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“Marilyn Forever” – Long Beach Opera at the Warner Grand, 3/21 and 3/29

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Jamie Chamberlin as the outer Marilyn, Lee Gregory as the Rehearsal Director and The Men, and Danielle Marcelle Bond as the inner Marilyn. Photo courtesy of Long Beach Opera

Jamie Chamberlin as the outer Marilyn, Lee Gregory as the Rehearsal Director and The Men, and Danielle Marcelle Bond as the inner Marilyn. Photo courtesy of Long Beach Opera

What’s Marilyn Monroe thinking? Maybe we should ask her…

This Saturday at 8 and next Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Long Beach Opera will present the U.S. premiere of “Marilyn Forever,” a chamber opera by English composer Gavin Bryars. Along with such musical luminaries as Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, and Michael Nyman, who also came to prominence in the mid- to latter-1970s, Bryars creates music for ensembles large and small. His hauntingly atmospheric “The Sinking of the Titanic” has been a personal favorite for decades, and in 2012 Long Beach Opera performed his “Paper Nautilus” in front of the fishies at the far end of the grand hall in the Long Beach Aquarium. It was a sublime experience.

So a new Gavin Bryars piece is no small matter, all the more so in that Bryars himself will be playing the double bass in the onstage jazz trio on opening night, when “Marilyn Forever” graces the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro. The art deco venue is an ideal place for the screen legend’s last night on earth

Behind the façade

Mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond has appeared in a crazy assortment of roles for Long Beach Opera, in such works as Ernest Bloch’s “Macbeth,” Stewart Copeland’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and Peter Lieberson’s “King Gesar,” the latter performed outdoors in the grassy park near the Queen Mary. Bond also had a minor role in “The Ghosts of Versailles,” recently staged by LA Opera.

Bryars conceived the role of Marilyn Monroe for one singer, but the innovative Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic director, chose to divide the role in two – one for the inner, reflective Marilyn (Bond) and one for the outer, glamorous Marilyn (soprano Jamie Chamberlin).

The legend herself

The legend herself

The real Marilyn Monroe – and we have to say “real” with some trepidation – died at the age of 36 in 1962, having starred in such films as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), and “Some Like It Hot” (1959). She was married to a legendary baseball player, Joe DiMaggio, and then to a legendary playwright, Arthur Miller, before becoming legendary herself.

As the “inner Marilyn,” Bond has given a lot of thought to the woman she portrays.

“The persona that she put on was so different from the person that she was, and part of the tragedy of Marilyn is that she wanted so much to be loved, but didn’t even know how to express herself as herself. I feel like that desire for connection – but having it disconnected always – is something that a lot of people go through, and I feel that this almost humanizes her more rather than her just being this one goddess, this one icon and legend.

“She’s such an icon,” Bond continues, “and it’s actually painful for me being inner Marilyn and watching the exterior Marilyn enjoying herself, or seemingly so. I mean, I get to watch how fake I was on stage or how much desire I had for a moment that was really so fleeting and that I thought would last”

Additional musicians in the pit will accompany the onstage jazz trio. Furthermore, Bond tells Bondo, “Andreas has brought in cameras to film us onstage, and the connection to the camera becomes very important because that’s where she (Marilyn) felt the freest.”

Two sides of the coin

Prior to stepping into the soul and soles of the inner Marilyn, Bond’s knowledge of Marilyn Monroe was minimal – she’d seen a few of the movies and knew the actress more as a legend.

“Now, I’m obsessed,” she says, laughing. “I love her. She’s amazing and charming and beautiful and tragic, and what makes her so special is that she’s so many things to everyone – except herself.”

Bond delved into her character. “I love research; it’s actually one of my favorite reasons to be an opera singer,” and she recounts the homework she’s been doing, not just on her own, but also in collaboration with her outer Marilyn counterpart. They both find books and other resource materials and then end up sharing them or trading notes. Jokingly, it’s a bit as if Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were on speaking terms.

“You can watch her movies and you can do things that get you towards the character,” Bond says, “but as an opera singer your job isn’t to do an impersonation of her, it’s really to get deeper into the layers of the music and the libretto.

“That process has really been fun because, I think, working with two Marilyns, keeping it connected and also learning from each other, has been quite a wonderful way to do this. Otherwise it might feel a little isolating because, for me as the inner Marilyn, so much of it is the struggle that I’m going through. I’m the Marilyn who’s experiencing the last hour of her life, and I’m just wincing at all of these events that have happened.”

We know about the tragic ending, and yet…

“I want it to work out differently,” Bond says, “even though you can’t change the past. I feel that all the research I’ve been able to do is helping me learn that she was such a fragmented person – I don’t know how many times in her life she ever felt whole.

“It’s probably me reading into the situation,” she admits, “but I feel like that concept has allowed me to delve into this opera the way it should be treated. And it’s hard, it’s a lot of responsibility, because you want to honor someone’s memory and legacy, and at the same time deal with certain facets, glimpses of truth and glimpses of fantasy. It’s a hard balance to strike.”

Of grace and gentleness

The libretto for “Marilyn Forever” draws from “Anyone Can See I Love You,” a collection of poetry by Marilyn Bowering published in 1987. The author, who tried to evoke the inner life rather than stick with historical accuracy (the approach Norman Mailer also used in Of Women and Their Elegance, his book – one of two – about Marilyn Monroe), then reshaped her work during the

Composer Gavin Bryars. Photo by Doug Marke

Composer Gavin Bryars. Photo by Doug Marke

collaboration with Gavin Bryars.

“What I’m really happy about is that he references things without making it a Marilyn Monroe show,” Bond says of the composer. “You’re not having any of the songs that she sang; it’s not having to do an impersonation of her. I don’t think that it would be right to have an opera (based on) Marilyn where it was an impersonation.”

In other words, Bryars’ music and Bowering’s libretto seems to evoke rather than to imitate or resuscitate the actress.

“It captures the essence about her rather than tries to capture her,” Bond says, “and I appreciate that about the music. But it’s also quite beautiful and he has a very gentle way of bringing things out. There’s a gentleness in some of these moments as if he’s trying to hold her within the music. It’s really quite lovely.”

Marilyn Forever, conducted by Bill Linwood, and having its U.S. premiere, is being performed at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, as well as 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 29, on the stage of the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. Sixth St., downtown San Pedro. Tickets, $29 to $160; students $15. Call (562) 432-5934 or go to LBOpera.org. ER

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