Since the late 1960s, when he came to the United States to work with John Cage as an assistant and performer, Gavin Bryars has collaborated with some of the biggest stars of the post-World War II avant-garde.
Choreographer Merce Cunningham and opera director Robert Wilson commissioned music from the British composer and bassist, and Wilson directed his first opera. Brian Eno played experimental music with Bryars before becoming a glam-rock star, then launched his first record label with an LP of Bryars' minimalist classical music.
Tom Waits sang on a 1993 recording of an expanded version of "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet," a piece that had been a hit of sorts when it first appeared on that 1975 album issued by Eno on his Obscure Records label.
Now Bryars has written an opera about a very different kind of star, Marilyn Monroe. Long Beach Opera will stage its U.S. premiere March 21 at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.
Working with Canadian poet and novelist Marilyn Bowering, Bryars combines languid jazz trio passages with somber, primarily low-register woodwinds, horns and strings to weave a broodingly emotional portrait that probes Monroe's troubled mind and yearning spirit instead of laying out her biography or re-creating moments from her films.
This is a poetic and philosophical Monroe, whose lines include "all life on this planet is a film gone too far" and "you think desire evolves in stages? No, it's all one moment of strange beauty."
Bryars, 72, said his Monroe was consistent with the Marilyn who briefly became his obsession in 1963 when he was a 20-year-old philosophy student at Sheffield University. "The Misfits," the 1961 drama that was the last film for Monroe and co-star Clark Gable, arrived at a local cinema, and Bryars was there every night, sitting through a forgettable second feature to see it over and over without having to pay an extra admission.
To absorb the film thoroughly, Bryars recalled, he sometimes consulted his paperback copy of Arthur Miller's screenplay by the light of the movie screen. Miller's marriage to Monroe was crumbling as "The Misfits" was shot in 1960.
"It had a dark melancholy, an end-of-an-era kind of film, and the subject matter was a farewell to a whole way of life," Bryars recalled recently from Adelaide, Australia, where he was finishing a residency at the Adelaide Festival, including a staging of "Marilyn Forever."
But Bryars didn't think of Monroe as a musical subject until many years later, after what in some ways became the most significant collaboration of his career. Commissioned in 1998 to write and record the score for "Last Summer," a film for Canadian television that was being shot on Vancouver Island, Canada, Bryars wound up marrying the director, Anna Tchernakova.
From that merger sprouted a second family (he helped raise Tchernakova's daughter, now 21, and they have a son, 15; both of Bryars' daughters from a previous marriage are musicians). And it gave the composer a second home on Vancouver Island, where he spends several months each year, as well as a new community of creative collaborators from which "Marilyn Forever" has sprung. It was commissioned by the Aventa Ensemble, a new music group in Victoria, B.C.
After becoming friendly with Bowering, a neighbor on Vancouver Island, Bryars began reading her books. One is "Anyone Can See I Love You," a series of poetic monologues spoken by Marilyn Monroe that was published in 1987 and adapted as a BBC radio drama.
"I thought [Bowering] grasped many of the important things I found in Marilyn," Bryars said. "Often, she plays the dumb blond, the bimbo as it were, but you always have a sense of something else, something in depth and intelligent behind that facade."
After writing three big operas for full orchestras — "Medea," about the tragic wife and mother from Euripides, "Dr. Ox's Experiment," based on a story by Jules Verne, and "G," which imagines the life of Johannes Gutenberg — Bryars says he wanted to compose "a chamber opera, something that was more portable, less clumsy to mount, that could tour around little theaters, with short rehearsals and short runs." The opera calls for four singers, an onstage jazz trio of piano, tenor saxophone and bass, and an eight-piece pit orchestra.
Bryars asked Bowering if she'd help him turn her Marilyn into his protagonist, and in 2010, they began developing the opera in a retreat at Banff in the Canadian Rockies.
The composer said he quickly vetoed including or elaborating on songs Monroe had sung in films — for the purely practical reason that it would have been expensive to secure the rights to use them. Instead, he wrote a couple of 1950s jazz standards-style ballads of his own for scenes in which Monroe is recording a song or slow-dancing with one of the men in her life, all played by a single baritone.
"I do allude briefly to 'When I Fall in Love,'" Bryars said. "Nat King Cole did a very great version of that. We're using just a couple of words, and the harmony is changed. As far as I know, [Monroe] didn't sing it."
Where Marilyn Monroe is involved, "Happy Birthday" becomes all but inevitable. To avoid copyright infringement issues, Bryars wrote a new melody for it.
Reviewing the Adelaide production this month, the national newspaper the Australian hailed "Marilyn Forever" as "whimsical, surreal and musically absorbing … an undeniable highlight of this year's Adelaide festival." Critic Graham Straehle praised the sung parts as "languid, voluptuous and constantly evolving," while the instrumental passages conveyed "a deep, sinister presence with elegiac interludes and chilling silences that mark the trajectory to doom."
Bryars' collaborators have run the gamut of flexibility and inflexibility from Wilson, who knew exactly what he wanted and demanded full control of the staging of "Medea," to choreographers who simply gave Bryars "a general poetic, philosophical idea of the ballet, and then let you write music that fits."
With "Marilyn Forever," he said, librettist Bowering had no problem revising her book and radio script to go with the musical flow and propel the drama.
He traces his ease with collaboration to having been rejected by the British classical music establishment when he was starting out as a composer.
"Musicians in experimental collectives were not seen as being serious or worthy of notice by conservatories or universities but seen as a rogue element," Bryars said. "The fine arts colleges [nominally focused on visual art] had a much more open attitude. They wanted to put different artists together. That kind of collaborative thing was in the air."
For the former philosophy student, artistic collaboration makes a kind of ethical and emotional sense. "I enjoy it because you think of someone other than yourself," Bryars said. "It's like being in a relationship — you have to care for others. There are differences, but it's negotiable. You make adjustments."
The 2013 premiere of "Marilyn Forever" in Victoria and the recent Australian staging featured the same director and core musicians from Aventa Ensemble. Now Bryars will have to let go and see what Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera's artistic director, will make of it.
In 2012, Mitisek, an inveterate experimenter, theatricalized one of Bryars' non-operatic pieces, "Paper Nautilus," and staged it in the lobby of the Aquarium of the Pacific, where the audience included extremely large sea bass in a tank behind the stage.
He has decided that "Marilyn Forever" should have two Marilyns — a soprano for the public figure and a mezzo-soprano for the inward, private woman.
Did he consult with Bryars about this?
"Actually, we didn't," Mitisek said. "That's one option, to confer with [a composer], but I also think the letting your baby go and handing it over and seeing another production is an interesting experience for a composer and librettist, to see where there are different entryways" into their work.
Bryars will get the closest possible look at what Mitisek has done because he'll be onstage playing his bass in the first performance in L.A.