This ‘Young Cae­sar’ has fi­nally con­quered

A trou­bled 1971 opera by Lou Har­ri­son is tightly re­worked and mar­velously re­born.


Now we know. It has been 45 years since Lou Har­ri­son’s “Young Cae­sar,” an overtly gay opera for pup­pets with penises, had its hap­less premiere in Pasadena, to the ou­trage of some of its spon­sors. But af­ter var­i­ous un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to turn it into a real opera, the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic fi­nally and tri­umphantly did so with the work’s first pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tion Tues­day night in Walt Disney Con­cert Hall.

L.A. Phil artist-col­lab­o­ra­tor Yu­val Sharon cre­ated a new ver­sion of the opera that uses the most work­able as­pects of the com­poser’s rewrites over the years, trims about 45 min­utes from the score and finds a vi­able dra­matic struc­ture. Sharon, in con­junc­tion with his opera com­pany, the In­dus­try, mounted a fan­ci­ful, vis­ually stun­ning, en­dear­ingly mer­cu­rial, marginally risqué, mo­men­tar­ily over-the-top and ul­ti­mately touch­ing pro­duc­tion. The L.A. Phil New Mu­sic Group, con­ducted by Marc Lowen­stein in the fi­nal Green Um­brella pro­gram of the sea­son, was sen­sa­tional, re­veal­ing layer upon layer of sheer mu­si­cal gor­geous­ness ca­pa­ble, from the first bars, of lift­ing the spir­its.

“Young Cae­sar” can fi-

nally be heard as what Har­ri­son’s ad­mir­ers had long sus­pected it must be — a mar­velous, uniquely Amer­i­can out­lier opera. It is Har­ri­son’s most am­bi­tious work and one that he wouldn’t let go of from the time of its 1971 premiere to his death at 85 in 2003.

Un­like gay op­eras that came be­fore (and have come since), Har­ri­son’s is not a tragic tale about the an­guish of be­ing an out­sider. The pro­duc­tion’s cre­ative con­sul­tant, Eva Soltes, a long­time as­so­ciate of Har­ri­son, de­scribed the com­poser in the pre­con­cert talk as the proud­est gay man she has ever known and the opera’s in­vi­ta­tion into gay cul­ture as a call for ev­ery­one to en­joy life.

Erotic amuse­ments are cer­tainly of­fered. Back in 1971, Pasadena’s pu­ta­tive lit­tle old ladies did not quite go for Har­ri­son’s “eroti­con,” with its fly­ing phal­luses, but “Young Cae­sar” is much more than that. Har­ri­son uses plea­sure for sub­ver­sion. The orig­i­nal ver­sion was writ­ten at the height of the Viet­nam War, and the opera is a po­tent and en­tirely orig­i­nal form of per­sua­sion to make love not war.

Hav­ing gone through his rites of man­hood in Rome, the am­bi­tious young Julius Cae­sar — Gaius in the opera — is sent to Bithy­nia to col­lect ships from King Ni­comedes. His­tory is a lit­tle un­cer­tain about this, but there is rea­son to be­lieve that Ni­comedes en­ticed Cae­sar into a dal­liance as yet an­other rite of man­hood.

For Har­ri­son and his li­bret­tist, Robert Gor­don, who worked with Sharon on this new ver­sion, Ni­comedes daz­zled the naive and uptight Gaius with opu­lence and sen­su­al­ity. A wiser, older leader at­tempt­ing to mold a young man who would one day take over the world, Ni­comedes tried, and al­most suc­ceeded, in get­ting Gaius to slow down, to take no­tice of and learn from the world around him. Let love be his guide.

Gaius falls for Ni­comedes, but duty pre­vents him from, as Ni­comedes urges him to, stay. Had Ni­comedes’ sen­sual en­tice­ments worked, Cae­sar might not have gone on to slaugh­ter 1 mil­lion men in Gaul, and his­tory might have been rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent.

Har­ri­son was, him­self, a Ni­comedes who re­fused to deny him­self an abun­dance of plea­sures, and he put much of what he knew and loved into “Young Cae­sar.” That is what got him into trou­ble.

