Leonard Bernstein Awkwardly Turns the Screws on Tenor Jose Carreras While Recording West Side Story (1984)

What have we here?

Evi­dence that the Mae­stro is a mon­ster?

Or a behind the scenes reminder that Arrest­ed Devel­op­ment’s wannabe actor Tobias Fünke is not too far off base when he says that to make it in “this busi­ness of show, you have to have the heart of an angel and the hide… of an ele­phant.”

Both? Nei­ther? Any way you slice it, the record­ing ses­sion above is not for your typ­i­cal cast album.

West Side Sto­ry, with a book by Arthur Lau­rents, music by Leonard Bern­stein, and lyrics by Stephen Sond­heim, opened on Broad­way in 1957.

The film, star­ring Natal­ie Wood and Richard Beymer as star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony, came along four years lat­er.

After which it’s been an end­less round of com­mu­ni­ty, col­lege, and high school pro­duc­tions.

Are you a Jet or a Shark?

The cel­e­brat­ed tenor José Car­reras does not make a par­tic­u­lar­ly believ­able Jet.

While untold num­bers of white kids have attempt­ed Puer­to Rican accents to play Maria, Bernar­do, Ani­ta, and Chi­no, that knife has sel­dom cut the oth­er way.

Per­haps a dialect coach could have trans­formed Car­reras’ thick Span­ish accent into Tony’s New York street punk ver­nac­u­lar, but the prep time for these Sep­tem­ber 1984 record­ing ses­sions was min­i­mal, and not tied to any actu­al pro­duc­tion.

Car­reras was also, at 38, a bit long in the tooth to be tack­ling the part.

But what might have been deal break­ers for a Broad­way revival were per­mis­si­ble for this week­long spe­cial event in which world-cal­iber artists, “whose main rea­son for exist­ing,” accord­ing to Bern­stein, was their singing, would be lay­ing down the score in the stu­dio, backed by a full orches­tra.

As he told his asso­ciate and even­tu­al biog­ra­ph­er, clas­si­cal music tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Humphrey Bur­ton:

l’d always thought of West Side Sto­ry in terms of teenagers and there are no teenage opera singers, it’s just a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. But this is a record­ing and peo­ple don’t have to look 16, they don’t have to be able to dance or act a rather dif­fi­cult play eight times a week. And there­fore we took this rather unortho­dox step of cast­ing num­ber-one world-class opera singers. I sup­pose the only fore­see­able prob­lem was that they might sound too old—but they don’t, they just sound mar­velous!

Bernstein’s approv­ing mood is nowhere in evi­dence in the above clip, in which he hec­tors Car­reras for screw­ing up the tem­po, as the instru­men­tal­ists and sound engi­neers squirm.

Car­reras’ dis­com­fort and cha­grin is so pal­pa­ble that you can find the sequence on YouTube under the title “Tenor Keeps Screw­ing Up while Bern­stein Con­ductsAwk­ward Sequence,” as if he were some weedy upstart, still wet behind the ears, when in fact, he had just flown in from Verona, where he’d been appear­ing as Don José in Car­men.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Car­reras’ Maria, sup­plied a taste of what it was like to sing for the com­pos­er:

He’s a man of many emo­tions. You can see his moods, his frus­tra­tions, his hap­pi­ness, his want­i­ng to per­form to peo­ple. That’s the thing that makes the man inter­est­ing. One is con­stant­ly try­ing to read him, but he’s on anoth­er plan­et!

In the end, Bern­stein declared him­self pleased with what had been accom­plished, or at least with the endur­ing pow­er of the mate­r­i­al.

But read­ers with an anti-author­i­tar­i­an streak may not feel sat­is­fied until they’ve seen the clip below, in which a rogue BBC Orches­tra trum­pet isn’t quite so def­er­en­tial in the face of the Maestro’s crit­i­cism.

Lis­ten to the 1984 record­ing of West Side Sto­ry for free on Spo­ti­fy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces the Moog Syn­the­siz­er to the World in 1969, Play­ing an Elec­tri­fied Ver­sion of Bach’s “Lit­tle Fugue in G”

Watch Leonard Bern­stein Con­duct the Vien­na Phil­har­mon­ic Using Only His Eye­brows

Leonard Bern­stein Presents “The Great­est 5 Min­utes in Music Edu­ca­tion”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her for the next install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain in New York City this April. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (7)
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  • JV says:

    That’s pret­ty mild, actu­al­ly. My high school band direc­tor got more angry than Bern­stein is here.

  • Beverley Parkin says:

    Bern­stein was a nasty man.

  • Gary C. Woodward says:

    There is no real fault to be assigned here. Clas­si­cal orches­tras and singers gen­er­al­ly have a hard time using the loos­er and more impro­vi­sa­tion­al style of Amer­i­can pop and jazz. Most review­ing the clip will find a singer from a dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al and musi­cal her­itage, whose ear was appar­ent­ly nev­er trained to hear the hes­i­ta­tions and antic­i­pa­to­ry entrances that dom­i­nat­ed Amer­i­can pop music when Bern­stein wrote his score. Carrera’s had the mis­for­tune to be the one we would remem­ber who could not han­dle the decep­tive­ly tricky cadences that Bern­stein sought. Had he grown up lis­ten­ing to Ted­dy Pen­der­grass or Mel Torme, he prob­a­bly would have been fine.

  • Phil says:

    Bev­er­ly, he was­n’t a nasty man at all, he did a hell of a lot for the under­priv­i­leged and was what one would con­sid­er “woke” these days.

  • Alene Fishet says:

    A true genius is not like oth­er peo­ple, absorb or stand back. The genius over­flows every aspect of the per­sona. Bern­stein was such a genius.

  • Marya Berry says:

    I have seen this doc­u­men­tary film sev­er­al times & find Bern­stein’s behav­iour towards Car­reras frankly rep­re­hen­si­ble since it so obvi­ous­ly hides what is tru­ly lurk­ing there: a ten­sion stoked by the for­mer’s unrec­i­p­ro­cat­ed sex­u­al attrac­tion towards the lat­ter, open­ly hos­tile to its expres­sion… in what­ev­er form. Car­reras has to suf­fer it for pro­fes­sion­al rea­sons, mak­ing the con­duc­tor’s tyran­ny & attempts at “mak­ing up” even more unat­trac­tive not to men­tion unac­cept­able. You don’t “kiss & make up” in pub­lic, tho’ Bern­stein’s sta­tus pro­hib­it­ed the shy Car­reras from express­ing quoique ce soit, poor man.

  • Marya Berry says:

    I sus­pect he (& Car­reras) were vic­tims of his own (sex­u­al) demons.

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