliminating the jazz band altogether (apparently for budgetary reasons), Hellman later praised this production as the opera's "best interpretation", no doubt because it came closest to simply setting The Little Foxes to music. But as Eric A. Gordon notes in his recent Blitzstein biography, Marc the Music, the 1959 City Opera version is "wrongly...regarded as Blitzstein' s definitive edition of the work;" it, in fact diminishes Regina - not merely in size, but in stature and scope.
During his final years, Blitzstein chose the State Historical Society of Wisconsin as the ultimate repository of his collection, which included thousands of Regina manuscripts - from typed notes to piano-vocal sketches to full orchestral scores. Now, with the support and encouragement of Blitzstein's heirs, copies of these materials - dating from 1946 to 1958 - have been acquired, examined, and utilized in this new production, which at last restores Blitzstein's original vision. The extensive script and musical manuscripts have permitted reconstruction of the prologue and party sequence. Elsewhere, key passages have been reinstated to clarify the story-telling, as have the recitatives that Blitzstein composed for the two City Opera versions. Forty-six years after the work was commissioned, American audiences can hear Regina as Marc Blitzstein first envisioned it for the operatic stage.