Love Letters

'The Beautiful and the Damned' meets 'The Naked and the Dead'

Norman Mailer doesn't want to talk. "He really doesn't like phone interviews," his assistant explains. "Give me a list of ten questions, and I'll pass them on to him, and maybe he'll get back to you. But he really doesn't like phone interviews.

He does a question and answer period after the show," she adds. "We encourage the press to show up for that."

"I loved it when people would talk about the great productions we did in Plymouth, even though we have never done a production in Plymouth": Conductor Philip Brunelle
Courtesy of VocalEssence
"I loved it when people would talk about the great productions we did in Plymouth, even though we have never done a production in Plymouth": Conductor Philip Brunelle

The show in question is called Zelda, Scott and Ernest, a biographical sketch detailing the relationship between literary lions F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, with additional commentary from Zelda Fitzgerald. The text draws from 19 letters the two men wrote to each other, additional letters from Zelda, and snippets from each writer's work, and has been put together by Paris Review founder George Plimpton and playwright Terry Quinn. The piece is epistolary to a fault: Like the letters themselves, Zelda, Scott and Ernest was meant to be read rather than performed. And this brings us to Mailer, who will be reading the role of Hemingway this Saturday as part of the Fitzgerald in St. Paul celebration. Opposite him, Plimpton himself will be representing F. Scott Fitzgerald, while Mailer's wife, Norris Church Mailer, will present Zelda's texts.

"Norman keeps making the point that he is not an actor," Terry Quinn explains via telephone. "He is a writer reading these letters."

"There's no acting in it whatsoever," George Plimpton says later the same day. "There's really no interaction. It's ridiculous. Norman and I are three times the age Fitz and Hemingway were when they started to write. Verisimilitude is not important. I'm certain I don't have a St. Paul voice." And he doesn't: Plimpton's voice--austere, thoughtful, and long on the vowels--reflects his East Coast upbringing and Harvard education. Plimpton continues: "Mailer doesn't have a Midwestern voice. Norris is the only one of us who comes close, because she was born in Alabama, like Zelda."

"I am certain two superb actors could do it majestically better than we can," Plimpton says. "We are professional writers trying to be actors. But there is a question-and-answer period afterward, and that makes up for it."

Mailer began with the show in September of last year. "Norman wanted me to perform in that old turkey Love Letters," Plimpton explains. "He had been asked to play the part of the male in it with Norris in Vermont, and he didn't want to do it." Plimpton pauses, and then adds, regretfully: "I shouldn't call it a turkey. But I told Norman, 'I have another play you should look at.'"

Mailer has performed in Zelda a handful of times, including a notable appearance at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where some 900-odd New Yorkers clambered to fill the seats, and additional latecomers were turned away. "There was some excitement about this production," Quinn says. "It was like, Norman Mailer is returning to New York."

"I don't remember thousands getting turned away," Plimpton admits. "It's New York, so it's hard to say that any particular event generates any excitement at all."

 

This is a week that sees the return of another of St. Paul's favorite sons. Thanks to Loss of Eden, a new opera co-commissioned by VocalEssence (previously the Plymouth Music Series), Charles Lindbergh is returning to Pigseye. In this instance, he will be played by baritone Peter Halverson, who begins the production with the words "They said I was a hero," and, later, adds the words "They said I was a traitor."

Loss of Eden retells the story of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, following the lives of Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne as they intersect with that of Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant executed for the crime. The opera plays out on a lovely, cloud-speckled stage, imported along with three of the cast members from the June premiere by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The cast of Loss of Eden wander, filled with melancholy, up the set's long staircase, or dance beneath it, kicking their legs to the Charleston while singing in odd harmony, "Susie and Sally and Sherri and Cindy all wanna cuddle with Lucky Lindy."

But Lindy isn't very lucky in this production. The opera's libretto, by Michael Patrick Albano, is moody and somber: The Lindbergh baby was found buried just outside the house, skull smashed, probably during the botched kidnapping. Albano has Lindbergh reflect on this, asking, "Did he cry out for help? In that darkness, in that emptiness, did he?" The music, by Cary John Franklin, is likewise filled with angst. Franklin often pairs Lindbergh's clear baritone with the husky, mournful sound of a solo cello.

It has only been a few months since Vocal Essence changed its name (without making too much of it, the consultant who suggested this particular nugget of banal corporate-speak should be thrown out of a plane into the mid-Atlantic). "We were always about the voice," explains artistic director Philip Brunelle, "and I loved it when people would talk about the great productions we did in Plymouth, even though we have never done a production in Plymouth." Instead, the Plymouth Music Series got its name from the Plymouth Congregational Church, an early sponsor. Brunelle admits that he is not certain who the audience will be for a new opera produced by a newly renamed company.

"There is an audience for warhorses," Brunelle says. "You premiere something by Argento, a few people will turn out. But if you produce Marriage of Figaro?" Brunelle widens his eyes and extends his hands, gesturing toward an imaginary full house.

 
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