Opera North Blog

Trouble in Tahiti in a nutshell


Everything you need to know about Trouble in Tahiti in one place – right here!

What is the story?

In 1950s suburbia, Sam and Dinah appear to have the perfect life in their little white house. But their growing detachment exposes a mutual feeling that they are trapped in a life that has turned into a lie. Sam escapes to the hyper-masculine, win-or-lose world of work and the gym, while Dinah loses herself in the movies, where the hit picture of the day is the ominously-titled Trouble in Tahiti.

Part of our season of six short operas with huge emotions, this satire on the American dream is thought-provoking, piercingly relatable, darkly funny and shot through with sadness.

For a full synopsis, visit the Trouble in Tahiti webpage >> The Story

Who are the characters?

Dinah (mezzo-soprano)
Sam (baritone)
Jazz trio (soprano, tenor, baritone)

In this production, we also get to meet Sam and Dinah’s son Junior, who is mentioned but never usually seen. The opera's other characters remain invisible to us – Sam's client Mr Partridge, his friend Bill, his secretary Miss Brown, and Dinah's psychoanalyst.

What is the music like?

Bernstein’s score for Trouble in Tahiti is heavily influenced by popular styles of the era – the 1950s. In particular, the jazz trio, who pop up now and again to provide satirical commentary to the drama ­(as a sort of Greek chorus), sing in close harmony with jazz rhythms typical of radio ads of the time (such as in the opening number ‘Mornin’ sun’). 

However, sudden stylistic shifts in the music paint the contrast between this façade of happy consumerism and the bleak reality, with a different musical language for each space that Sam and Dinah occupy. Thus the jumpy, syncopated tension of their home life gives way to something beautiful, lyrical and introspective in Dinah’s aria ‘There is a garden’, in which she describes a dream to her analyst. The score is also humorously infused with film music parodies — ‘Island magic’ is a deliberate mockery of Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, down to the eerie, exotic backing vocals mimicking ‘Bali Hai’. 

What is this production like?

Matthew Eberhardt’s new production of Trouble in Tahiti is set at the time of composition, 1952, a time of mass consumerism in the U.S. that brought with it a new quality of life and a new freedom to make life choices regarding who you wanted to be.

Yet this has not made Sam and Dinah happy. In our staging, the walls and floor of their house are built out of adverts, meaning the couple are quite literally living in the false promises of the media, while the jazz trio take on the role of session singers who record and perform jingles live on the air. Costumes are pure 1950s, with Dinah’s dress for ‘Island Magic’, in which she imagines herself as the glamorous leading lady of a Hollywood film, a tropical masterpiece of digital fabric printing.

Who was the composer?

Trouble in Tahiti was written by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), that giant of American musical theatre well known for On the Town (‘New York, New York’), Candide (‘Glitter and be Gay’) and of course, West Side Story (‘Maria’, ‘Tonight’, ‘America’, the list goes on…) 

However, Bernstein also wrote film scores, ballets and orchestral music as well as conducting and teaching. Next year marks the centenary of this hugely significant musical figure of the 20th Century, and celebrations, which include our production, have already begun! Find out what else is going on for Bernstein at 100

Did you know?

  • Ironically, Bernstein started to compose Trouble in Tahiti, a piece about a marriage falling apart, while on his honeymoon in 1951!
  • Tahiti had a somewhat shambolic premiere. The piece – only just completed – was billed as the finale to an all day symposium at a new arts festival directed by the composer, but the day grossly overran and the curtain didn’t go up until 11pm! As it had all been a bit "half-baked," Bernstein made some revisions, and the opera was performed again later that summer, with greater success.
  • Trouble in Tahiti is the only work for which Bernstein wrote the music AND the words. He intentionally used very direct, everyday language to make the opera as realistic as possible, writing “…the words are very carefully set so that they will sound in the American cadence.” Well, isn’t that dandy? 

Trouble in Tahiti is sung in English with no titles*, and lasts approximately 45 minutes. For more info or to book tickets, visit the Trouble in Tahiti webpage. Join in on social media with #ONTahiti and #LittleGreats.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.

*Certain performances are captioned

Trouble in Tahiti, 2017. Credit: Alastair Muir
Quirijn de Lang and Wallis Giunta in rehearsal for
Trouble in Tahiti, 2017. Credit: Tom Arber
Leonard Bernstein

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