Marilyn Monroe: A Life Big Enough for Opera

By Rebecca Gross
Two versions of Marilyn Monroe sitting on a bed
Jamie Chamberlin and Danielle Marcelle Bond portraying the different sides of Marilyn Monroe in Long Beach Opera's production of Marilyn Forever. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff  
Few individuals have been regarded with the same fascination as Marilyn Monroe. And she was indeed fascinating, a woman who—thanks in large part to her physical appearance—appeared to have everything: celebrity, fame, wealth, and no shortage of male admirers. But as has been endlessly explored since her premature death at the age of 36, her inner world remained beset by demons that no amount of success could hold at bay. Monroe’s tragic contrasts are explored in the opera Marilyn Forever, which received its U.S. debut last week at Long Beach Opera with NEA support. With music by Gavin Bryars and a libretto by Marilyn Bowering, the opera is a soulful meditation on the dueling moods of Marilyn, which are portrayed by two separate sopranos. The concept for the opera—the fourth written about Monroe—emerged from a radio drama Bowering had written for the BBC, which then grew into a cycle of poems. Across the years and artistic mediums, Monroe maintains her power to transfix. We spoke with Bowering, a novelist, poet, and playwright, about the subject of her first opera. NEA: You’ve said that growing up with the name Marilyn “was like having a stamp on your forehead.” How so? BOWERING: As a girl, especially a preteen and an early teen, you’re trying to be invisible. You say your name and all of a sudden you get this look from boys like, "Oh yeah, Marilyn Monroe." It was sort of everywhere, and so was a great kind of self-consciousness. But thinking about her, I realized that when she was a young girl—and she was so lovely and grew up so quickly—that understanding of sexuality as power must have meant so much as a path out of her circumstances, which were really unhappy and difficult. But that was a way forward for a woman—the power of sexuality and beauty. That, of course, is a really old idea. It's an idea with roots in many religions and ancient belief systems. It's still powerful, and one of the many reasons that people remain interested in her. NEA: This opera seems to be conveying an emotional portrait of her rather than a straight biography. BOWERING: Yes, very much. I think that's what's different about this piece. It isn't trying to say, "We know something nobody else knows about the literal aspects of her life." It was more trying to convey this experience, trying to convey the tragedy and the triumph. Because she did achieve a lot of what she wanted. She did achieve fame, she has achieved a kind of life that continues long, long after her death. The emotions are very powerful. We’ve tried to do something ambitious. NEA: What about Monroe's life strikes you as poetic and what strikes you as operatic? BOWERING: The trajectory is operatic and mythic. The rise and the fall, the huge ambition, the elements of beauty and art. I have come to see her as a real idealist in terms of her notions about love and about art. If you look at the elements of her life, no relationship could ever really stand up to reality. Everybody fails in love, but that wasn't what she was after. She wanted something perfect. Same with her art. People would laugh at what they thought was her pretension when she was reading books like The Brothers Karamazov and so on. But she had real relationships with intellectuals, not just Arthur Miller whom she married. I think the largeness of what she was reaching for, the emotions that she engendered through this kind of strange idealism, this ability to be very earthy, very sensuous, this feeling that she was always trying to reach for something really transcendent—it has the pull of myth. I think it becomes really appropriate for opera, which can deal with these really big things. NEA: Could you walk me through your creative process behind this project and how you channeled Marilyn Monroe's voice? BOWERING: When I was first asked to think about writing about Monroe, I couldn't do it. I tried and rejected the various ideas I had. Nothing really worked for me. So I said to myself, “You're a poet. Poetry is what you know. Deal with it as you would poetry." That's when I immersed myself in her images and the sound of her voice. Then I I was driving one day and a line of the first poem just came into my head. It was a poem about a dress and it began, "I know that dress, it is my dress meant for me." The dress, which is so normal and so universal and yet so powerful for a woman as identity, opened up poetic process for me. Many images started to collect in the poetry. There was a dress, but there were also cars and themes of madness and fear of abandonment, longing for children, and the perfection of love. For all of those things, I felt that I could make a link between my experiences as an artist and as a woman and her life. That's a very long way of saying that poetry can create a kind of empathic connection. Once that bond is there, the trajectory just unrolls. NEA: Since we are in Women's History Month right now, could you talk about what you think Marilyn Monroe's impact was on women? BOWERING: I think in many ways, she was a feminist. Her tools were beauty and ambition, but independence. Within that massive desire to be loved, she always earned her own living. She tried constantly for more independence and control in her roles. The impact was in her achievement to keep together things that are often thought to be incompatible: her ambition, her idealism, her femininity, and her striving for independence. She inspired, from both men and women, a lot of strong personal feelings, a lot of love. I think that matters. NEA: Anything you’d like to add? BOWERING: I've really come to understand how personal people's reactions are to Monroe. Some people want to be really reductive and cynical—we make too much of her, or she's just this little piece of a big industry. But the writer part of me, the female part, believes that the things she was after in love and art are really worthwhile. I would like people to be open to that as a possibility about her, and be willing to be moved in the way that opera can move, in a way that theater can move if you put yourself into the hands of the artistry.