‘Young Cae­sar’ seizes a new day

A Lou Har­ri­son opera with a gay-ori­ented topic lives again in a re­vised ver­sion.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By John Rock­well

Har­ri­son, the beloved Cal­i­for­nia com­poser, would have turned 100 this spring, and ar­guably the most im­por­tant cen­te­nary event will come Tues­day at Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall with a sold-out staged pro­duc­tion of his long-evolv­ing opera “Young Cae­sar.”

“Young Cae­sar” was es­pe­cially dear to Har­ri­son’s heart. When the En­coun­ters mu­sic se­ries in Pasadena asked for an opera, Har­ri­son was at a loss for a sub­ject un­til his part­ner, Bill Colvig, pro­posed in 1969 that he ex­plore a gay sub­ject. The re- sult was what may well have been the first overtly male gay opera in his­tory, com­plete with a love af­fair be­tween the teenage Julius Cae­sar, as an emis­sary from Rome, and Ni­comedes, the king of dis­tant Bithy­nia, on the south shore of the Black Sea. It even had a gay orgy, de­picted with pup­pets.

The opera was a testimony to Har­ri­son and Colvig’s then-new love, spec­u­lates Yu­val Sharon, the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic’s artist-col­lab­o­ra­tor, stage di­rec­tor of “Young Cae­sar” and leader of the per­for­mance group the In­dus­try. The In­dus­try is pre­sent­ing “Young Cae­sar” with the L.A. Phil New Mu­sic Group and Har­ri­son House Mu­sic, Arts and Ecol­ogy in Joshua Tree.

The story de­rives from the Ro­man his­to­rian Sue­toLou

nius. Sex­ual flu­id­ity among young men in an­cient times may have been more preva­lent than in later cen­turies. Like most men of the Ro­man up­per classes, Cae­sar had wives and chil­dren. (An adopted son be­came the Em­peror Au­gus­tus.) Cae­sar later de­nied that he had had an af­fair with Ni­comedes, de­spite his long dal­liance in Bithy­nia. Still, the opera is hardly an ahis­tor­i­cal fan­tasy.

Heart­felt “Young Cae­sar” may have been, but a suc­cess it was not. It has suf­fered a long, tor­tured his­tory. I re­viewed its premiere at Cal­tech for the Los An­ge­les Times in 1971. Then it was a cham­ber opera for five play­ers of mostly Asian or Asian-in­spired in­stru­ments, plus the rod-and-stick and shadow pup­pets, singers and a nar­ra­tor. I praised the con­sid­er­able beauties of its in­stru­men­tal mu­sic and set pieces but com­plained about the pro­tracted recita­tives, the “long, arid patches of spo­ken nar­ra­tion” and the “pre­cious, self-in­dul­gent li­bretto by Robert Gor­don.” I con­cluded by grump­ing about “per­va­sive, em­bar­rass­ing en­nui.”

There was a sub­se­quent per­for­mance in San Fran­cisco, but Har­ri­son and Gor­don rec­og­nized the need for im­prove­ments. In 1987, the Port­land Gay Men’s Cho­rus in Ore­gon com­mis­sioned a new ver­sion (with as­sis­tance from an­other beloved Cal­i­for­nian, the pa­tron Betty Free­man). Har­ri­son added cho­ruses, elim­i­nated the pup­pets and re­vised the or­ches­tra­tion for Western (al­beit equal-tem­pered) in­stru­ments. To judge from a video, this ver­sion lacked the charm pro­vided by the pup­pets and Asian in­stru­ments and still dragged.

By 1997, I was di­rec­tor of the Lin­coln Cen­ter Fes­ti­val in New York, and I did a pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion with Har­ri­son. At the time, film­maker and pro­ducer Eva Soltes told me Har­ri­son was still ea­ger to make “Young Cae­sar” into a suc­cess­ful opera. I com­mis­sioned Har­ri­son to turn “Young Cae­sar” into a “real” opera, with con­sis­tent Western in­stru­men­ta­tion and proper arias.

But the re­vi­sion re­mained im­per­fect, due largely to Har­ri­son’s un­will­ing­ness to trim Gor­don’s li­bretto. Af­ter I re­turned to jour­nal­ism and be­came a critic at the New York Times in 1998, my suc­ces­sor with the Lin­coln Cen­ter Fes­ti­val, Nigel Red­den, tried to stage “Young Cae­sar.” My idea had been to en­list as di­rec­tor the chore­og­ra­pher Mark Mor­ris, who loves Har­ri­son’s mu­sic and has set many dances to it. I fig­ured he would be sym­pa­thetic and that his name would at­tract au­di­ences.

