Oui, elle regrette tout
[Thérèse Raquin, Long Beach Opera]


Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867) is lurid, unrepentantly tawdry, and a potboiler at its core, with all the lust, loathing, murder, desperation, and squalor that implies. It's trappings even include the visitations of an aggrieved and vengeful ghost. It would seem the sort of story destined from birth to find a place in the opera repertoire, and in 2001 composer Tobias Picker gave it one. Originally commissioned by Dallas Opera, and staged by San Diego Opera in 2008, on Saturday evening Picker's Thérèse Raquin opened the 2015 Long Beach Opera season. 

Zola offered his story as a realistic chronicle of squalid conditions and miserable lives in the Paris of his own moment. Director Ken Cazan maintains the Parisian locale, but moves the action forward some eighty years, to 1945-46 as the city, with the rest of Europe, struggles back to life from war and occupation. As conceit go it is a good conceit, and the mid-century look of the production also quietly evokes an American literary parallel: the novels of James M. Cain in which, as in Zola, characters are ground down by their own mistakes or, as commonly, by societal and family conditions they did not make, cannot control, and seem barely to understand.


Zola's tale is pitiless: Thérèse was left at the age of three to be raised by her aunt, the widowed Madame Raquin, whose life is otherwise devoted to ruling over her sickly son, Thérèse's cousin, Camille. It is foreordained that the cousins should marry. They do, and continue to live in the Raquin flat, where Thursday dominoes with the neighbors are the only unvarying variance in a dismal routine. Thérèse falls in with Camille's raffish office mate, the aspiring "painter" Laurent. Camille, inevitably, is murdered by the lovers: drowned in a boating excursion on the Seine. Laurent and Thérèse, still living off of Madame Raquin's widow's pension, marry and fall swiftly into debilitating mutual loathing and regret. Camille's ghost—given here an unforeseen Act II entrance worthy of Freddie Krueger—perturbs them mightily. At length, just as they are inclining to kill one another, they instead kill themselves. Tres jolienon?

Gene Scheer is the librettist, and he has provided a clean, efficient tour through the necessary events of the tale. The libretto is structurally sound as can be, but Scheer has chosen, inexplicably and with surprising frequency, to set much of the dialogue as loose-limbed rhymed couplets. While Picker typically avoids lapsing into sing-song to accommodate the rhymes (except when some of the supporting characters are actually supposed to be singing wedding-night doggerel), the too-obvious rhyme frequently threatens to undercut the seriousness of the characters' situation.


Picker's score is also a clean and efficient thing, amply allusive without lowering itself to pastiche. Act 1, in particular, revels in evocations of Debussy and Ravel—Laurent's seductive anecdote of being "persuaded" to include a comely young woman in one of his pictures is a veritable  après-midi d'un  flâneur. The second act, post-murder, grows more angular, highlighted by Camille's "ghost aria," which borrows effectively from the bottomless melancholy of Peter Quint in Britten's The Turn of the Screw. If it is not pioneering, the music is rarely less than an effective carrier of the drama.

The cast in this production, the majority in their first appearance with Long Beach Opera, are solid as can be. As a character, Thérèse poses the challenge of being far more acted upon than active; Mary Ann Stewart is amply sympathetic against the odds, grasping for a personal freedom she can barely imagine. As Camille, Matthew DiBattista effectively contrasts an ineffectual lumpishness against a bitter last fight against death and, finally, an urgent and physical grotesquerie from beyond the grave in the showpiece ghost aria. Ed Parks's Laurent is less clever than he imagines himself, casually unfeeling when he imagines he is being most sincere; not a bad man, but a man who makes very poor choices.

Suzan Hanson captures the misguided strictness of Madame Raquin, who never acknowledges her smothering effect on those around her. When her character falls silent, victim of a stroke induced by the discovery of Laurent and Thérèse's guilt (and a brutal confrontation with Laurent), she serves as silent foil to the guilty and to the oblivious as the drama snakes to its end.


To their credit, Picker and Sheer have taken the supporting parts of the neighbors seriously, giving a fair portion of humanity to parts that could have been caricatures. Zeffin Quinn Hollis is the good natured gendarme Olivier, unable even to suspect the guilt of the killers, with Ani Maldjian as his touchingly rootless spouse. John Matthew Myers is the much-married, jovially clueless Monsieur Grivet.

All told Thérèse Raquin works well as an opera. If it's path through desperation and folly to death and confusion is not new, it is certainly well retold. As Bugs Bunny famously observed, "Whaddaya expect from an opera? A happy ending?" To which one can only reply in this case: Non, je ne regrette rien.



Thérèse Raquin repeats at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro on Sunday, February 1, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]

Cross-posted to Genre, I'm Dancing.




A Midsummer Night's Temblor


Timing is everything. On Saturday evening, Long Beach Opera staged the long-delayed Los Angeles premiere of John Adams' I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, and the concatenation of that piece's concerns with contemporaneous events lent to it a weight and complexity that, frankly, it likely does not warrant on its own merits.

Ceiling/Sky, as it is often known, was created by Adams in collaboration with poet-activist June Jordan under the auspices of director Peter Sellars, which whom the composer had worked closely in the creation and staging of his earlier operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (both of which Long Beach Opera has performed in recent years). As with the operas, the piece takes a current event as its starting point. Premiering in Berkeley in 1995, Ceiling/Sky turns on the Northridge earthquake that thundered beneath the Los Angeles area the previous year.

Ceiling/Sky is not actually about the earthquake, which does not even occur until nearly two thirds of the way through the piece. When the seismic shift finally puts in its appearance, it serves as little more than a random opportunity for personal growth on the part of the story's seven characters, who by that point are as intertwined as they are ill defined.


The dramatic frame of Ceiling/Sky is one that is by now familiar from a certain type of very serious and earnest film and television drama: a group of characters, each defined principally by ethnicity or gender or political affiliation and otherwise bearing little in the way of individual personality, are brought together through the altogether random intersection of their life paths. Here, a "young black man" named Dewain, with a history of run-ins with law enforcement, shoplifts two bottles of beer while enroute to see Consuelo, the undocumented Salvadoran refugee with whom he has fathered a seven-month old child. Dewain is arrested by Mike, an LAPD officer on patrol in the company of Tiffany, a television journalist who takes more than professional interest in his person. Facing a "third strike" that will send him to prison for most of his life, Dewain is represented by public defender Rick, the U.S.-born son of Vietnamese refugees. Consuelo has been receiving birth control advice from community activist Leila, who in turn is romantically enmeshed with David, a charismatic, if philandering, inner city preacher. There is then an earthquake. Lives are changed, deep realizations are realized—Mike the cop acknowledges and embraces his gay identity, for example, and Consuelo elects to return to political engagement in El Salvador. The story ends with the characters' life paths re-forking in their separate new found directions.

Twenty years on, the details have changed but the political and societal concerns at play in Ceiling/Sky remain sadly unresolved. The fraught potential of encounters between white law enforcement and young black men has been driven home again by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Young Central Americans continue to cross the U.S. border fleeing criminal or government violence in their homelands. Even the earthquake itself became suddenly topical again when the town of Napa and surounding wine country were struck with a 6.0 shock within hours after Saturday's performance.


Relevance and progressive politics, however, do not in themselves create credible theater. Ceiling/Sky ultimately fails as persuasive drama because its characters are barely more than stick figures bearing their identities as placards. Politically informed drama is hard to pull off, the weight of symbolism and rhetorical point tending to pull away from the compelling portrayal of actual humans. June Jordan did not navigate those hazards with nearly the success that was achieved by Alice Goodman in her (imperfect, but nevertheless more successful) libretti for Nixon and Klinghoffer

John Adams' score, on the other hand, is peculiarly compelling. Adams calls the piece a "song play," which could be taken as a literal translation of the German singspiel, i.e., the mix of high and low music theater traditions that yielded up Magic Flute. The magic and spectacle of Mozart are not on display in Ceiling/Sky, but the coupling of music hall, dance hall, and concert hall traditions certainly is. The 20 songs that tell the story swing and shuffle, groove and grind, with neominimalist pulse and drone as their dates for the evening, a pleasingly heady and singspielische mix of street and nonstreet strains. The reliance on electronic keyboards is occasionally too period-specific, verging on the cheesy, but not to such an extent as to undercut the entirety of the score.

Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducted the ensemble with exemplary skill, and the ensemble responded with what seemed to be as compelling an account of the score as could be wished. The performances of musicians and singing actors were across the board entirely compelling: better, really, than the piece itself. In a world full of mediocre accounts of great works, it was refreshing to encounter a strong and committed account of a less-than-great one.


I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky was a one-off performance, under the auspices of Los Angeles County's Ford Theatres. Which is to say, if you weren't there you won't be given another opportunity.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.


Nothing Is As It Disappears


Long Beach Opera is not a company that regularly revives past productions, but it is currently making an exception with a return of David Lang's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which it originally staged in 2011. At that time, I foamed and raved more than somewhat in my enthusiasm for the piece and the performance. Revisiting it again this past weekend, I found it to be if anything even more impressive than it had been three years ago.

Below is a revised edition of what I wrote in 2011, with deletions, elisions, corrections, and additions as seem appropriate. There are only two more performances, for which tickets are (as it were) Difficult to obtain, but well worth the attempt.


For those few who will have the opportunity to see it, Long Beach Opera’s southern California premiere staging of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field should stand, easily, as one of the most singularly compelling musical or dramatic productions to be offered in these parts this year. Or perhaps I should say that it will stand uneasily, because unease and uncertainty, the unresolvable conjoined with the unmentionable, lie at its heart.

Difficulty hangs on the slimmest of narrative threads, a 750-word story by Ambrose Bierce in which Mr. Williamson, a plantation owner in 1854 near Selma, Alabama, one day sets out to walk across one of his fields to deliver an instruction and, in plain view of witnesses, disappears. The witnesses are astonished; Williamson’s wife loses her wits, either on the spot or shortly after. There is an inquiry by the law.  Bierce gives the oddly redacted testimony of Williamson’s neighbor, Mr. Wren, and attorney readers in particular will appreciate Bierce’s way with the shaky reliability of eyewitnesses.  Bierce reports flatly in his final sentence that Williamson was declared dead, his property distributed according to law. What has happened is never explained: “It is not the purpose of this narrative,” Bierce writes midway, “to answer that question.”

The stage version originated as a commission from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and premiered in a small alternative space in San Francisco in 2002. The music is by David Lang, one third of New York's Bang on a Can and recent Pulitzer Prize winner for The Little Match Girl Passion.  The text is by playwright Mac Wellman. Between them, Lang and Wellman collect the cryptic fragments of Mr. Williamson’s disappearance and spin them into something even more cryptic. In a pre-performance talk [in 2011], David Lang noted that Wellman’s libretto includes at least once every word in Bierce’s original.  Wellman’s most critical contribution is to give voice to those whose testimony is pointedly not sought out or considered to be of interest in Bierce’s story: Williamson’s young daughter (a babe in arms in the tale, a soprano here), the now-disturbed Mrs. Williamson and, above all, Mr. Wren’s house slave Boy Sam and Mr. Williamson’s own field slaves. Bierce, again:

Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. . . .  None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions [sic], originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

David Lang scored the piece for string quartet, specifically the Kronos Quartet in the original production. (In Long Beach, the score receives a highly capable and sympathetic treatment at the hands of the Lyris Quartet, conducted [in 2011] by Benjamin Makino [and in this revival by Kristof Van Grysperre].) The music is rooted in contemporary minimalism, with discrete melodic shards repeating in shifting relation to one another. Like that of Philip Glass, Lang's minimalist method is remarkably fluid, and able to shift instantly from jittery nervousness to chanting mysticism to lyrical melanchol. It melds well with the parallel technique of Wellman's text, in which key phrases recur and recur, their seeming significance altered by the other phrases that move around them. "We are constructing a nation," the field slaves sing early on; moments later, the phrase has become more ominous: "We are constructing an erasure."


For once not wielding the conductor's baton, Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek has designed and directed a production that brings out all the ineffable mystery Difficulty carries about its person. * * * [T]he audience is seated on the stage [of Long Beach's Terrace Theater] and the performance takes place on the segmented elevator in the orchestra pit, and within the dim and cavernous space beyond.  A long ramp, illuminated from below, runs out into the house, and it is along that ramp that Mr. Williamson disappears. The investigating magistrate, bat-like shadows behind him, presides over his inquiry from the upper balcony. The rows of theater seats echo the rows of crops that are tended by the field slaves, who approach through mist out of the darkness to share their piece of the mystery. Mitisek has made a habit of staging opera in unusual spaces, or of using the available space in unexpected ways; this [was and remains perhaps] his neatest scenic conceit [ever].


