Going back in time can be a real trip. The retrospective offered by Long Beach Opera in Hydrogen Jukebox promised to be not just a “level 1 or 2 trip…you can get that at any legal dispensary,” but “level 4 or 5 psychedelics, where the world is curved and warped, objects talk to you, time becomes meaningless and suddenly you feel yourself at one with the human race,” as LBO General Manager and Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek put it in his introduction. An opera that isn’t an opera, Hydrogen Jukebox is a collection of 18 poems strung together with music by Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass in 1989 as a counterculture commentary on world politics from the 50’s thru the 80’s. LBO’s production excised two of the poems and re-ordered the sequence of the others to arrive at the final 90-minute arrangement which was performed on May 30th.
Hydrogen Jukebox evokes a world alienated, on the brink of apocalypse, driven there by the greed and corruption of governments that willingly sacrifice their country’s children to the modern gods of industry, war and political power. As Glass said to Ginsberg at the outset of their collaboration, “If [politicians] aren’t going to talk about the issues, then we should.”
Long Beach Opera thrives on the unconventional, and Hydrogen Jukebox certainly fits into that “unbox”, forwarding their commitment to advance the frontiers of opera by offering avant-garde or neglected works. They maximized the impact of the presentation by utilizing a quirky, non-traditional venue. In fact, the event really started en route to the theater with the slight discomfort that comes from traveling to an unknown destination – crossing the Vincent Thomas Bridge overlooking the hub of commerce that is the Port of LA; coming down Harbor Blvd. in San Pedro past the Battleship USS Iowa in the Main Channel; entering the warehouse district and weaving through obscure driveways and parking lots to the huge, mostly empty cement tilt-up that was to provide our stage.
This was a stage that wasn’t a stage, without curtains, without walls, a rectangular area in the center of a huge warehouse, enclosed on three sides by chairs placed on risers for the audience, open on the fourth to a long wall covered by a white sheet. Large platforms that looked like oversized industrial pallets rolled on and off the performing arena, propelled by six silent men dressed all in white, who seemed at first to be stage hands, but gradually became visible as physical participants in the drama. Six singing characters dressed all in black populated the platforms and performed the poetry to the percussive, undulating, sometimes melodic settings devised by Glass. A twelve-foot-high rolling industrial rack served as a pulpit for the character of The Poet, a non-singing role originally performed by Ginsberg himself and dramatically portrayed in this production by Michael Shamus Wiles in a white caftan, trousers and cap, his stentorian tones a percussive hammer in the mélange of sound.
Amplified instruments and voices combined throughout in hypnotic pulsations, monotonous chanting, yelling and shrieking, synthesized droning, humming, cascading obligatos, endless wailing and angry accusations. Gavin Templeton squirted out wild improvisations on the tenor sax, Neda Kandimirova‘s pounding piano emerged from the shadows on a rolling base to accompany the ravings of The Poet while roving spotlights and colored floods created visual drama from the abstract movement of bodies and equipment. The last poem, “Father Death Blues”, was a series of short, haikus sung a cappella by the six vocalists as short solos or in close voicing. The traditional harmonies, strophic structure, absence of instrumentation and empty spaces between lines in this movement brought the performance intensity way down for the end of the show, making the final connection between performers and audience purely human.
The six “stage hands” dressed in white included Larry Franzen, Corey Hedy, Daniel Lloyd, Matthew Reiner, Anthony Rivera and Joey Ruggiero. Vocalists included sopranos Jamie Chamberlin and Ashley Knight, mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain, tenor Todd Strange and baritones Roberto Perlas Gomez and Jason Switzer. They sang and danced freely, running wildly across the stage or processing in formations, handing out leaflets, chanting and tripping out in solos and ensembles from the relative height of the rolling platforms or from the plain cement floor, giving high energy bodies to the stories of each poem throughout the show. Their voices made the music digestible, bringing poignancy and humanity to the endless repetition of rhythms and pitches.
The poetry itself was hard to follow even though huge lyrics were clearly visible, a graphic element projected onto the fourth wall of the theatre. There was too much going on to be able to concentrate on the meanings of the words in what felt like a psychedelic poetry reading, full of color, sound and movement, suggestive of a drug-induced unreality. The music was mostly in minor keys and themes were primarily cataclysmic, angry and rebellious or dismal and melancholic, with the exception of “The Green Automobile” – an ode to the poet’s youth when he was still laughing and eager, dumbfounded by life and by the beauty of souls – and “Cabin In The Woods”, a floating, meditative suspension of conflict.
Kristof van Grysperre conducted the small instrumental ensemble with sensitivity and grace, tying them and the vocalists seamlessly together. Instrumentalists included Damon Zick on the flute and soprano sax; Gavin Templeton on the soprano and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet; John Magnussen and Paul Sternhagen on percussion; Neda Kandimirova on the piano and synthesizer; Soo-Yeon Park Chang on the synthesizer; and Teri Christian as librarian to the group.
The action was led by innovative, intuitively creative stage director David Schweizer, with lighting design by Dan Weingarten, who established a psychedelic environment without overdoing the effect. Scenic designer Caleb Wertenbaker made his stage out of equipment and props that were natural to the warehouse environment, e.g. The Poet’s oversized industrial rack and the giant rolling pallets. The overall effect evoked the spontaneity of an impromptu poetry reading, setting up in any space available.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff