When Leonard Bernstein's epic production of "Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" was about to open at Washington's new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971, President Richard Nixon sent agents to report back to him on the subversive nature of the play.
"Nixon refused to go to the premiere, but he sent his staff to the rehearsals and they came back and reported that there were coded messages," said Father Jack Ledwon, founder of Western New York's Opera Sacra company, which presents Bernstein's "Mass" beginning tonight at St. Joseph University Church. Nixon was worried that the piece, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to commemorate the life of her late husband, would encourage anti-Nixon fervor among the masses. Nixon shortly took care of that himself.
The play is an enormous undertaking involving -- in Opera Sacra's version -- a 20-piece orchestra, 45-member chorus, 16-member children's chorus, 17 soloists and dancers. It stars Brendan Powers in the lead role of the Celebrant.
Bernstein wrote the nearly two-hour show to closely mirror a Catholic Mass. The celebrant, at the center, confronts a personal crisis of faith that other characters eventually help him resolve. Due to some supposedly sacrilegious elements, the play was once controversial, but a 2000 performance at the Vatican put most doubts about the show's respect for the Catholic institution to rest.
Brother Augustine Towey, a Niagara University professor and former director of its theater department, will direct the show. He saw the original production when it came to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and, like Ledwon, has been entertaining the idea of mounting its first Western New York production for decades.
"There's not a hell of a lot of drama in it, let me tell you, but what there is is wonderful music, and it's really fabulous," Towey said. There are plenty of elements to make "Mass" a singular piece of work. One of those, Towey pointed out, is the fact that it's an exaltation of the Catholic Mass written by three Jewish men: Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Schwartz and Paul Simon, who wrote a small segment of lyrics.
"I think it's different also in the sense that it puts an enormous amount of diversity, of diverse kinds of music together in one package, all of it written by Bernstein and all of it really fabulous, absolutely marvelous music."
Powers makes a return to Western New York for this show after resigning as artistic director of Niagara University's Theater Department in June to pursue national acting opportunities.
"As I got to know the piece, I've found it to be enormously powerful and provocative," said Powers, whose character undergoes a powerful transformation from a simple-minded religious adherent to a man whose faith is tested by knowledge of injustice.
As for the complex production, Powers stressed that everything must be in its right place.
"Something like this has to be an intense, focused collaboration, or the whole thing will fall apart," Powers said. To that end, Opera Sacra has assembled a team including choral director Marcia Giambrone, Buffalo Niagara Youth Choir director John Fleischman and choreographer Tom Ralabate, a longtime member of the University at Buffalo's dance faculty.
WHAT: "Mass: A Theatrical Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers"
WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: St. Joseph University Church, 3269 Main St.
TICKETS: $20 general, $15 students and seniors