|William Remmers and Cast of Utopia Opera's production of Hydrogen Jukebox
There are a few people on Planet Opera whose artistic judgment is so superior that we will follow them anywhere-- and that sometimes leads to terra incognita, which was the case last night at the fine intimate Lang Recital Hall of Hunter College when Maestro William Remmers conducted Hydrogen Jukebox from the keyboard.
What was this musical "entertainment" that wandered so very far outside of our conception of opera? This collaboration between "beat poet" Allen Ginsberg and minimalist composer Philip Glass could be considered an oratorio, or a song cycle; but does it matter? It held out attention for two hours and roused the sizable audience to an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Credit for the success must be shared with Stage Director Gary Slavin who turned abstract poetry into theater. Along with Maestro Remmers, supertitles were designed artistically, appearing and dropping off the screen, sometimes in phrases and at other times word by word.
Ginsberg and Glass met by chance in 1988 and collaborated so successfully that they undertook this work, which premiered at the Spoleto Festival (the one in Charleston, South Carolina) two years later. The work has been produced a number of times, most recently at Tri-Cities Opera and at Chatauqua.
The text included poems from Ginsberg's oeuvre written over several decades from the 50's through the 80's. Much of it is socio-political, dealing with anti-war sentiment, environmental despair, and the sexual revolution. Some of it is of a more personal nature, exploring the poet's drug use and interest in Buddhist philosophy. Most of it paints a verbal portrait of a dystopian world, one in which our leaders seem not to care and our media bury important news beneath superficial stories of so-called celebrities. Hmmmm. Does this sound resonant? prescient?
The able cast comprised sopranos K.C. Peck and La Toya Lewis, mezzo-soprano Kristin Behrmann, tenor Matt Hughes, and baritones Nathaniel Sullivan and Jeff Goble. Everyone sang finely with commitment and acted with ensemble spirit but we were glad to have the surtitles since English (in our opinion) does not "sing well". We wished that the spoken text had also been awarded titles.
We found ourselves more fascinated by Glass' music than by Ginsberg's text. The repetition of the interval of a minor third is haunting and the instrumentation is novel to our ears. We do recall liking Glass' music long ago as the soundtrack to the Qatsi Trilogy, films that shared Ginsberg's dystopian view of the world.
The scoring involved two keyboards, played by Maestro Remmers and Brian Victor. There were two players of wind instruments and we spotted saxophones of all registers and a flute; there was a stunning solo on the baritone saxophone.
Most remarkable was the percussion which provided infinite textures for which Tyler Mashek and Shelby McKay-Blezinger were responsible. We particularly enjoyed their work in "Numbers in Red Notebook; To Aunt Rose" which dazzled us rhythmically.
There were two other musical moments that stood out for us. One was when Ms. Lewis performed an "aria" based on the poem "Cabin in the Rockies" and the other was when Maestro Remmers left the keyboard and moved to the onstage piano for the bluesy hymn-like "Wichita Vortex Sutra".
If we have succeeded in intriguing you, there will be two performances today, both matinee and evening.
It has been said that artists hold a mirror up to show us who we are; it seems we are not a pretty sight! But we are left wondering why so much of 19th c. music is so pleasing to the ear! We are sure there were wars and industrial revolutions and disease and upheavals. If anyone can answer this in the comment section below, we will be grateful for your insights.
We think of Utopia Opera as The Little Engine that Could. There is nothing one can throw at Maestro Remmers that he can't catch and run with. His audience votes for what they want him to produce for the following season.
This is Utopia Opera's 7th season and we are particularly looking forward to Flotow's Martha and Sondheim's Passion. Fans have voted for Thea Musgrave's Harriet, the Woman Called Moses, which will require a larger theater with an orchestra pit. Go for it William!
(c) meche kroop