Friday, May 27, 2011

Hydrogen Jukebox (Movie Glutton Opera Edition)

In addition to their 3 more traditional operas, the Fort Worth Opera Festival this year threw in a modern work which definitely doesn't fit the usual picture of what an opera is.  Hydrogen Jukebox brings together the music of Philip Glass, one of my favorites, with poems of Allen Ginsberg, the "beat poet" who seems to have written a lot of drivel.

By way of contrast to the majestic Bass Hall, Hydrogen Jukebox was performed in a small theater, with seating for no more than a few dozen people.  I counted only 65-70 people, with a handful of empty seats.  The musicians, an ensemble of only 5 or 6 players, sat at one end of the room.  A sparse set, basically 2 large ladders, occupied the other end.  The audience sat along either side, facing each other on bleacher style seats.  A train track ran down the middle of the theater, and large, long video screens were on each side of the theater, above the audience

Once again, we were blown away by the talent of the musicians and singers Fort Worth Opera is able to attract.  The six singers, 3 men and 3 women, amazed us with their vocal ability and energy.  True to a Glass production, the choreography was not song and dance, Broadway style, but consisted of slow, deliberate motions.  This style seems to have taken much more concentration and stamina than more traditional choreography.
The young and talented cast.

The ensemble played Glass to a T.  Like Glass himself, the director conducted from the keyboard.  He even looked a bit like Glass. . . .  The first half ended with a spoken piece, accompanied by the conductor playing a piece which I believe is from his album Solo Piano (which consists of some of his most beautiful and accessible compositions).  The music throughout was classic Glass, with his trademark use of the voices as instruments.  I loved it.

Unfortunately, the voices were more than instruments: they had an actual libretto to work with.  That's where Ginsberg comes in.  If you know Ginsberg, you know what I'm talking about.  If not, just picture the worst parts of the 1960s and 1970s: anti-war protests, free love, drug culture, draft dodgers.  He is considered a voice of that generation.  So we got to listen to a lot of that tripe.  It's not that he never puts together an interesting phrase--he does--but the whole of it is pretentious, rejecting linguistic conventions just because he can, and throwing out political generalizations that would make Michael Moore blush with their lack of substance.  This is the kind of show and these are the kinds of poems that think they're being profound when they show the White House as a pinata, have same-sex performers kissing, and tie the CIA to the drug trade.

So kudos to Fort Worth Opera for pushing the envelope and bringing non-traditional opera to their festival.  And kudos to the musicians and singers for their fantastic talents on display with this unusual piece.  Too bad all that great music and great talent had to be put to use on such a pointless libretto.

(On an interesting note for this performance: shortly after the lines "Lightning's blue glare fills Oklahoma plains, . . . approaching Texas I saw sheet lightning cover Heaven's corners . . . Apocalypse prophesied--the Fall of America signaled from Heaven" were sung, the lights came on and we had to go to the basement due to a tornado warning!  Later while images of rain were projected on the screens, hail pattering on the darkened skylights augmented the music with realistic sound effects.)

For a review from someone who knows what he's talking about, check the Star-Telegram.

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