Millicent Jordan despairs when preparations go awry for the elegant dinner party she planned. A few blocks away, people wonder where they will get their next meal. Set in 1931 New York, when the Great Depression took its toll on everyone, the new opera by William Bolcom (score) and Mark Campbell (libretto) that premiered at the Minnesota Opera last year, is based on the Kaufman-Ferber play, Dinner At Eight.
“Even though the play took place with these relatively well-to-do characters, we wanted to suggest the underbelly of what was going on in New York City,” says scenic designer Alexander Dodge. “It was very much affecting their behavior. We wanted to contrast the extremities of where we had come to at that time period, which is obviously a bit metaphorical to where we currently are as well. The pendulum was swinging one way and becoming extreme, and then snap, and something was breaking. That was the conceptual idea.”
“We wanted to capture the mystery and romance of New York, with projections that capture the glamour, then dissolve into a starving child’s face,” explains lighting designer Robert Wierzel. “Keeping the tension between the two is what we strove for.”
Dodge says during a song the servants had at the top of each act, “we hinted at the underbelly world that we barely got a glimpse of other than in projected imagery.”
Director Tomer Zvulun says he also wanted to focus on what happens to the individual when confronted with a major event. “What happened to individuals when the Twin Towers collapsed? During World War II or Vietnam? Dinner At Eight talks about those individuals. The Great Depression is never mentioned, but the shadow of it is there, and each one of those characters is dealing with a deterioration or collapse—health, love, marriage, wealth, career, a decline of very human things.”
Lives unravel as the story unfolds. “The city is tightening its grip on this group of people. It’s as though an entire piece of the city comes in on them at the end,” says Dodge, noting that some scenes were mounted on four-foot rolling platforms to give a sense of height. Zvulun says Dodge’s design “allows us to move from a world that is familiar to a world that is much more heightened, abstract.”
“There is a weight crushing in on them,” Wierzel adds. “They’re human beings. They die like everyone else.”
“Robert is a real artist who from the beginning is getting into this idea of characters and telling stories in a genuine psychological way. Often in his work, there is a beautiful realistic world and suddenly there’s a world that is abstract, surreal, psychological, and what medium conveys that better than opera? In one scene, we go into Millicent’s mind, and the quaint living room is instantly transformed into a world where servants are dancing with lobster trays,” he says. Wierzel shifted the lighting to suggest something surreal.
“It took about two years for everything to start cascading down, and 1931 was the hardest year,” points out Victoria Tzykun, who says she does character design, not costume design. This time, she dressed “the old money New Yorkers who were losing their fortunes and losing their lives as they knew it; the nouveau rich, who all of sudden became incredibly rich but didn’t have the class or education to go with it; and people in the performing arts, a film actor and an aging actress. About that time, we start getting the talkies. The role of cinema changes and the role of live theatre changes. The servants, the reporters, everyone is trying to figure out their place in this complex society.”
“The upper class was in denial. Their main way of holding on to what they knew was through their appearance,” adds Tzykun, who researched their clothes in Frederick Lewis Allen’s chronicle, Since Yesterday. “He talks about what people were wearing. One thing he notes was how affluently the wealthy were dressing. That was the thread that was holding them together. The newly rich dressed in really expensive clothes, too, but they ended up looking ridiculous. Even though the clothes are expensive, they are so kitschy. They really have no idea.” Kitty, for instance, is the wife of a Texas politician and business man who became wealthy. “She lounges around, has lover affairs, and wants to become part of high society. But all her outfits are outlandish. When she turns around at the dinner party, her dress is cut through her buns in the back. It’s extremely inappropriate,” she says, crediting Campbell, who wrote into the libretto’s stage directions, “Kitty turns to reveal the back of her dress which is very low-cut.”
“My dear friend and collaborator Vita Tzykun realizes her job is to surround a human portrait with a mural of scope and epic action,” says Zvulun.