Cher Public

All shook up

SilvermanThe first opera commission by Tanglewood was Peter Grimes.  The second was Elephant Steps, with music by Stanley Silverman and libretto by Richard Foreman, who also directed the premiere in Tanglewood’s Shed on 7 August 1968.  The production transferred in 1970 to Hunter Playhouse in New York City (where it won an Obie Award) and the Lake George Opera. 

Subtitled by its creators as “A Fearful Radio Show,” it reminded Jerome Robbins of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds.  A critic for New York called it “The best piece of new music I’ve heard all year.”  Another critic advised “not to ask what it is about; it is no more centered than life itself.”

Silverman’s music, influenced by Händel, Purcell, Schoenberg, Django Reinhardt, Rodgers and Hart, and Cuban charanga, has been performed by musicians ranging from Pierre Boulez to Sting.  His second opera with Foreman, Dr Selavy’s Magic Theatre, led the New York Times to describe him as “the brightest talent in this medium to come along since Leonard Bernstein.”

Foreman, founder of the legendary Ontological-Hysteric Theater, creates a type of avant-garde, post-dramatic theater that unsettles and disorients received ideas and opens the doors for alternative models of perception, organization, and understanding.  His more-than-60 plays, operas, films, and videos include titles such as Rhoda in Potatoland and Blvd. de Paris (I’ve Got the Shakes).

Between 1968 and 1990, Silverman and Foreman further collaborated on Hotel for Criminals, American Imagination, Africanus Instructus, and Love & Science.

Their one act opera Madame Adare was commissioned by New York City Opera and presented at New York State Theater as part of the 1980 American Trilogy project.  It concerns a diva who has difficulty in deciding whether she should become a singer in the fashion of Barbra Streisand or Maria Callas, resolving to have a career in both styles after shooting her psychiatrist.

They also joined forces—Silverman as music director and a band member, Foreman as director—of the New York Shakespeare Festival production of The Threepenny Opera starring Raul Julia and Ellen Greene which opened in 1976 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater and transferred to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park the following summer.  The production was nominated for Tony, Drama Desk, and Grammy Awards

In Elephant Steps, Hartman is looking for enlightenment.  He has a mysterious guru named Reinhardt.  The reactionary forces keep warning him to stop seeing Reinhardt, but Reinhardt persists  After visiting Nighttown, and then being abducted and grilled in a radio station, where he dreams of returning to his childhood, he finally climbs a ladder, looks in the window of Reinhardt’s house, and what he sees brings him illumination.

The work was eventually recorded by CBS Masterworks and released as a two-LP set in 1974.

Some 30 years after the premiere, I found myself in conversation with theater, film, and television actress Marilyn Sokol at a Broadway opening night party.  When I mentioned that I first discovered her as the Ragtime Lady in Elephant Steps, without missing a beat she launched into her big number, “Watch Me Put My Right Foot through the Door,” delivering the entire song complete with high notes.

Elephant Steps has been described as “stupendous, multi-sensory, original, diffuse, overwhelming, faintly frightening and always surprising.”  To that, I’d like to add “unforgettable!”

Stanley Silverman/Richard Foreman: Elephant Steps
A Fearful Radio Show

With Pop Singers, Opera Singers, Orchestra, Rock Band, Electronic Tape, Raga Group, Tape Recorder, Gypsy Ensemble, and Elephants ALL under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas

Recorded 1973 in New York City

Hartman – Philip Steele
Max – Luther Enstad
Otto – Larry Marshall
Doctor – Roland Gagnon
Rock Singer – Luther Rix
Archangel – Michael Tilson Thomas
Hannah – Susan Belling
Ragtime Lady – Marilyn Sokol
Scrubwoman – Karen Altman

Post scriptum:  If you missed my upload on Thursday of that evening’s Wiener Staatsoper performance of Manon Lescaut with Anna Netrebko and Marcello Giordani, you can find it here: