Various guises

Nicholas Wright and Michael Mayer on Hitchcock, Marnie and The Metropolitan Opera

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Marnie panel and screening with Nicholas Wright and Michael Mayer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Marnie panel and screening with Nicholas Wright and Michael Mayer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Nico Muhly's Marnie, based on Winston Graham’s novel, which had been adapted by Jay Presson Allen for Alfred Hitchcock's film (starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren) is coming to The Metropolitan Opera in New York. At the Film Society of Lincoln Center, librettist Nicholas Wright and director Michael Mayer joined Paul Cremo (Director of Opera Commissioning Program at The Met) before a 35mm print screening of Marnie for a conversation on the choices they made in adapting the book for the opera. They shared their comments on the controversial film, Hitchcock's mothers and the sexual politics of the times.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard stars as Marnie and baritone Christopher Maltman is the man who pursues her. The costumes are by Arianne Phillips (Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, A Single Man and Madonna's stylist) who also did Michael Mayer's Broadway production of Head Over Heels, now at the Hudson Theatre.

Michael Mayer on Tippi Hedren in Marnie: "I think in this film she synthesizes something where she is transparent and revealing something so essentially true about her life-experience in the moment that it's quite extraordinary."
Michael Mayer on Tippi Hedren in Marnie: "I think in this film she synthesizes something where she is transparent and revealing something so essentially true about her life-experience in the moment that it's quite extraordinary." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Mayer explained how a chance television encounter with the movie classic started it all.

Michael Mayer: I had been talking to Peter Gelb [General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera] about working on new operas. There was one we were sort of trying to work out and the rights fell through. And I was at home one day and just like, you know, channel surfing, and Marnie came on. It's one of my favourites. I know it's problematic but I love this movie. As I watched it, I started thinking - gosh, this could be an amazing opera. It's like psychological and thrilling and there's dramatic events and an incredible character at the centre of it.

I called Peter later and I said "Listen, I've had this idea that maybe Marnie could be an opera." Having just been through all this rights stuff with this other project I said "We probably wouldn't get the rights from Universal. But I'm going to read the book that it's based on by Winston Graham and let you know." I read it and it's really good. I called Peter and I said "I think that this would work."

And he said: "Well who do you think should write it?" And I said: "Nico Muhly, I think would be a really great composer for this." And he said:"If Nico would do it, I commission it." So I called Nico and said "Hey Nico, it's Michael. What about Marnie as an opera?" He said "Well, I like that idea." And I hung up and I called Peter back and I said "Nico's in!"

So we had a meeting with Paul Cremo later that week and we said, who should write it? And Paul Cremo said "I think Nic Wright should do it." And Nic had just recently read the book, weirdly enough, and said he was in. So this was probably really record time for something getting commissioned. And I also thought it would be a great role for Isabel Leonard, the wonderful mezzo-soprano. And she agreed to do it too.

Nicholas Wright on the character of Marnie: "It's a wonderful metaphor actually, for somebody who has had a traumatic earlier experience which results in aberrant sociopathic behaviour and how somebody works their way out of that."
Nicholas Wright on the character of Marnie: "It's a wonderful metaphor actually, for somebody who has had a traumatic earlier experience which results in aberrant sociopathic behaviour and how somebody works their way out of that." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Nicholas Wright explained how during the phone conversation after a brief initial confusion - he thought he was asked to turn Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, starring Ernest Borgnine, into an opera - he was thrilled to come up with a Marnie libretto.

Nicholas Wright: It's a wonderful idea. It's a wonderful metaphor actually, for somebody who has had a traumatic earlier experience which results in aberrant sociopathic behaviour and how somebody works their way out of that. I was attracted by the idea of working with Nico. And very attracted by The Met.

Mayer and Wright continued to talk about the book Marnie, which significantly differs from Hitchcock's movie and some of the difficulties in putting her on stage.

MM: It's first-person narrative and she's a character who is both unknowable by everyone in her vicinity and unknown to herself. So that poses, I think, a real problem to dramatize someone who is searching in a way to understand why she is doing what she does. But at the same time extremely committed to preserving and protecting that damaged part of herself. So that I thought was challenging.

At the same time this is also the great thing in music theater - they can articulate, that's the gift of the aria, that's the close-up that you get on stage where she can reveal what's inside her. But it's tricky because she doesn't really know what's inside her.

NW: She has no confidante. She has no friend whom she can pull aside and tell what she's really thinking. In the story she couldn't have one. It's not possible in that story. That's why I've given her pseudonyms in which I contrast what's just happened. It's a contrast to her external life.

Michael Mayer on the opera Marnie: "There are 25 scenes and every time she walks on stage she is in some other amazing outfit really beautifully designed by Arianne Phillips."
Michael Mayer on the opera Marnie: "There are 25 scenes and every time she walks on stage she is in some other amazing outfit really beautifully designed by Arianne Phillips." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MM: And Nico had this great idea, that was a musical idea, that turned out to be a beautiful theatrical idea, that there would be these four women who would sing in an early-music style in contrast to the rest of the music and they would be four shadow Marnies [or foreshadow Marnies?] As you know, she takes on these different personalities and is a serial thief. So these four women are sort of her unconscious and maybe also represent some of the past versions of herself. We call them the Marnettes. So we managed to theatricalise it in a very successful way.

