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Springfield Regional Opera Opens Season with Double Bill: Barber and Bernstein

(Poster design courtesy Springfield Regional Opera)

Springfield Regional Opera opens their new season celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial with a performance of "Trouble in Tahiti" tonight (Sept.28) at 7:30pm in Clara Thompson Hall at Drury University.  Opening the evening will be Samuel Barber's short (VERY short!) opera "A Hand of Bridge."

SRO Music Director Dr. Christopher Koch, who conducts tonight's performance, calls "Trouble in Tahiti" "a really interesting work, because musically speaking, I think you could very much argue that it's the seed for 'West Side Story'" in terms of the musical styles and genres Bernstein was working with in the 1950s.  "It's kind of jazzy; you can hear Copland and Gershwin."

Is "Trouble in Tahiti" an opera... a musical... or what? Koch calls it "something between opera and a musical.  It doesn't really have dialogue, so it's maybe 95 percent an opera.  But it's got a feel and a style that's just 100 percent Bernstein."

The plot concerns a day in the lives of a married couple with a young child, who, says Dr. Koch, "are essentially trying to figure out how to love each other again.  And it's set against the backdrop of post-World War II American affluence." Sam and Dinah (no, NOT "Sam and Diane" from  "Cheers"--different couple, different era, different problems!) are living what was considered the affluent suburban "Mad Men"-style "American Dream"--but finding it's not all it's cracked up to be.  "There probably have been few times in history where a country was as powerful or as wealthy as we were right after World War II," says Christopher Koch. "Technology was exploding"--it was the Atomic Age, after all, and television was invading nearly every home--"incomes were exploding... the idea of 'you followed this one set of rules and you would have all of these wonderful things.' Of course that was also the beginning of a lot of the dissatisfaction and disaffectation that we all experience with 'I'm doing this... I have this money... but my life feels empty, it feels meaningless... despite my wonderful picket fence and my house and my one-point-five children."

Thus, the title "Trouble in Tahiti" could be thought of in the same vein as "trouble in Paradise." At the same time, the characters frequently make mention of a (fictional) movie called "Trouble in Tahiti" that helps further what Koch calls the "juxtaposition of expectations versus the reality of their lives."

Ann Marie Wilcox-Daehn and Chris Thompson, both members of the vocal music faculty at Missouri State University, play Dinah and Sam.  But there is also a sort of 1950s jazz vocal trio "Greek Chorus." "And like a Greek Chorus, they comment on the action (in an) ironic, overly upbeat style." Leonard Bernstein likened their contributions to a sort of "commercial jingle" running through the show.  Adds Christopher Koch, "It's really interesting, all of the different elements--the jazziness of the music and the really heartfelt confict between Sam and Dinah, and then this sort of overly glossy, overly optimistic music that comes from the trio.  It's a lot of stuff in a small package."  "Trouble in Tahiti" runs just over an hour.

Asked if he feels "Trouble in Tahiti" is at all "dated" in terms of its subject matter and Bernstein's musical approach to it, Christopher Koch notes that "sometimes the 'datedness' of it makes it all the more powerful and poignant.  Think 'Mad Men.' The nature in which Sam and Dinah express their feelings and thoughts, the way they come at each other, feels 'older.' But the things behind it are very relevant"--and universal.

Preceding the Bernstein piece in SRO's production is an even "smaller" package, which Koch describes as a "micro-opera": "A Hand of Bridge" by another highly honored American composer of the 20th century, Samuel Barber. It only runs about 15 minutes in performance.  How does it fit with "Trouble in Tahiti?" Christopher Koch says, "From a thematic standpoint, 'Hand of Bridge' is a completely unrelated piece. In terms of the feel of the music itself, when it was composed, sort of sitting around the Formica bridge table in a 1950s living room--it feels right. It feels like it's in the same cultural universe as 'Trouble in Tahiti.' The other part of it is, we have these four characters in 'A Hand of Bridge'... essentially they're playing bridge, but they're basically just going off in all different directions.  So again, it's this juxtaposition between what is actually happening--a mundane, everyday activity--and what's going on in the minds of the people participating."

Seating in Clara Thompson Hall is limited to about 200.  Tickets range from $28-$38 and are available online at or by calling SRO's office at 863-1960.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.