Everything you need to know about Bernstein’s one-act opera 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.
This 45-minute long satire on the American dream is divided into seven short scenes that segue into one another. It’s thought-provoking, piercingly relatable and closes with a gleam of hope…
Who are the characters?
Jazz trio (soprano, tenor, baritone)
In this production, we also get to meet Sam and Dinah’s son Junior, who is referred to but never usually appears. The opera’s other characters remain silent and invisible to us – Sam’s client Mr Partridge, his friend Bill, his secretary Miss Brown, and Dinah’s psychoanalyst.
Joseph Shovelton, Fflur Wyn and Nicholas Butterfield as the Trio, 2017 © Alastair Muir
What is this production like?
Matthew Eberhardt’s 2017 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 (by Hannah Clark) 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.
“…a fleet and witty staging.”
★★★★ — The Telegraph (2017)
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 with close harmonies and jazz rhythms which are typical of radio ads of the time.
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 Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, down to the eerie, exotic backing copied from ‘Bali Hai’. Listen to musical extracts below.
Who was the composer?
Trouble in Tahiti was written by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), that giant of American musical theatre best 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…)
Leonard Bernstein c. 1955
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?
Quirijn de Lang as Sam and Wallis Giunta as Dinah, 2017 © Alastair Muir