Many can relate their best summer experiences to happy times outside under the stars, telling tall tales with friends. So it’s fitting that Long Beach Opera brings us the glorious Tibetan tale of King Gesar this month on September 7, 13 and 14. This story, similar to the Western stories of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, takes us on Gesar’s life journey from birth to conquest to victory, finishing with a moral proclamation as King Gesar leaves the world.
The simple setting in the Harry Bridges Memorial Park, at the water’s edge in Long Beach, truly lends itself to the spirit of the show. In artistic director Andreas Mitisek’s pre-concert lecture, he explains the significance of the location to composer Peter Lieberson (1946-2011). As the composer wrote of this work, “King Gesar was conceived as a kind of campfire opera. I visualized a situation akin to Tibetan ‘performances’: the campfire in pitch-black night under the dome of an immense starry sky…” Librettist Douglas Penick reminds readers in his program notes that, “Further, new episodes or new versions of an old episode are still being written and improvised orally. This version you are hearing now is, then, one among a vast stream of Gesar versions and performances that go back over a thousand years.” While the audience was at first subjected to unexpected sounds from nearby festivals, planes and helicopters, the background noises faded away once the show started, as the captivating action on stage took hold.
The compact orchestra, skillfully led by maestro Kristof Van Grysperre, gave color to the spoken poetry. The text painting was most noticeable in the use of the cello, often revealing Gesar’s inner thoughts, or more dramatically, using brass, percussion, piano and piccolo during times of tension. The sound design by Bob Christian allowed the audience to hear a good balance between the orchestra and the characters in a challenging outdoor atmosphere.
As director, Mitisek chose to separate the “Narrator” character into two roles, male and female. These characters were then aided in the storytelling by professional dancers, whose fluid movements gave visualization to the tale. The rhythmic speaking might not be what a listener would first expect from an opera, but the lilting stories became far more important than any melody itself. For context, a video showing the Tibetan epic tradition can be viewed on LBO’s website here.
From the opening entry through the audience, viewers are drawn into the plot. As narrators, Roberto Perlas Gomez and Danielle Marcelle Bond strongly inhabit the masculine and feminine characters that form the story. Ms. Bond’s ability to express the drama with her face and speech was exemplary. Narrators would chant together and apart, ensuring that the quality of the spoken word never sounded monotonous. Singing was used sparsely to expound on important moments in King Gesar’s life. Dancers Javier Gonzalez and Kelly Ray seamlessly share action with the narrators, further enhancing poignant moments in the story. The use of light and shadow was particularly powerful, allowing the dancers to create the breathtaking image of a goddess and warriors who assist Gesar in his epic struggles.
The story of King Gesar contains all that an opera would want for a plot: good vs. evil; strength vs. weakness; plenty of mysticism; and nature’s triumph over all. There are two more performances — take some time this next weekend to see the show, and you will be both uplifted and transported through King Gesar’s timeless tale.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, courtesy of Long Beach Opera. Used by permission.