Timely vi­sion of Amer­ica

LBO’s ‘Hy­dro­gen Juke­box’ breathes new life into poet Allen Gins­berg’s prophecy.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARK SWED MU­SIC CRITIC

“What­ever re­ally great po­etry I wrote,” Allen Gins­berg once said, “I was ac­tu­ally able to chant, to use my whole body, whereas in lesser po­etry, I wasn’t. I was talk­ing.”

Gins­berg would not have been the same world-chang­ing poet with­out his in­her­ent mu­si­cal­ity. He made Amer­i­can po­etry breathe phys­i­cally and spir­i­tu­ally as it had never be­fore. His ec­static breath was such that it at­tracted the var­ied mu­si­cal likes of Leonard Bern­stein, Bob Dy­lan, Paul McCart­ney, Patti Smith, the Clash and the Kronos Quar­tet. Di­rec-

tor Robert Wil­son and the late Amer­i­can com­poser Elodie Lauten are among those who cre­ated op­eras around Gins­berg’s life and work. Gins­berg brought some­thing valu­able to them all.

But Philip Glass’ “Hy­dro­gen Juke­box,” a 1990 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gins­berg, did some­thing even more valu­able. The opera helped the poet him­self breathe. And in a new pro­duc­tion that opened Satur­day night in San Pe­dro, Long Beach Opera has breathed valu­able new life into a star­tlingly timely il­lu­mi­na­tion of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence.

The ori­gin of “Hy­dro­gen Juke­box” is pe­cu­liar. At a 1988 ben­e­fit for Amer­i­can vet­er­ans in New York, Gins­berg ex­cit­edly read part of his sub­ver­sively an­ti­war poem “Wi­chita Vor­tex Su­tra” — in which he ap­pealed to Congress to “leg­is­late its de­light” and the pres­i­dent to “ex­e­cute his own de­sire” — while Glass played a calm pi­ano solo in the back­ground. There was con­sid­er­able ner­vous­ness in the au­di­to­rium, but the per­for­mance went over star­tlingly well with the vet­er­ans.

Two years later, the com­poser and poet sur­rounded this “Wi­chita Vor­tex” set­ting with other texts from Gins­berg’s po­ems to cre­ate a mu­sic theater piece for six singers and Glass’ in­stru­men­tal en­sem­ble. (Glass has gone back and forth about call­ing it an opera.) Gins­berg sug­gested a loose set of themes that re­volved around peace, the en­vi­ron­ment, the sex­ual revo­lu­tion, Bud­dhism — all ways that Gins­berg had long pro­posed to re­verse the Fall of Amer­ica.

In the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion, the singers were dressed as all-Amer­i­cans: po­lice of­fi­cer, cheer­leader, busi­ness­man, priest, me­chanic and wait­ress. That came across as a lit­tle over­worked, and David Sch­weizer’s new pro­duc­tion for Long Beach Opera does away with all that. In­stead, he makes the show all about Gins­berg. (The as­sis­tant direc­tor of the new pro­duc­tion hap­pens to be so­prano Suzan Han­son, the cheer­leader in the orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion.)

The space LBO ap­pro­pri­ated is the Crafted at the Port of Los An­ge­les mar­ket­place, a ware­house. Chairs sur­round three sides of a per­for­mance space, with a screen for pro­ject­ing the text on the fourth. The poet, an ac­tor dressed in mufti white and san­dals, sits at a type­writer atop what looks like a painter’s scaf­fold on wheels. Six ac­tors in white, who wheel the poet around, por­tray acolytes. The singers are in black, and they take over the stage floor and three rolling plat­forms.

Gins­berg care­fully thought out the dra­matic progress of his li­bretto, con­trast­ing big themes, such as his howl­ing about all-con­sum­ing in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion destroying the planet and the psy­che, or all-con­sum­ing re­li­gious con­flict in the Mid­dle East, or per­sonal con­cerns. The lat­ter in­clude a night with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, in Kolkata, or stand­ing naked as a boy in front of his Aunt Rose.

Sch­weizer’s ap­proach ap­pears to be more stream of con­scious­ness. Sch­weizer changes the or­der of some songs and moves “Wi­chita Vor­tex” from its cen­tral po­si­tion to a cli­mac­tic place near the end.

We are es­sen­tially in­side Gins­berg’s head. An ex­cel­lent cast sim­ply acts out in ges­tures what the words im­ply. Glass’ score en­hances ev­ery word it touches, the way the per­fect spice brings out fla­vor in food. Sch­weizer asks no more than Gins­berg come to life.

What then comes to life are the con­cerns of mod­ern life. And what Gins­berg proph­e­sied about the Mid­dle East clash of gods, about gay lib­er­a­tion, about the men­ace of a so­ci­ety be­sot­ted with robo­ti­za­tion, about the CIA and about the en­vi­ron­ment, are to­day’s daily con­cerns.

But the touch­ing parts of “Hy­dro­gen Juke­box” are Gins­berg’s rev­e­la­tions about the per­turbed and pro­found tri­als we all face com­ing of age and fac­ing death. The fi­nal song, “Fa­ther Death Blues,” is a pow­er­ful, a cap­pella exit from one realm to an­other.

As six singers in search of a poet, Jamie Chamberlin, Ash­ley Knight, Karin Mushe­gain, Todd Strange, Roberto Per­las Gomez and Ja­son Switzer each brought some­thing com­pellingly per­sonal to the per­for­mances yet also func­tioned as an ad­mirable mu­si­cal and so­cial unit. As the poet, Michael Shamus Wiles read in a voice that some­what re­sem­bled Gins­berg’s, but he lacked Gins­berg’s breath, Gins­berg’s way of pack­ing in­di­vid­ual words with so much stress that he was living and breath­ing them as he spoke them.

A ware­house needs am­pli­fi­ca­tion, but that also cre­ates the as­pect of robo­ti­za­tion against which Gins­berg railed. Well, the elec­tron­ics failed when needed most, dur­ing Wiles’ read­ing of “Wi­chita Vor­tex.” But if in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion messed up the cli­max, that fail­ure only ful­filled Gins­berg’s greater prophecy and wound up seem­ing like an un­in­ten­tion­ally in­spired mo­ment.

“Hy­dro­gen Juke­box” is Gins­berg chant­ing, not talk­ing, and that de­mands at­ten­tion. Just the other day, an in­spi­ra­tional teacher in Con­necti­cut lost his job by ex­pli­cat­ing a sex­u­ally ex­plicit Gins­berg poem to a search­ing high school se­nior who re­quested it. Would some­one please ship this fine pro­duc­tion to Con­necti­cut af­ter its fi­nal per­for­mances in San Pe­dro next week­end?

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

THE POET

(Michael Shamus Wiles) rises above the acolytes in Long Beach Opera’s “Hy­dro­gen Juke­box.”

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