Flight Path

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

Jul 11, 2001 at 4:00 am
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. Louis down 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 Mahabharata to 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.'"

Loss of Eden's success or failure will be based on the psychological and emotional complexity of the relationships as they are presented onstage. "It's not a documentary opera," Albano reiterates. "It really is a group of scenarios based upon what Gore Vidal calls 'agreed-upon facts."' Another guiding directive came from OTSL artistic director Colin Graham, who told the dramatists, "If you read in your research that they stormed off and had an argument and nobody could hear what they said upstairs -- imagine it! Write that argument."

In acquiring the theatrical truth of these individuals, both Albano and Franklin say they arrived at the project with greater knowledge of, and sympathy for, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose writing gave them access to a poetic voice from the beginning. With her Gift from the Sea a generational bestseller, they both knew her writing, and throughout the project, says Albano, her diaries became his most consistent resource for finding -- more important than the history -- how that history was remembered.

The imagining of these characters has determined their musical personae. Anne is scored for a mezzo-soprano, because, says Franklin, "there is such an inner turmoil in her writings, which always had a little bit darker color, at least in my mind." He pairs her with a baritone Charles. "I thought it also interesting to try and do duets with a baritone and a mezzo rather than do a baritone and soprano. The musical considerations were secondary, though. There was something inside me that reacted with her writing that said this is a darker, lower character voice."

The "shady" Bruno, as Franklin describes him, who comes and goes mysteriously, expressing his obsession with the material largesse of the American dream, sings a desperate, volatile tenor. His Anna "develops through the opera," says Franklin. "She becomes quite strong, at least in the second act, and you really want a strong soprano voice for her." Although Franklin says he has tried to "develop an equal level of sympathy, or empathy," for these characters, reading the libretto -- without score, with only minimal stage directions -- Anne and Anna stand out as the tragic heroines of this piece, thin reeds caught in the powerful ambitions of their men.

Loss of Eden premieres next summer at OTSL. With the Missouri History Museum presenting its own Lindbergh exhibition, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the New York-Paris flight, St. Louisans will have ample opportunity to explore one of the city's most compelling and complicated figures. Vidal has noted that Americans are obsessed with the theme of lost innocence. We're the only people who believe we can get it back. The Lindbergh tragedy makes another telling of that loss, operatic yet intimate.

Franklin shares an anecdote told to him by his mother-in-law: "Her vivid memory at the time is of her parents going around and putting locks on the upstairs windows of the house. Nobody had ever locked their upstairs windows before."

An empty crib. The son of a god is stolen. A nation wakes in fear. What could be more operatic?