In Lillian Hellman's play "The Little Foxes," heroine Regina Giddens and her brothers hatch a money-grabbing scheme that lends new meaning to the word "greed." With thievery, backstabbing and Southern bile to beat the band, she storms her way to a famously blackhearted ending.
Yet the legendary nasty machinations of Hellman's turn-of-the-century Alabama clan only barely out-shadow the forces that have long been at work against Marc Blitzstein's "Regina," the late composer's opera based on the 1939 play.
It took Blitzstein, who had composed the 1938 musical "The Cradle Will Rock" in less than six weeks, a full three years to adapt Hellman's play. And once his adaptation was complete, his troubles had just begun.
The composer had taken his share of creative license, expanding the cast of characters beyond Regina and her family to include employees, neighbors and others. He also added a musical prologue that featured motifs of ragtime and Southern spiritual music and an elaborate party scene featuring a jazz band.
Hellman launched a campaign objecting to Blitzstein's additions and managed to get the composer to scale back his vision. Then, when "Regina" was optioned for Broadway, producer Cheryl Crawford demanded that the work be cut even further, from three acts to two, excising the entire party scene in the process.
When the opera finally bowed on Broadway in 1949, "Regina" was a critical, though not a commercial, success. And since then, it has fared only marginally better.
In 1958, the City Center Opera of New York staged a version that came closer to the work as written, but it too included significant cuts. And other U.S. stagings since have continued the tradition of severe editing.
"The 'Regina' that people got to know was the shortest version, closest to the play but in some ways inexplicable," conductor John Mauceri says. "I believe the shorter version, while it's OK, is one of the reasons why this work isn't known: It's confused."
Now, the original work is going to receive its American premiere at last. The score has been restored to full form by Mauceri, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra's music director, and Tommy Krasker. The Opera Pacific production, with soprano Carol Neblett in the title role, Sheri Greenawald as her sister-in-law Birdie and Renee Sousa, John Stephens, Brian Steele and James Maddalena rounding out the family--opens at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Saturday.
It is, Mauceri says, attention long overdue the work of an artist who has never been given his rightful place in the annals of American music.
"Blitzstein is a composer who had been forgotten, and for lots of reasons that should be embarrassing," Mauceri says. "He was a Jewish homosexual Communist, so he was on everybody's list. At the same time, he was one of the most talented composers that ever came out of America."
Although it's not widely known, Blitzstein was a major influence on several key American artists, including the late Leonard Bernstein.
"That he was Bernstein's mentor is interesting historically," Mauceri says. "But it becomes even more so when you hear the music [of "Regina"] and realize that [Bernstein] was writing in a similar style. 'Maria' from 'West Side Story' is almost embarrassingly pre-quoted in 'Regina.' "
The original version of "Regina" received its premiere, with Mauceri conducting, at the Scottish Opera in 1991, yet the effort to restore it actually dates back more than 15 years.
Back then, shortly after the death of Bernstein's wife, the composer-conductor and Mauceri had a conversation in which the elder artist spoke of his long-standing ambition to restore the Blitzstein opera.
"Lenny was depressed and unable to do any work," says Mauceri, who worked with Bernstein from the early 1970s until his death in 1990. "I had remembered that Lenny [said], 'I swore on Marc's grave that I would fix "Regina." ' "
At the time, Mauceri was teaching at Yale. He and Krasker--who was his student there and is now a Los Angeles-based independent record producer--then proceeded to meet with Bernstein to talk about the project.
Krasker, who was an undergraduate at the time, delved into the Blitzstein archives, which were housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
"Each week, Tommy would go through the [score] photocopies and all the correspondence," Mauceri says. "Then, we would take it all down to Lenny and play through it."
They had the luxury of having Blitzstein's original manuscript, so the project was hardly conjectural.
"The manuscript of the complete opera exists in the handwriting of the composer," Mauceri says. "It is therefore not a controversial process."
In fact, the existence of this score has provided the opportunity for a rare link between the composer and his interpreters.
"What I conduct from is a photocopy of the manuscript, which is a wonderful thing to do," Mauceri says. "You are in direct contact, getting to know the composer through his own handwriting."
Yet even with such a document available, there were still choices to be made by Mauceri, Krasker and Bernstein.
'The composer put Xs over the pages that were cut," Mauceri says. "Sometimes he scrubbed [a section or change] out, sometimes he lightly put a pencil mark over it. We had to determine whether you restored every note or whether you made some decisions. That's part of an editorial process."
Ninety-five percent of the time, Mauceri says, the decision was "let's restore that."
But, he says, "sometimes there were two pieces of music to do the same thing. So there are some artistic decisions being made. There are two endings, for instance, and we chose the more dramatic ending."
Mostly, however, what the restorers were up against was the legacy of Hellman's objections.
"Hellman was an extremely powerful and opinionated woman, and she did not philosophically approve of his expanding the text, even though she had agreed to having her play turned into an opera," Mauceri says.
"Hellman outlived Blitzstein, and she [made] considerable efforts to encourage cuts. That would be a little like Sardu outliving Puccini and taking anything that wasn't in his play out of 'Tosca.' "
In particular, Hellman wanted the prologue that Blitzstein had created cut substantially, and she got her way.
"The Blitzstein prologue," Mauceri explains, "set up the conflict between the burgeoning expression of blacks in jazz and ragtime and the resistance of the white community to accepting this.
"In addition to the prologue disappearing, there were major cuts made in Act 2, in the party sequence," Mauceri continues, referring in particular to the excising of an onstage jazz band. "By cutting the band, you don't have the counterpoint--and you don't allow a way for the younger son, Leo, to go to the bank and steal the bonds."
Also, truncating Blitzstein's vision caused collateral damage to the structure and balance of the score.
"So much of the music was cut that we hear recapitulations that were never heard [a first time]," Mauceri says. "What Blitzstein wrote was a full-scale grand opera with a jazz band and a court orchestra playing during the party."
Mauceri, Krasker and Bernstein worked on the project for a year and a half before it was set aside. Mauceri and Krasker weren't able to return to it until the late 1980s.
Soon thereafter, they were readying plans to have the work produced.
"We were going to do it at the Washington Opera, when Lenny was alive," Mauceri says. "But the administration wasn't so sure they wanted to do an American opera, so it basically stopped."
Fortunately, other plans were made--just in time to let Bernstein know that the full "Regina" would at last be heard.
"In 1990, I went to Lenny," Mauceri says. "This was the Thursday night before he died. It was one of the last things I told him."
"REGINA," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Saturday and March 23, 27 and 29, 8 p.m.; March 31, 2 p.m. Prices: $18-$85. Tickets: Ticketmaster, (714) 740-2000.