This be­gan with the Gor­don’s orig­i­nal li­bretto, which was long on nar­ra­tive and just plain long. Har­ri­son’s ini­tial idea had been that the opera would be East­ern in as­pect, with Asian in­stru­ments along with some home­made ones, and recita­tive chant­ing rem­i­nis­cent of the Chi­nese opera he en­joyed go­ing to while grow­ing up in the Bay Area. There was much more, and over the years as the opera ac­crued West­ern in­stru­ments, a cho­rus and arias, it blos­somed into a mag­nif­i­cent hy­brid of East and West, with nods his­tor­i­cally from El­iz­a­bethan mu­sic and Han­del to the present. It was al­ways thought, how­ever great the charm, an im­pos­si­ble mess.

What Sharon and crew came up with, in this new, 112-minute ver­sion of two acts per­formed with­out break, is not a mess but a cel­e­bra­tion. There is now a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing, and the crew is the key. Sharon re­tains some­thing from all the ver­sions and then adds his own glosses, giv­ing Cae­sar ev­ery rea­son in the world to be daz­zled.

One in­sight was to have tra­di­tional in­stru­ments dom­i­nate the first act, which takes place in Rome, while the Asian ones (most tra­di­tional Chi­nese) and home­made bells and the like are re­served for ex­otic Bithy­nia and ex­otic sex.

The opera’s nar­ra­tion al­ways has been a prob­lem, but the nar­ra­tor here is an­other in­spi­ra­tion. The hi­lar­i­ous Bruce Vi­lanch, seated on a lounge chair, cock­tail in hand, might have been a cross be­tween Percy Dove­ton­sils (Ernie Ko­vacs’ out­landish im­per­son­ation of a poet on his 1950s tele­vi­sion show) and the de­light­fully plea­sure-lov­ing com­poser.

Pup­petry was re­tained, this time shadow pup­pets pro­jected be­hind a screen against clever animation that takes its im­pe­tus from Har­ri­son’s own graphic il­lus­tra­tions. Yes, for an orgy scene, phal­luses did mer­rily fly. A ramp sur­rounded the mu­si­cians for singers and dancers. The dancers were male, scant­ily dressed as for a gay pride pa­rade, and chore­ographed with flair by Danny Dolan.

The cos­tumes by Daniel Selon, who also de­signed the pup­pets, in­cluded goofy to­gas and fright wigs, but noth­ing so silly as to pre­vent mov­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tions from the singers, all of whom ex­celled. Adam Fisher’s Gaius touch­ingly flow­ered from gullible teenager to sen­sual lover to war­rior. Hadleigh Adams em­pha­sized wist­ful wis­dom, not lech­ery, as Ni­comedes. Nancy Maultsby (Gaius’ pushy aunt Ju­lia), De­laram Ka­mareh (Gaius’ wife, Cor­nelia) and Timur (Gaius’ slave­boy Diony­sus) brought sub­tle touches to their short arias.

The arias are among the glo­ries of Har­ri­son’s score, these brief, lyric med­i­ta­tions on some­thing beau­ti­ful or mean­ing­ful in life (be­com­ing a man, grasp­ing a daugh­ter, tak­ing chances). The recita­tives that had been thought to be the opera’s longueurs here were shown to be, in fact, as sub­tly in­flected as Gre­go­rian chant.

But it is the or­ches­tra that holds the great­est glo­ries of all. Har­ri­son had as much a ge­nius for pro­ces­sion­als and dances as he did for haunt­ing in­tro­spec­tion, and he took full ad­van­tage of his won­drous col­lec­tion of in­stru­ments. Trum­pets and per­cus­sion thrilled. Harp and vi­olin and flute so­los pro­duced mo­ments of de­li­cious in­ti­macy. An up­right pi­ano with tacks on its strings did not sound bar­rel­house tacky but mys­te­ri­ous. The in­stru­men­tal col­ors never stopped chang­ing.

If all of this seems an ex­trav­a­gance for one per­for­mance, it was an ex­trav­a­gance of ne­ces­sity. If you weren’t there you missed it. But this was ex­actly what will get the word out.

Some­one will pick up the pro­duc­tion. Oth­ers will do the opera. And they’ll know to do it be­cause the per­for­mance was recorded live for dig­i­tal re­lease, prob­a­bly early next year.

“Young Cae­sar” lives.

Glenn Koenig Los An­ge­les Times

ADAM FISHER por­trays Cae­sar op­po­site Nancy Maultsby as the young man’s aunt Ju­lia in Tues­day’s pro­duc­tion by the L.A. Phil­har­monic and the In­dus­try.

Glenn Koenig Los An­ge­les Times

SHADOW PUP­PETS de­pict Cae­sar, left, and King Ni­comedes in a re­worked ver­sion of “Young Cae­sar.”

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