NW: The chorus is immensely important. It's a way of showing fear and guilt and the sense that somebody who is constantly committing crimes fears that they're being overlooked or at the point of being found out. At the point of being exposed and disgraced. So we do have a very important chorus that goes right through the opera in various guises. Quite often it's just as normal people, party guests or whatever. But who have a way of turning very suddenly that can be very spiteful and accusatory. Whether they're really doing that or whether they're doing that in Marnie's mind is an interesting question.

MM: There have never been so many costume changes for a leading lady at The Met. There are 25 scenes and every time she walks on stage she is in some other amazing outfit really beautifully designed by Arianne Phillips.

In the novel and the opera, Mark Rutland has a mother, not a father.

Marnie opera poster at Lincoln Center starring Isabel Leonard
Marnie opera poster at Lincoln Center starring Isabel Leonard Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MM: Louise Latham [who plays Marnie's mother in the movie] is one of the great screen mothers of all times. And there's this extra thematic stuff in the opera about mothers that comes through very strongly.

NW: She's a very bossy mother. I did have in mind, when I was doing it, another wonderful Hitchcock movie, North By Northwest. There's an actress called Jessie Royce Landis who is incredibly dominating over Cary Grant. Slightly had that in mind for that part which is wonderfully played by a British singer Janis Kelly.

Having two overbearing mothers, one for Mark and one for Marnie, seems to have a good effect. Can two negatives transform into a positive?

MM: You sort of still want the two of them to somehow have some healing between them. And that helps bring them together a little bit - as challenging as that is for the story. In this time, too. The sexual politics are disturbing at best and really horrifying at worst. The opera doesn't go as far in the direction as the film does. Of the harassment and the violence. It's implied and I think makes its point. You see a woman in the workplace being continually sexually harassed. I read this thing in the New Yorker, Richard …? Who did this great piece on Marnie? What's his last name? [Ed Bahlman comes to the rescue from the audience, shouting "Brody"] Richard Brody, thank you.

I think he says something like, it's not a horror film but it's a film of horrors and all the sexual nature. I think a lot of that is Hitchcock's own dark side and his own sexual frustration and his sexual twistedness that comes through. In the book it's less committed to that terribly ugly twisted version of it. But it's still like what women deal with. There are lines throughout in the book where she says this is what we have to deal with all the time. And that seems very timely.

NW: The film, as I remember it, is very much tilted towards the character of Mark, whom she marries, being a healer, having a mission to heal. He still rapes her. It's weird. That is not a happy combination in any way. That gives the film the very problematic feeling. The feeling that there's something out of control that the director can't control.

Christopher Maltman and Isabel Leonard in Marnie and the 56th New York Film Festival billboard - "Drama in every breath"
Christopher Maltman and Isabel Leonard in Marnie and the 56th New York Film Festival billboard - "Drama in every breath" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MM: There's a big hunt. With horses. That was somewhat the biggest challenge. I know it gave Nico nightmares. Is he expected to have coconuts, you know? We're not doing that. It has become actually one of my favourite parts. It's a very expressionistic kind of moment in the opera.

NW: For me the difficulty was always interpreting the sexual politics of the book which's written in the 1950s into something that we want to watch now. Frankly, in the book, the husband rapes the wife. I don't think when the book was written or published [in 1961], there was such a concept as the husband raping the wife. It was thought of like he was exercising some sort of right.

And you don't feel any sense of outrage in the book that he's done such a thing. Marnie is hurt and angry but the book does not convey that he's doing a bad thing. Which in fact he is, an exceptionally bad thing. That required real adjustment to make that story something that we could identify with.

MM: Tippi Hedren is really great in this movie. Partially I think, because she is actually - as we know now - living out exactly what Marnie is going through with Hitchcock sort of relentless in his pursuit of her. So she was being harassed on a daily basis by this director. I think in this film she synthesizes something where she is transparent and revealing something so essentially true about her life-experience in the moment that it's quite extraordinary.

Michael gives an explanation of why we should not expect the stage to be tinted in red light when Marnie has a memory flash and quotes a variation of Coco Chanel's motto for great style in subtraction.

Nicholas Wright on Marnie (Tippi Hedren) and Mark Rutland (Sean Connery): "That is not a happy combination in any way."
Nicholas Wright on Marnie (Tippi Hedren) and Mark Rutland (Sean Connery): "That is not a happy combination in any way."

MM: The red - which we have avoided. That's just one too many things. She's a thief, she's frigid, and she can't stand the colour red. It's like, take one thing off before you leave the house ... And Sean Connery has never been dreamier. He does some terrible things in this movie but he's pretty.

The English National Opera had the world premiere of Nico Muhly's Marnie at the Coliseum in London in 2017. Marnie at The Metropolitan Opera in New York will run from October 19 through November 10.

Head Over Heels opened on July 26 at the Hudson Theatre in New York.

Michael Mayer's La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera will open on December 4 and run through April 27, 2018.

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