As part of this year's Mostly Mozart Festival, and in honor of Leonard Bernstein's centennial year, Lincoln Center is presenting a fully staged production of Bernstein's singular, resplendent work MASS: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. The current production, directed by SF Opera Lab curator Elkhanah Pulitzer, has its New York production premiere on July 17 at David Geffen Hall and will include the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Concert Chorale of New York, and Young People's Chorus of New York City, as well as a large cast of singers and dancers. Here are 9 things to know about this iconic work.

1. Bernstein was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to create MASS for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1971. This was not the composer's only connection to the Kennedy family. Bernstein had previously dedicated his third symphony, Kaddish, to the memory of John F. Kennedy, who was assasinated just weeks before the piece's premiere in 1963.[1]

2. Elkhanah Pulitzer, who is directing the Mostly Mozart Festival presentation of MASS, is known for her experimental, dynamic work as artistic curator for SF Opera Lab, the innovative programming arm of the San Francisco Opera. She has previously staged productions of the work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Canadian Opera Company, and Washington National Opera, among others.[2]

3. MASS is tremendously ambitious in scale, spanning nearly two hours and including over 200 performers.[3] The theatrical element of the piece is a testament to Bernstein's ingenuity and eclectic influences. Throughout MASS, the legendary composer interpolates everything from modern 12-tone melodies and lofty gospel chorales to blues guitar riffs, American marching band music, and Broadway showtunes [4].

4. In writing the piece, Bernstein consulted Father Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest whose strong anti-war activism, particularly his protests against the Vietnam War, landed him on the FBI's "10 Most-Wanted" list. President Nixon was advised by members of his staff not to attend the premiere of MASS given its suspected anti-war messages.[5]

5. MASS also sparked controversy with regard to its lyrics and narrative arc, which contextualized Catholic rites in a modern milieu of cultural crisis and spiritual doubt. Unsurprisingly, the experimental work drew strong criticism from the Roman Catholic Church. In 1973, however, Pope Paul VI invited Bernstein to the Vatican, where he conducted Verdi's Messa da Requiem. In 2000, the Vatican even hosted a performance of MASS.[6]

9 Things to Know about Bernstein's MASS
Photo by TOMO
Bernstein MASS

6. Bernstein enlisted composer Stephen Schwartz to help him tackle the sprawling theatrical project, as he was far from finished only a few months prior to the opening date. Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics for Godspell, harnessed his penchant for situating religious ritual in a contemporary context to help Bernstein craft modern theater out of the structure of the Latin mass. Schwartz was the creative force behind "A Simple Song," the best-known song from the musical masterwork.[7]

7. The original production of MASS was choreographed by Alvin Ailey, who also choreographed composer Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera on Lincoln Center's campus in 1966.[8]

8. Following the world premiere of MASS, the audience reportedly sat silently for three minutes before erupting into a standing ovation that lasted half an hour.[9]

9. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon contributed the following four lines, which appear about halfway through the piece in a trope titled "Half of the People":

"Half the people are stoned
And the other half are waiting for the next election.
Half the people are drowned
And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction."[10]

Amanda Gordon is the 2018 editorial intern for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.


[1] "MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971)," Leonard Bernstein at 100 (2018),
[3] Tim Greiving, "Cue the marching band: How the L.A. Phil will bring a little mayhem onstage for Bernstein's 'Mass'," Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2018,
[4] Marin Alsop, "Revisiting Bernstein's Immodest 'Mass'," NPR, September 27, 2008,
[5] "MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971)."
[6] Peter Gutmann, "Leonard Bernstein: Mass," Classical Notes (2011),
[7] "MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971)."
[8] "Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: 50 Years Cultural Ambassador to the World," Library of Congress,
[9] Porter Anderson, "Review: A 'Mass' 35 years long,", January 23, 2006,
[10] Anderson, “Review: A 'Mass' 35 years long."