Flight Path

Opera Theatre of St. Louis charts the course for the world premiere of a Lindbergh opera

Opera needs a bigger-than-life subject. Small, pedestrian, ultradomestic situations don't hold up with operatic expansion. They're made to seem more trivial. This is a bigger-than-life person and a bigger-than-life story."

Michael Albano sits with colleague Cary John Franklin on wooden folding chairs under the Opera Theatre of St. Louis picnic tent on a summery afternoon. Albano is gregarious, dark-haired and casual. Franklin is slightly reticent, with sandy hair and delicate features. They've worked together as a team before, Albano the librettist and Franklin the composer for two children's productions with OTSL. Five years ago they were asked whether they were interested in creating a piece for the mainstage ("Of course we would," Franklin says, chuckling at the no-brainer) with OTSL general director Charles MacKay making only one requisite, "that it would be some kind of an American subject," says Franklin. "Our first take was Tennessee Williams."

But it wasn't long before a second name became more prominent, also with a St. Louis connection: Charles Lindbergh.

The idea of an opera based on the life of the most celebrated hero of the first half of the 20th century is not so remarkable as the realization that it hasn't already been done. "Operatic expansion" calls for operatic personages: Carmen, Medea, Don Juan. Modern history offers few characters so tailored to the operatic scale as Lindbergh. "He was a country bumpkin from Minnesota," Franklin says, charting the hero's epic rise and fall. "He was not savvy and smart about the ways of the world. He had a fantastic vision of something he wanted to achieve, and he did that -- and all of this fame and fortune that came his way was more than he could handle."

From the moment this willful, incredibly resourceful and courageous 25-year-old set the Spirit of St. Louisdown at Le Bourget after crossing the Atlantic alone, the world took possession of his life, Franklin says: "He was put up on a pedestal, and there's no way he could be that high. He came down so fast, so hard because people put him in a false place."

It's the coming down that makes for tragedy, and Lindbergh suffered the cruelest force of gravity: the kidnapping and murder of his first child -- with the whole world feasting on the disaster.

Loss of Eden, Albano makes clear, is not about the kidnapping. This is not an opera for crime buffs. He has nothing new to say about the guilt or innocence of Bruno Hauptmann, the German immigrant executed for the Lindbergh baby's murder. However, he says, "I don't think you can talk about the Lindberghs without talking about the kidnapping. In a pure theatrical sense, in speaking of theatrical structure, it gives us a wonderful active vision. The first act ends with the discovery of the empty crib."

The focus on that empty crib has pared down the telling of a life that otherwise would be too expansive for modern audiences to take in: It would take a Peter Brook epic on the scale of The Mahabharatato tell the Lindbergh story in full. "In some ways, it's too rich, because there's so much material," Franklin says. "When we first started, we wanted to do everything." He points at the copy of A. Scott Berg's incomparable biography at our table: "Our first treatments were as big as this book. There's such a large subject, and trying to prune it down into something that's manageable and also theatrical -- it can very easily become documentary. We're not interested in doing that."

Albano and Franklin avoid Lindbergh's troublesome politics -- he was an isolationist before World War II and developed disturbingly cozy relationships with Nazi leaders. "I think political views, theatrically, can verge on being desperately uninteresting," says Albano. "It gets into such a totally different area of his life. It doesn't have the raw emotional springboard that the kidnapping of the child does. It doesn't take us anywhere. We wrote one scene [about politics], and it just went nowhere."

From Lindbergh's biography they've developed "a chamber opera, in a way," says Albano. The lives of two disparate couples intersect tragically in Loss of Eden: Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Bruno and Anna Hauptmann. The opera shifts from the Lindberghs' secure home to the Hauptmanns' frail tenement. In the dramatists' conception, says Albano, "for totally different reasons, they were all betrayed by the American dream. It didn't happen the way it should. Lindbergh is obviously the greatest hero of his time, and the Hauptmanns have their hopes for the New World, which did not transpire."

Albano recognizes that the staging will benefit from the familiarity of the story. Although almost 70 years has passed since "the crime of the century," Albano trusts that "it's all in our consciousness. It's in our memory. So many people who will come to see this opera will know something about Lindbergh, or will think they know something -- which is just as good. We don't have to dispense a lot of information. Somebody said to me -- and it was wonderful advice -- 'The success of a play or an opera should never depend upon having read the program notes.'"

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