by Tim Hansen

Every non-American school kid like me grows up knowing a handful of US geographic icons. I can’t remember a time I didn’t know about the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, and for some reason, Texas; and, I guess because my home country of Australia has a special affinity for unusual place names, pretty much everyone here has heard of the Mississippi river by the time they’re 6.

Like many residents of Minneapolis the Mississippi river has special significance for Greg Brosofske. Brosofske, a composer and JFund awardee, lives about a mile from the Washington Avenue Bridge, an immense span that crosses the river and joins the city to its twin, St. Paul. The bridge itself is an icon, a symbol perhaps of the unity between the two cities crossing over an even grander piece of Americana, and Brosofske suggests it was this symbolism that drew famed American poet John Berryman one cold January morning in 1972 as the place where the troubled writer would end his life.

“The Mississippi was frozen white,” Brosofske describes. “It was Monday morning about 9AM and university students were walking to classes. The bridge is a double bridge – cars below and pedestrians above. There is a wonderful view of the whole University of Minnesota campus from up there. Berryman was 59, but old and frail for that age. They say he climbed out over the railing, made a little motion like a wave, leaned out, and let go.”

Berryman’s turbulent life became something of a mild obsession for Brosofske. He was initially drawn to Berryman’s collection of poems The Dream Songs believing they would lend themselves to song, enamoured with their “wild syntax and mix of voices, lyricism and humor”. But as he researched Berryman’s work he became more and more fascinated with the poet himself, seeing him as a vivid character in his own right. “So,” says Brosofske, “it eventually occurred to me that he’d be a great subject for a piece of musical theater.”

Brosofske has, for many years, composed music for dance and theater. He didn’t plan to be a composer, although his mother always encouraged musical experimentation. “My mother let me prepare our piano with tape, paper, pencil erasers, ‘as long as you don’t break anything,’” he fondly recalls, adding “she was pretty tolerant”. At college he started out with aspirations to be a writer, a poet himself, but once there he started hanging out with theater majors, drawn to what he felt was a much more vital way to use the written word. “They were actually doing something with literature, not just writing papers – they were putting on plays,” he says. “I had a few things published that I was happy with, but the life of a writer is so lonesome and isolated, and I was miserable.” And so Brosofske ended up working in music and theater: “for me, it’s all about performance, collaboration and other people.”

Brosofske’s research on Berryman’s story was admirably thorough, and one of the most important facets of this research was meeting and interviewing Berryman’s third wife Kate Donahue, who was married to him for ten years before he died. “She was very frank and honest,” recalls Brosofske of their meeting. “She struck me as pragmatic, a soft spoken but a strong, grounded woman. I believe Kate Donahue was the single reason he was around for the last years of his life. Berryman was plagued with alcohol abuse, something he really struggled with. He was constantly hospitalized. Towards the end he made extreme efforts: joined AA, was as at work on a novel ‘Recovery’, underwent a religious conversion. He really tried to understand his addiction. He also suffered from the trauma of his father committing suicide when John was only 12 yrs old. He was on a trajectory – a nosedive to self-destruct. Kate Donahue’s presence in his life allowed him to finish his great work The Dream Songs. She is the unsung hero of the Berryman story.” It is this relationship between Donahue and Berryman that now sits at the core of the work – Strange Is The Heart.

As Brosofske worked on the chamber opera, he learned over time to think not in terms of words sung to music, but more in terms of vocal performances. “There is a fair amount of text that is not ‘sung’ per se,” he explains, “but spoken in an evocative, musical manner.” To pull it off, he’s approached theater artists he’s worked with in the past including “wonderfully inventive” director Joel Sass, and baritone Bradley Greenwald, who plays Berryman, and “is regarded as one of the best actor/vocalists in the Twin Cities.”

Brosofske is also writing the libretto himself. “It feels like I’ve come full circle,” he says. “Like I said, at one point I was developing myself as a writer. So now I’m writing a musical dramatic piece about a poet. It feels like all those divergent lines are finally intersecting now.”

Strange Is The Heart premieres in October at the Open Eye Figure Theater in Minneapolis.