Stephen Sondheim on Passion

One Long, Rhapsodic, Love Song

Iginio Tarchetti, born in a small Italian town in 1839, was an experimental writer, a central figure in a movement of nonconformist artists known as the Scapigliatura, who were the equivalent of the French Bohemians of the time and, like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, among others, were rebellious Romantics, worshipers of Poe, attuned to abnormal psychology and the macabre. Tarchetti’s novel Fosca was a fictional recounting of an affair he’d had with an epileptic woman when he was a soldier posted to a small provincial town like the one he describes in the story. He fell ill there and was sent home to Milan, where he died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty, before finishing the book. Completed by a friend of his, Fosca was published posthumously and, a little more than a hundred years later, made into a movie directed by Ettore Scola called Passione d’Amore, which I saw in 1983 and which, suddenly, half an hour into it, struck me as a story worth singing.

When Fosca made her first entrance, I realized with a shock that the story was not going to be about her [Fosca] being in love with him [Giorgio]… but about how he was going to fall in love with her. I was instantaneously upset (that is, moved) and at the same time thought, “They’re never going to convince me of that, they’re never going to pull it off,” all the while knowing that they would, that Scola wouldn’t have taken on such a ripely melodramatic story unless he was convinced that he could make it plausible. And he did. By the end of the movie, the unwritten songs in my head were brimming and I was certain of two things.

First, I wanted to make it into a musical, the problem being that it couldn’t be a musical, not even in my nontraditional style, because the characters were so outsized. This was a lesson I had learned from Billy Wilder, a man whom I met for a little more than three minutes at a Park Avenue cocktail party sprinkled with celebrities, to which I’d been invited by the daughter of the hostess. At the time (around 1960) Burt Shevelove and I were toying with the notion of transforming Sunset Boulevard into a musical. We had actually sketched out the first few scenes, so when I found myself introduced to Wilder, the movie’s director and co-author, I plunged right in. Blushingly, I allowed as how I was a co-author of West Side Story and Gypsy and now had an interest in adapting his movie. “But you can’t make a musical out of Sunset Boulevard,” he snapped. I assumed that what he meant was that the rights were not available. I was wrong. He continued, “It has to be an opera. It’s a story about a dethroned queen.” Instantly, I recognized the wisdom of what he was saying and relayed the story to Burt, and we abandoned the project. I had no desire to write an opera.

The second thing I was certain of about Passione d’Amore was that I wanted James Lapine to write it: he was a romantic, he had a feeling for different centuries and different cultures, and he was enthusiastically attracted to weirdness.

Anent opera: I have successfully avoided enjoying it all my life. The thing that puts me off is that most opera composers seem to have little sense of theater. They spend as much time having their characters sing about trivialities as about matters of emotional importance, and they too often resort to recitative to carry the plot along—for my money a tedious and arid solution to a problem easily solved by dialogue. There are many moments in the operatic literature that thrill me, but few complete scores, and even those that do (Carmen, Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Porgy and Bess, most of Puccini) I would rather listen to on records because they strike me as much too long. Such condescension towards opera, however, wasn’t going to help me solve my problem: how to treat a story as ripe as Fosca and maintain its intensity without the indulgence in vocal opulence and spectacle that is the blood of opera. I chose to think of the show as one long rhapsodic love song: musically relentless, the recitative where necessary morphing into formal patterns, and as much of the dialogue underscored as possible. The danger was that, like many operatic scores, it would be earnest, monotonous and humorless. I was saved, at least in my opinion, by Fosca herself. Although the music tends to move slowly throughout the evening, Fosca’s manic obsessiveness supplies the necessary energy, her volatility the variety, her unpredictable hysteria the surprise and her sophisticated intelligence the biting humor. And, of course, being a self-dramatizing hysteric, she is always theatrical. She drives the piece, and once I’d locked myself into her she was not hard to write…

The “songs” in Passion lie somewhere between aria and recitative, with an occasional recognizable song form thrown in. To this end, in the program the show is divided into its component scenes rather than individual song titles. Still, there’s enough dialogue so that no one could mistake the show for an opera. I hope.