Since his opera "Mourning Becomes Electra" debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967, Marvin David Levy has revised his three-part tale of incest, murder and adultery more times than he cares to admit, often to the point of obsession.
At 81, the Fort Lauderdale composer and playwright still demands perfection for his intense retelling of Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy, having rescored, tightened and sharpened his opera for nearly 50 years. The most recent update is the Florida Grand Opera's season-opening production of "Mourning" Thursday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. If the constant revisions and obsessive behavior sound ripped from Greek tragedy, Levy will hardly disagree with the comparison.
"The opera is about a curse on the House of Atreus. This opera put a curse on the House of Levy," the playwright says. "It upset me that nobody in the opera world thought it merited a revival for so many years. I didn't think that this was the Great American Opera, but I thought it was a good opera. I think anyone would obsess over that."
Last revised in 2004 by Levy, the opera, adapted from Eugene O'Neill's sprawling 1931 play of the same name, focuses on a tormented family in a coastal New England town after the Civil War. A friend in New York helped Levy convince O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta Monterey, to adapt "Mourning" into an opera ("We met in this Manhattan café and sat down to lunch and cherries jubilee"). But Levy never dreamed his opera would court interest from the Met, until he encountered the opera house's general manager, Rudolf Bing, at a Manhattan bar.
"It wasn't my aim to get in the Met, not that I was going to turn it down," recalls Levy, a resident since 1988 and director of the short-lived Fort Lauderdale Opera during the early 1990s. "It's also a burden, being so young, thrown into the spotlight, with no great deal of material behind you yet."
The Met's mounting of "Mourning" wowed critics, but then, the opera, to Levy's dismay, languished in obscurity for 31 years. He wrote few operas in the interim, and taught music history and orchestration at Brooklyn College, until the Lyric Opera of Chicago revived the much revised ("I tightened the musical language a lot") opera in 1998. More retweaking followed before presentations by the Seattle Opera in 2003 and the New York City Opera in 2004.
"A work of art is never finished, and I'm not content," Levy says, referring to FGO's edition of "Mourning." "But this is probably the most complete version of the opera that I've ever produced. Enough is enough."
"Mourning Becomes Electra" will be performed 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $21-$200. Call 954-522-5334 or go to BrowardCenter.org.