In the late 1960s Jacqueline Kennedy asked Leonard Bernstein to create a work in memory of her husband to open the Kennedy Center. Bernstein worked on a number of ideas, finally fastening on the structure of a catholic mass. He simply couldn’t come up with the material that would add the contemporary concerns and values that he cared deeply about. Bernstein’s sister suggested, the young Stephen Schwartz who had recent success with Godspell . They clicked and it was Schwartz who contributed vision and lyrics to the final efforts.
Between the two of them contemporary concerns about faith, prayer and even the existence of God were considered. Saturday night’s celebrant, Carl Rosenthal and the chorus sang in the Latin of the Mass and in the contemporary language of the guitar masses. A chorus of street people in the confessional led by Benjamin St. John expressed the ages doubt in “I Don’t Know” and then blues and rock singers suggested that perhaps it was easy to just go along with expressions of faith.
Following an orchestral meditation the lines “half of the people are swimming and the other half are drowning” floated through the choruses led by Denique Isaac. Another orchestral meditation came followed by a raucous gospel sermon by the energetically engaging Jeremiah Sanders. Somewhere along in here there was a complete marching band that appeared at the rear of the stage and added to the energy and the action.
As the challenges to the celebrant continued, he simply and eloquently broke down movingly singing of an inability to be a leader in an effort that he was finding increasingly artificial. This despite the support of a whole choral congregation costumed in a range of styles from nun’s habits to Amish beards and lots in between.
Throughout Mass Bernstein’s music holds sway with plenty of reminders of West Side Story and Candide to name a couple of just his own influences. Choral singing is very strong and the individual soloists from the Street People are effective. In the Credo section I was touched when a singer wished that he had a Credo.
Stage Director Candace Evans has sought to broaden the focus of Mass with four faith leaders. The four council the Celebrant, support him in his doubts and even dance with him.
Mass at IU Opera and Ballet Theater is Leonard Bernstein’s Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers and there are lots and lots of them. Nearly two hundred on the stage and in the pit took the bows at the curtain along with conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, Chorus Master Walter Huff and the stage director and choreographer Candace Evans. Mark Smith the set designer, Costume designer Linda Pisano, lighting designer Todd Hensley, Children’s Chorus Master Charles Snell and audio engineer E.M. Gimenez probably should have been up there too.
Saturday night’s performance ended with the celebrant Carl Rosenthal saying, “The mass is ended, go in peace,” but the enthusiastic audience wasn’t ready to depart in respectful silence. Someone shouted “Amen,” and all stood as students in the audience cheered their favorites and shouted encouragement.
Mass at IU Opera and Ballet Theater has just two final performances, Friday April 12 and Saturday April 13 in the Musical Arts Center. It may not be staged again in your lifetime.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.