ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It took five years to bring Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" to the stage to the stage as a new full-fledged American opera. Commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, it opened with a one-month run in Chicago in October. Miller wrote the stage play in 1955. The story is set in Brooklyn. The flawed hero, longshoreman Eddie Carboni has become obsessed with his wife's niece, Catherine, whom they have raised since childhood. Two young illegal immigrants, relatives of Carboni's wife, arrive from Italy. One of them wants the hand of his niece and Carboni cannot bear it. He betrays the young men by doing the unthinkable: He turns them into the immigration service. The betrayal leads to Carboni's tragic death. Veteran director Frank Galati, who directed the lyric opera production, says it's a story an American audience can relate to.
FRANK GALATI, Director: This is American. It's an American story about the American family, about immigrants living in Brooklyn.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It was a play that miller thought lent itself to opera. He spoke at a symposium before opening night.
ARTHUR MILLER, Author: I used to feel that the big drama was not in the lines but in the spaces between the lines -- that we are always... even the greatest poet is always trying to express the inexpressible, and music comes closest as an art form to being able do that. So the idea of a play, being transformed into music is a very natural thing.
PERSON SINGING: This is the end of the story.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It is composer William Bolcom's music that takes miller's play from theater to opera.
WILLIAM BOLCOM, Composer: The most difficult thing about turning this wonderful play into a-- I hope-- okay opera, was to first decide whether all that trouble would be worth it, simply because it is so solid a play and it's such a strong statement that, you know, the first thing is why do it?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Miller worked closely with Bolcom, even writing words for one of the opera's most memorable arias, "A Ship Called Hunger."
PERSON SINGING: A ship in the harbor a ship on its way... a shipped called "Hunger" waits for me
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That Miller-Bolcom collaboration was an essential part of the transformation from play to opera, says conductor Dennis Russell Davies:
DENNIS RUSSELL DAVIES, Conductor: Arthur was somebody who recognized that his play would need to be changed in order to make an opera. And he was all for it. In other words, he did not want to see his play set to music, and that's something that Bill definitely did not want to do. He was not interested in setting Arthur's play to music. He wanted to make an opera.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Kim Josephson, an opera star from Oklahoma, won the role of Eddie, partly because his burly build gives him the look of a tough longshoreman. His character, he says, is a victim of his own fate:
KIM JOSEPHSON: He's a normal guy. And that what happens is his fear of loss and his determination to protect Catherine, his love, from a hit-and-run guy. It just propels him into making choices that we all know from the beginning-- that this can't be. If he makes this choice, this is going to be a terrible thing, and yet he is doomed to make that choice. So, I mean, it just marches him into the abyss of his own destruction. And I think it's a phenomenal, phenomenal piece, a phenomenal theatrical experience. It's something to see, something to be part of.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Soprano Catherine Malfitano, a long time Lyric favorite, plays Eddie's pained and patient wife, Beatrice. The chance to be a part of the opera's creation brought Malfitano to the role.
CATHERINE MALFITANO: Imagine what it would have been like to sit with Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, and discuss the meaning of the piece, discuss with the composer, "what did you mean when you composed the music this way, with that text?" Or, "you know what? I'm not too happy with that music right there. Could we change that note? It doesn't suit me well, you know." I mean, to have that kind of dialogue with a living composer is something I wouldn't trade, you know, for anything, for anything, because it's the most exciting experience one can have. And also you are part of this whole process of creation that is totally unknown to you.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Lyric Opera General Manager William Mason says it was a creative process that carried an expensive price tag, $1.4 Million. But Mason says opening night made it all worthwhile.
WILLIAM MASON: It was so gratifying to have worked on this for five years, and seen it come to such wonderful fruition: A standing ovation from the audience; Arthur miller on stage, receiving tumultuous applause with the rest of the cast. His presence was almost like a benediction, if you will. It was a thrilling moment, one of the most thrilling I've ever had in my life in the theater.
MAN SINGING: The beauty of the homes the palazzos of Palermo... the cathedral dome I've seen pictures but they don't compare...
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mason says it confirmed his belief in the necessity of new works. "View From the Bridge" is the third new opera commissioned by the lyric in the last ten years.
WILLIAM MASON: We're kind of passionate about opera here. We believe it's a wonderful art form and that it is a viable and living art form. And for it to be so, you have to do new works. No one suggests that the novel stopped in the 1850's or 1950's. And the same with any art form. It has to have new work to replenish it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: "View from the Bridge" has played to sold-out crowds in Chicago, a major accomplishment for a new opera. But an even bigger task is to get a new opera produced a second time. The "New York Times" cultural correspondent, Bruce Webber, says the odds are heavily against a new opera making it into an opera company's repertory.
BRUCE WEBBER: Over the last decade in the 1990's, there were approximately 125 new operas that were written and performed. And only about a dozen ever had a second performance.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That's because to many opera patrons, new opera, no matter how well it is done, is just not "opera."
OPERA PATRON: There is a certain expectation when you come to the opera, what you're going to see, and it if it's a little different from that, it takes time to adjust to that, so that it meets your expectations.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Josephson says even if the years of work result in an opera that is only had nine performances in Chicago, it will have been worth the effort.
KIM JOSEPHSON: Whether or not it was heard again, the simple-- my credo is that it was our moment. It was our moment to serve this music and this intent with all that we possibly had. And what its brought to other people and to us as we've done the thing, you know, these are the rewards.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: There is a strong chance that, unlike Eddie Carboni, "The View from the Bridge" will get a second chance. New York's metropolitan opera says it will very likely produce the opera in 2002.