Mor­ris de­clined, cit­ing sched­ul­ing con­flicts (though Soltes, now the keeper of the Har­ri­son f lame and di­rec­tor of the Har­ri­son House artist res­i­dency and per­for­mance pro­gram, said Mor­ris also felt the score needed im­prove­ments). Den­nis Rus­sell Davies was to have con­ducted the New York pro­duc­tion, and ac­cord­ing to Soltes, he sug­gested the chore­og­ra­pher Bill T. Jones as di­rec­tor — though Jones too was un­will­ing to pro­ceed with­out al­ter­ations. His part­ner, Bjorn Ame­lan, worked up a re­vised, tight­ened ver­sion of the li­bretto, which Har­ri­son re­fused to ac­cept. Red­den fi­nally can­celed the Lin­coln Cen­ter project in 2001.

In 2007, four years af­ter Har­ri­son’s death, Opera Par­al­lèle in San Fran­cisco fi­nally staged the Lin­coln Cen­ter score, hon­or­ing the com­poser’s 90th birthday. This may have been the best ver­sion so far, but “Young Cae­sar” still suf­fered from dra­matur­gi­cal clum­si­ness and ex­ces­sive length.

So now we have yet an­other ver­sion, which sounds as if it will be much closer to what Red­den and Jones were try­ing to achieve. Sharon first heard arias from the opera in New York 15 years ago. He has been dis­cussing a new stag­ing with Soltes (cre­ative con­sul­tant for this pro­duc­tion) for five years.

The new ver­sion has been com­pressed by a quar­ter — to 90 min­utes, no in­ter­mis­sion. With Gor­don’s and Soltes’ ea­ger ac­qui­es­cence, Sharon and his con­duc­tor, Marc Lowen­stein, worked with Bill Alves and Brett Camp­bell, authors of a new, de­fin­i­tive, crit­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy of the com­poser. They cut down the recita­tives and nar­ra­tion and some in­ter­nal re­peats and, adds Sharon, made tiny ad­just­ments to the mu­sic to ac­com­mo­date the short­en­ing.

The in­stru­men­ta­tion now com­prises a 13-player Western ensem­ble and, es­pe­cially for the scenes in ex­otic Bithy­nia, five ob­bli­gato Asian in­stru­ments and a full Amer­i­can game­lan, mean­ing a Ja­vanese-style mostly metal­lic per­cus­sion or­ches­tra made in Amer­ica. Sharon calls the new score a “hy­brid” of the ear­lier ver­sions.

Would Har­ri­son have re­sisted the re-in­stru­men­ta­tion and cuts? Will Har­ri­son loy­al­ists ob­ject to them? Soltes, Sharon and Robert Hughes, a long­time Har­ri­son col­lab­o­ra­tor and con­duc­tor of the 1971 orig­i­nal Pasadena per­for­mances, think not.

“Lou liked to al­low his in­ter­preters a lot of lee­way,” Hughes said in a re­cent phone in­ter­view from Emeryville in the Bay Area. Sharon added that by the 1990s both Har­ri­son and Gor­don had be­come more open to cut­ting both the words and the mu­sic.

The hope is that the new ver­sion will fi­nally val­i­date “Young Cae­sar” as an opera that other com­pa­nies will want to per­form. Certainly a Har­ri­son clan of ad­mir­ers and col­lab­o­ra­tors will con­gre­gate at Dis­ney Hall on Tues­day, in cel­e­bra­tion but maybe also in ap­pre­hen­sive ex­pec­ta­tion.

cal­en­dar@la­times.com Rock­well was a Los An­ge­les Times mu­sic and dance critic from 1970 to 1972, and later a New York Times critic, cor­re­spon­dent, colum­nist and edi­tor.

Mar­garet Fisher

A SCENE from a Port­land Gay Men’s Choir per­for­mance of “Young Cae­sar” in 1988. A per­for­mance of an up­dated ver­sion of the opera will be held at Dis­ney Hall.

Casey Kringlen

YU­VAL SHARON, L.A. Phil artist-col­lab­o­ra­tor, is opera’s stage di­rec­tor.

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