Marilyn Monroe Opera Gets U.S. Premiere

Keith Ian Polakoff

'Marilyn Forever' librettist Marilyn Bowering talks about the screen siren's romantic idealism.

Poet Marilyn Bowering wouldn't say she was destined to write about Marilyn Monroe because they share a given name, but that's kind of how she came to be the librettist of her first opera, Marilyn Forever, composed by Gavin Bryars. The production is making its U.S. premiere at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro for two performances March 21 and 29.

Back in the late-1980s, Bowering was approached by a TV producer, who also happened to be named Marilyn, about collaborating on an unspecified project. Nothing ever came of it until the producer finally said, "My name's Marilyn. Your name's Marilyn. What about Marilyn Monroe?" Bowering tells The Hollywood Reporter. Out of that partnership came Anyone Can See I Love You, a series of Monroe's interior monologues dramatized for BBC Radio and later reworked as a collection of poems.

Bryars, the iconoclastic composer best noted for his hypnotically lilting "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet," has worked with avant-garde luminaries such as Merce Cunningham, John Cage and Lucinda Childs. His first opera, Madea, was directed by Robert Wilson, and his follow-up, Doctor Ox's Experiment, based on a story by Jules Verne, was a collaboration with filmmaker Atom Egoyan.

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Drawing on his early days as a jazz bassist, Bryars (who will sit in on bass for the March 21 performance) incorporates mid-century jazz melodies in his opera, sometimes referencing pop songs of the era. "Marilyn was a product of popular film and music," says Bryars about creating what director Andreas Mitisek calls "a meta-world reflecting on her life, career and relationships."

Apart from being blessed with acting talent and ethereal beauty, Monroe had an intangible quality that made an indelible mark on the popular psyche. Bowering thinks it may have to do with a period in her adolescence spent living with her aunt Ana Lower, who introduced Monroe to the Church of Christian Science, where she remained a follower for eight years.

"That teaching, which kind of puts you in charge of how you see the world and the world is made of love, had a real influence on her and made her this unusual person who didn't seem to feel guilt about her sexuality," says Bowering. "It fed into this kind of idealism about love. There was an absolute kind of love, which would never be achievable and would turn out disastrously in real life, but there's a sense she was always searching for these kind of ideals."

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Following a staging of Marilyn Forever earlier this month at the Adelaide Festival in Australia, where Canadian soprano Anne Grimm sang as Monroe, the Long Beach Opera production will employ two singers: mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond for the brooding introspective Monroe and soprano Jamie Chamberlin singing the public iconic side of the star.

"My initial take is that's really interesting," says Bowering about director Mitisek's novel approach. "I think the whole process has just reminded me of the essential aspects of it, the bits. That's poetry basically, the things that deal with human emotions. That is really what matters. And a lot of the other stuff, in any art form but particularly mine, can fall away and it doesn't matter. But these things, which really are about how people feel, are all that matters."

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