Frank Lloyd Wright Opera’s Tells a Sordid Tale

To history, Wright's is a story that no matter how often repeated never seems to make sense.(Photo: Library of Congress)
To history, Wright's is a story that no matter how often repeated never seems to make sense.(Photo: Library of Congress)

Daron Hagen’s opera Shining Brow rehashes the story of the most sordid episode in the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The opera’s world-premiere recording, released this year, took me back into one of my great passions—American architecture—and made me wonder why I want to hear Wright’s tragic story yet again.

Wright’s Early Life

The early story of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s life doesn’t read like an opera scenario: born to a clan of malcontent Welsh immigrants, Wright set out more or less on his own to become an architect.

He took a wife, moved to the big city (Chicago), fairly quickly established himself as a working architect, and designed a home and studio in Oak Park for himself and his growing family.  It was in Oak Park where he also designed a house for Edwin and Mamah Cheney.

The Tragedy Begins

Here’s where Wright’s life starts to resemble the plots of the most tragic dramas.  Wright and Mamah fall in love.  When Wright’s affair is uncovered (Catherine, Wright’s wife and the mother of his six children, calls him on the carpet), he and Mamah run off to Germany to let the gossip columns cool down.

Wright is persona non grata in Chicago, so upon returning from Europe he goes home to the Wisconsin valley of Wright’s maternal Lloyd Jones ancestors and takes Mamah with him.  There he builds Taliesin—Welsh for “Shining Brow” and also the name of more than one Welsh poet, historical or mythological—a love nest for himself and Mamah overlooking the valley.

It is here that on 15 September 1914, while Mamah’s children are visiting from Chicago, one of Wright’s servants goes on a rampage, braining his paramour and her children with an axe, dousing Taliesin in gasoline, and setting the house aflame in a conflagration that would kill four more.

To many, it was God’s wrath.  To some, it was bad luck. To history, it is a story that no matter how often repeated never seems to make sense.

The affair, the mass murder, the destruction of what in revamped form remains today a gem of American architecture: this is the stuff not of great men and great minds, but of tabloids and honky-tonks.

The Paradox

As such, few scandals have captured the American imagination as did this one.  How is it possible that a mind that can think up forms and structures light years ahead of their time, that can draw (more or less freehand) the sketches for Fallingwater in a mere three hours, that can at 90 years old design a building in the shape of a spiral (ever tried to curve a steel girder?) fit, as the Guggenheim Museum, to showcase the most profound art in the world, a mind that codified (not to say created) a distinctly American architecture—how is it possible that that mind is the same mind that abandoned middle class respectability for a life of scorn and derision in exile?

We long for an answer to this question.  That’s why people continue to tell the story of this tawdry episode in Wright’s life again and again and again. As if the manifold newspaper accounts of Wright’s affair and the massacre at and destruction of Taliesin weren’t sufficient documentation of the events, we now also have countless book-length journalistic and scholarly accounts, some respectable, some less so.

Nancy Horan’s historical novel, Loving Frank, attempts to answer this question by letting us walk in Mamah Cheney’s moccasins as she runs off to Europe with the flamboyant man who thought the Artist should be free, free, free, and as she returns with him to their mutual prison in rural Wisconsin, where she meets her fate.

The Opera

Although Daron Hagen composed his opera based on this sordid tale in the 1990s, the world-premiere recording of Shining Brow has been released only this year.  Why, I wondered upon encountering the recording, must yet another treatment of this story in yet another medium (music) enter our midst?

The short answer is that the opera was commissioned by the Madison (Wisconsin) Opera, in Wright’s erstwhile stomping ground, only a short drive from where Taliesin (now many times touched up) still stands and a mere stone’s throw away from Momona Terrace and other Wright designs in Madison.   But the philosophical ‘why?’ persists.  Surely there are other more interesting things to say about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Of course there are.  But piled on top of each other, many of these interesting things would amount to an academic paper—fine for scholarly journals and events with hors d’oeuvres, but not dramatic enough for an opera.

There are many other interesting, if also outrageous, things about Wright: that he conjured suspicion among his neighbors by wearing kimonos from his beloved Japan on walks around Oak Park; that after months of delinquent payments on debts he was able to rescue Taliesin from his creditors by selling off, piece by piece, his first-rate collection of ukiyo-e; that as an old man working on the Guggenheim in New York he walked into a Rolls Royce salesroom, entourage of Taliesin apprentices in tow, and demanded some custom features on a brand-new car.

“I do not expect to see a bill,” he told the salesmen before flouncing out in extravagant garb he likely bought with money borrowed from friends.  But these anecdotes amount only to a character sketch, and a shady one at that.  In and of themselves they don’t help us get into the mind of the great architect.

But I guess that’s why we take every morsel we can get.  Every life is a hodgepodge of stories with an endless list of complications.  Just because Wright was both gifted and famous doesn’t mean his life should have been any more perfect than ours are.

I personally wish it had been, because then I could admire both his architecture and the person who created it.  But I’ve come to terms with Wright’s disregard for the social mores of his day, which is not to say I excuse him (though certainly he wouldn’t have cared) for the pain and suffering he caused others.

I hold Wright the architect in one hand and Wright the adulterer in the other and keep trying to reconcile the brilliance and the weakness there.  A picture emerges of a man of flesh and blood and troubles which, in a metaphorical sense, mirrors the depths of the human mind and soul.  And that’s why the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney and the brutal payoff of desire and weakness should be told, read, and now seen emblazoned across the stage in three dimensions and heard in music.

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