Issue 551 : April 20-26, 2006

Lowell Liebermann’s new opera,
Miss Lonelyhearts, peers into dark corners

by James Gavin

It was in the dark night of the Depression that Nathanael West—a young New York Jew who had dropped the less-glamorous name of Nathan Weinstein—wrote his now-fabled novella of doom,
Miss Lonelyhearts. West’s tale concerns a male advice columnist with a Christ complex, who struggles under a female pseudonym to rescue the poor, pathetic souls who write to him. Meanwhile, like everyone around him, the writer clutches at any means he can to hide from the truth.

Published in 1933, the book tanked, and West—who would skewer Hollywood in his more successful
The Day of the Locust—met a tragic end in an automobile accident in 1940. Eighteen years later, Montgomery Clift would play a highly laundered version of West’s sexually compulsive Jesus freak in Lonelyhearts, a film based on West’s novella. Now that the novel’s theme of mass disillusionment is more timely than ever, a new adaptation by composer Lowell Liebermann with a libretto by poet J.D. McClatchey hits the stage on Wednesday 26, as the final event of Juilliard’s centennial celebration.

Liebermann, 45, is a Juilliard graduate whose lusciously melodic music is performed with a frequency that most of his peers would envy. His Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, recorded on an all-Liebermann CD by James Galway, has a mystical, dreamlike quality, but like much of the composer’s music it bristles eerily with traditional harmonies put to unconventional use. Now, in this banner year for American opera, Liebermann—an acerbically witty, East Side–born intellectual—has unleashed his cynical side on West’s bloodthirsty man’s world, where homophobia and religious guilt-slinging reveal a deeper self-hatred.

“It’s just like
South Park,” the composer says of his opera. “There’s something in it to offend everyone. There’s a lot of sex, a lot of bad language—the n-word, the k-word, fag, fuck all over the place—and this brutal gay bashing.” In a pivotal scene, Miss Lonely-hearts tries to have sex with the wife of his savagely belittling editor, Shrike, who’s in the next room. Unaware that Shrike is watching and masturbating, she tries to camouflage the activity by chattering away manically. “All this I’ve set in Zerbinetta-on-acid coloratura,” says Liebermann. “Even the music on the radio starts going off into weird places, modulating where a song from the early ’30s would never have modulated.”

The Juilliard Opera Center performers, headed by gifted tenor Jeremy Little, tell this acrid story with a wisdom beyond their years. Guiding the cast is Ken Cazan, a respected, prolific opera director. “Lowell has written so many phenomenal motifs, not just for the characters but for the emotional content,” says Cazan. The musical imagery, he adds, “told me where to go.”

Probably almost no one in Weehawken, New Jersey—where Liebermann lives with William Hobbs, an opera pianist and vocal coach—has heard of this illustrious composer, but he’s too busy to care. Since graduating in 1987, he has prospered through commissions, an enviable position. His success is understandable: Along with John Corigliano and David Del Tredici, Liebermann provided relief from the 12-tone era of the ’60s and ’70s, when snooty academics made beautiful a dirty word. Even today, when critics label his music “accessible,” he senses a smirk. “They mean simple-minded,” he explains. “Yes, my music is to a great extent melodically based, but it’s more often nontonal than straightforwardly tonal.”

Though not unhappy to have two pieces on No Boundaries, the hit CD by the 5 Browns—a group of Juilliard-trained, piano-playing Gen X siblings—Liebermann is in general an unabashed high-art snob. He loathes the crossover phenomenon that has diluted serious music, as he unhesitatingly calls it. The latter, he says, is “difficult stuff—one needs to be educated in it to a certain extent to fully appreciate it. Sure, there’s a place for crossover: If Myrna in Dix Hills wants to go to the Three Tenors, let her.” Myrna would probably be shocked at the slag heap of human wreckage Liebermann brings to life in
Miss Lonelyhearts. But for braver souls, the composer offers a hair-raising peek into hell.

The Juilliard School stages
Miss Lonelyhearts on Wed 26, Apr 28 and 30.