12 June 2011

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011: ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’

Joshua Hopkins performs “Song #10”
Original illustration by WVM©

Darren Woods has balls. Great big ones. Texas-size balls, really. Not enough for him to program Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, a work that had its premiere in 1990 and is far removed in every way from the 19th-century choices that most regional-opera audiences are presumed to prefer. (Even New York audiences shy away from contemporary opera — notably at the Met.) Not enough that the libretto by Allen Ginsberg contains gay themes and raw language, and constitutes the third in Darren’s relentless campaign to promote a homosexual agenda (as one patron claimed, last year).

No, these things were not enough. On top of all that, Hydrogen Jukebox targets, among other political and sociological bugbears, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, a titan in the eyes of most Texans, and links him to the international drug trade.

And yet Fort Worth Opera sold out all nine performances of this opera. The (non-subscription) audience entering the Sanders Theater wasn’t frisked or passed through a metal detector. The night I attended (June 2), nobody walked out, and nobody picketed or protested.

Go figure. But surely the success of the production had something to do with the extraordinarily high quality of performance, the tastefully imaginative staging, and a shared respect and enthusiasm for the merits of a largely neglected score. I arrived in trepidation, but by the end of the evening, I was cheering.

Scene from a love scene:
Dan Kempson and Joshua Hopkins
Original illustration by WVM©

I have manifold misgivings about Philip Glass as an opera composer: though I dutifully sat through several of his works in the early 1980s, I gave up on Glass altogether after New York City Opera’s Akhnaten persuaded me the man knew nothing of theater. He favored gibberish librettos and repeated musical figures, and his work received static stagings. I suspected that his admirers must be high, but I was sober, and Glass bored the hell out of me.

Working for Opera News, I was obliged to un-renounce Glass, and I’ve found some of his more recent compositions for the stage a largely pleasant surprise. He has varied his musical language, and while he is still obsessed with Great Figures from History, the language of his librettos is more expressive, too. Sometimes there’s even a plot. Hydrogen Jukebox, written during the period when I shunned him, finds Glass moving toward his more stageworthy sensibility.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of patented Glass “deedle-dee-deedle” repetition, but there are echoes of jazz, folksong, and gospel choirs, beautifully played by a small instrumental ensemble, led by Steven R. Osgood. Appropriately enough, in setting a text that aims to describe America, Glass composed something like a melting pot, and while I’d hesitate ever to rank him with Kurt Weill, I recognized the eclectic — even democratic — impulse in Jukebox.

Because the score calls for a few electronic instruments, and because the playing space lay smack in between parallel rows of bleachers, where the audience sat, the singers were miked, but the amplification was so discreet that I hardly noticed.

Lawrence Edelson directed and choreographed the piece with a cast of six, who flowed in and out of scenes as if they were phantoms in a dream. Edelson acknowledged the work’s sometimes predictable late-1960s agitprop aesthetics (war, pollution, and the drug trade = bad; love = good), but without being bound by them, and in like fashion, his staging and the excellent video projections by C. Andrew Bauer reflected the text literally but judiciously. We got just enough visual reinforcement to guide us through what we heard, but we also got other images that transcended the text (just as the text, drunk on its own verbiage, transcends itself). That in turn helped to bring the piece forward into our own time — and our own lives.

And that may be the most surprising achievement of Hydrogen Jukebox. It’s only rarely that I see myself in an opera, and when I do, I usually have to take a cognitive leap: I must fool myself into identifying with a character who in no way resembles me or anything in my experience, and yet by now I’m quite used to seeing myself in Violetta, for example, or in Rodolfo. Even in two of Fort Worth Opera’s earlier successes, I had to strain a bit: the gay New Yorkers in Angels in America exist beyond the scope of my personal experience (and never once has a Mormon angel visited me), as does the gay writer of Before Night Falls.

But I have gone on a road trip with a lover; I have felt the thrill and the tenderness of lying together in a cheap hotel in the Middle of Nowhere, U.S.A., and I have lingered in that embrace and wished for it to radiate outward and to encompass others.

By golly, there it was on the Sanders stage: two men in bed, and as the number went on, two women kissed, too, and a straight couple canoodled for good measure. Nothing earth-shattering, nothing really dramatic in any conventional sense. Just a scene from my own life. In an opera. In Fort Worth, Texas.

The cast formed a true ensemble, in roles at once varied and anonymous, such that it would be almost impossible and decidedly unfair to single out a performance. And yet, among the voices, Rosa Betancourt’s warm soprano impressed me greatly, and bass Justin Hopkins’ spoken account of “Song #10,” the Act I finale (which Ginsberg originally wrote to perform himself), knocked my socks right off, eliciting my first “Bravo!” of the night. I don’t know of many young actors, much less singers, who could manage such a long, ecstatic text so expertly, but Hopkins did it.

The ensemble included a few other unfamiliar faces: mezzo Amanda Robie, who proved such a winning Pitti-Sing later in the Festival; lissome soprano Corrie Donovan; and baritone Dan Kempson, who fielded a great deal of the solo singing here and did so with warmth and distinction. Tenor Jonathan Blalock, so impressive in Before Night Falls, made a welcome return and has clearly joined my list of Fort Worth “discoveries” whom I’ll want to hear again and again. All of these kids had to sing in their underwear, it should be noted, and all of them looked damned fine doing it.*

It’s to be wondered whether I’d have given Hydrogen Jukebox a chance — and it’s certain I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to hear it — if Darren Woods and Fort Worth Opera hadn’t programmed it. As I say, I’ve grown to believe, over the years, that if Darren likes a score, there must be something to it. Our tastes aren’t identical, but even when we disagree, I learn by hearing through his ears.

This time, what he heard was my life. Thanks for that.

*NOTE: As I reflect on the preparation necessary to young American artists, I must acknowledge that it’s not only in the studio, but also in the gym where the serious work must be done. Richard Tucker never had to strip onstage, but today’s singers have to be ready for anything. Meanwhile, I’m starting to feel like a dirty old man every time I attend an opera. Seriously, I own socks older than some of these kids.


William V. Madison said...

An afterthought -- whereas audiences for contemporary opera in New York tend to be quite young (Brooklyn hipsters, mainly), the audience for Hydrogen Jukebox on June 2 was comprised primarily, and almost exclusively, of folks who appeared to be even older than I. I say it again: go figure.

Girl From Texas said...

I have often wondered about, and thanked god for, the aging (rancher?) baby-boomers in Ft Worth who had the vision and the oddly out of place cosmopolitan taste to bring us the Kimball, support a great author series sponsored by the local newspaper, build Bass Hall, support all those art museums, create a fabulous zoo and Japanese garden, and hire Darren as director of the Ft Worth Opera. I remember some old professor of Texas history saying once that the wild wild west was oddly accepting of all types - African American cowboys, gays and straights....woman's suffrage first passed in Montana. Dallas is so conservative bc it was created by banking; Ft Worth is creative and exploratory bc it is "where the west begins".

Girl From Texas said...

P.S. Nice illustrations, too !