29 July 2014

West Edge Opera: Hydrogen Jukebox

Last Sunday I went to Berkeley to hear the first of three performances by West Edge Opera (formerly the Berkeley Opera) of the Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg free-form opera Hydrogen Jukebox, staged in the large glass-walled lobby of the Ed Roberts Campus right near the Ashby BART station. The unconventional space is used resourcefully. The show started at the fairly awkward time of 5:00. What's really awkward is that there were no assigned seats, yet company General Director Mark Streshinsky and director Elkhanah Pulitzer stood in front of the rows of chairs talking to the assembling audience until almost the start of the performance, which meant that either you were stumbling around looking for a seat, disturbing those trying to listen, or you were hanging courteously to the side while less considerate sorts grabbed all the decent seats, or you had to actually sit in your seat so that you didn't block the view of those behind you, even though you might prefer to spare your backside by standing until the performance started; and even if you prefer to avoid this sort of pre-performance chat you were forced to listen or to risk having your seat nabbed by someone else.

The excellent musicians (David Moschler conducting and on keyboards, Ben Malkevitch on keyboards, Audrey Jackson on flute and soprano saxophone, Cory Wright on soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet, and Doug Chin and Lily Sevier on percussion) were seated in the balconies above the stage, though I believe it was Moschler who descended via ladder to play the piano for the end of the first act, Ginsberg's great poem Wichita Vortex Sutra. The performance was originally listed as being about an hour and fifteen minutes, no intermission (which is what I'd expected from the CD, but that apparently had been cut), but was actually two hours with an intermission. Though the piece is clearly structured for an intermission after the Wichita Vortex Sutra, I think it would have worked better to perform it straight through – it wouldn't be much longer than 90 minutes, and the audience was notably slow to settle down and listen after the break.

There were six excellent singers, whom I will discuss momentarily. There was also the non-singing role of the Narrator, played by actor Howard Swain. I don't know if it was the actor's conception of his part, or the director's, or some combination thereof, but I have seldom hated an individual performance as much as I hated his. In the opening he's wearing a stars-and-stripes top hat and a long black coat, long dark red scarf, and dark glasses, cigarette dangling from his lips – all very too cool for school, the complete picture of The Poet as douchebag poseur. He gawks and gapes awkwardly and obviously, he gestures too broadly and clumsily, when marijuana cigarettes are mentioned he has a cartoonishly large rolled-up joint: everything is overdone attitude and fakely theatrical posing. Yes, I realize that this corresponds to a part of Ginsberg's public persona, but it's not what makes his work interesting and worthwhile and memorable; in fact, as Milosz said of him, to see his worth you must look past his "journalistic clichés, [his] beard and beads and [his] dress of a rebel of another epoch." Swain speaks all his lines in a generic rant, an assumed and automatic attempt at the mysteries of poetic ecstasy. I winced when I realized he would be the one reciting the Wichita Vortex Sutra (whenever I listen to the recording, that is the part that makes me stop and pay close attention; I feel very fortunate to have heard Glass himself perform the piece in concert, with a recording of the then-deceased poet reading his own words); I winced at his smug little pause of distaste before naming the Republican River, I winced as he slammed through the poem's ironies, I winced as he reduced this moving and majestic poem to a pile of ham and cheese.

And about the cigarette dangling from his lips: he smokes a lot during the performance, as do the six singers, and (outside of the passing reference to smoking marijuana, which is different anyway) there is no reason for it – in fact, there is good reason not to have cigarettes at all, particularly in this work. I'm guessing the relentless smoking is an attempt to evoke (which really means, foolishly buy into an image Big Tobacco has paid a lot of money to big advertisers to foster) a sort of free-spirited past bohemia (though it should be obvious that addiction cannot symbolize freedom, particularly when you're talking about tobacco addiction, the most boring and bourgeois of all addictions). But Big Tobacco is exactly the sort of destructive, mindless, conformity-inducing, profit-at-any-cost military-industrial-capitalist behemoth that Ginsberg typified as the Old Testament's Moloch, the grim relentless god that demands constant sacrifice. And Ginsberg knew this – see his Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Dont Smoke).* So if you're not realizing this yourself – if you're just using cigarettes in this decorative way (the way an ad campaign would, and that is definitely not a compliment), if you don't see how Big Tobacco corrupts the political process and devastates the environment (not to mention human lives) to sell death for profit – if you don't see that Big Tobacco is one of the arms of Moloch – you're reading Ginsberg is a uselessly superficial way.

What made the Narrator, and the stupid use of cigarettes, so annoying and disappointing is that everything else was just so incredibly good. The rest of the staging was so imaginative, energetic and inventive, making ingenious use of minimal props, constantly shifting from one striking image to another (just as the poems do, and the throbbing pulse of the music), with the six singers moving in various (mostly same-sex) configurations and couplings, caressing, quicksilver, tossing torn newspapers or paper airplanes at themselves and then the audience, standing quietly as if shivering beneath a snowfall of torn paper, shadow dancing behind an American flag one minute, wrapped in the flag like the Statue of Liberty the next, one minute smiling stewardesses, then the three women turn into the three Fates, cutting the thread of life (a ball of red yarn stretched among them); then the singers are youthful companions, joyful on the road, then again huddled and homeless under the iron command of Moloch; pulling their shirts off, then back on, then stripping down to their boxer shorts. There is much repetition, particularly in the second half, of movements and motifs, which is perhaps mostly a dance-type way of impressing meaning through repetition and revision (which is also the method of the music).

Glass wrote some soaring, beautiful vocal lines for the women – the three of them (sopranos Sara Duchovnay and Molly Mahoney and mezzo-soprano Nicole Takesono) were excellent throughout, but were particularly memorable in their vocalises. Like the three male singers, they threw themselves into their parts with inspiring conviction and energy. Bass Kenneth Kellogg was a commanding presence, and tenor Jonathan Blalock was smooth yet ardent. It's no criticism of them to say that baritone Efraín Solis was particularly memorable, sweet-voiced and moving, in his opening (from Iron Horse) and closing (Father Death Blues) solos.

I'm really divided about the performance, which I guess means, given how much I had been looking forward to experiencing this piece live, that honestly I was disappointed. But for all that was fun and fascinating and thought-provoking, pleasing and memorable to eye and ear and mind, there was the Narrator, dragging the whole thing down into clownish caricature.

There are two more performances, on 2 and 8 August; West Edge is also performing La Bohème (remaining performances 1 and 10 August) and Jake Heggie's operatic version of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair (3, 7, and 9 August); click here for more information or tickets.

* Dont rather than Don't is Ginsberg's spelling in the poem's title.

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