The cast is uniformly impressive. Suzan Hanson * * * is mad again as Mrs. Williamson. She is perched high atop a stool or ladder, rising and descending in the pit, her enormous skirts spreading out over the ground around her as she tries to grasp what has happened to all she once took for granted. Mrs. Williamson's music is the most "operatic" in the piece, and Hanson's rich and subtle soprano (and her rich and subtle dramatic chops) entrance as they disturb. As the young Williamson girl, Valerie Vinzant spends her time on the floor drawing and recalling the last thing her father said to her—"What is the point of talking crap like that?"—in response to her Cassandra-like suggestion that the horses know something important and must be understood. Lang has given the character music as lovely as anything in the piece, and Vinzant sings it rivetingly.


The field slaves are central to Difficulty and the [mostly new nine]-member ensemble gathered in Long Beach is a powerful one[, particularly Karole Foreman as the woman known as Virginia Creeper, the slaves' ritual centerpoint, and Michael Paul Smith as the unnamed field hand obliged to recite his masters' rules and regulations.] As [the house slave] Boy Sam, Eric B. Anthony impresses with an eery high tenor, unsure what he has seen and whether he should share it (as if the whites would even listen if he did). 

Robin Buck * * * returns in the mostly-speaking roles of Mr. Wren and of Williamson's brother/overseer, through whom we learn that Williamson favored the unyieldingly harsh philosophies of John C. Calhoun in the "management" of his slave population. In separate scenes, each of Buck's characters provides testimony contradictory of the other, neither getting any grip on what may have occurred.


Mr. Williamson himself, and the investigating magistrate, both non-singing roles, are played by Long Beach stalwart Mark Bringelson. Stern, humorless and puritanical as the magistrate, grotesque in the manner of little men with undeserved power as Williamson, Bringelson is a compelling pivot round whom the other characters' plans and reactions turn. Moreover, he brings a surprising grace to his character's actual disappearance, giving away nothing while becoming nothing.

So what, we ask, has actually happened? Did Mr. Williamson light out for the territory? Was he swallowed by a particularly subtle and efficient sinkhole? Beamed up by aliens? Is he the Don Giovanni of Selma, Alabama, hauled away in a trice to pay for his sins? None can say. These are [among] the Mysteries of Selma, Alabama.

To return:  * * * Difficulty * * *[is] shudderingly fine, as a work and as a production [and left me yet again] in a condition of awe-struck wonder. * * * 


Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, from the 2014 production; used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.  

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  


A View to Achille
[The Death of Klinghoffer, Long Beach Opera]


Controversy is a distorting lens. To the degree that a creative work becomes known as "controversial," it is that much more difficult to see and assess the actual work. That there was a riot (they say) at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps tells us little or nothing about the Sacre, or how we should value it. That a given artist's work was caught up in the U.S. "culture wars" of the 1980s reflects neither well nor poorly on the quality of the art: the controversy swept up art both good (Mapplethorpe) and less good (Serrano, in the view of this blogger), without distinguishing between or caring to address those qualities.

Given this,

  • Step #1 in approaching John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer—now receiving its first-ever southern California production, via Long Beach Opera, many long years after Los Angeles Opera co-commissioned but ultimately decided not to stage it—should be to forget for a time that the opera has been marked as Controversial since its premiere in 1991.

  • Step #2 is, if you have the opportunity, to go, see and hear it for yourself, because it is a complex, imperfect, but worthy artistic creation deserving of your attention and assessment, because it has taken twenty years to get a full staging in this part of the world, and particularly because we are unlikely to have it on offer here again any time soon.

There is one more performance, this coming Saturday.


Part opera, part oratorio, The Death of Klinghoffer meditates upon the events of October, 1985, when four members of the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, holding crew and passengers hostage for several days while attempting to negotiate for the release of Paletinian prisoners held by Israel. On the second day, the hijackers shot and killed 69-year old Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American retiree on a late-life vacation with his wife. His body and wheelchair were both thrown overboard. Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Alice Goodman's libretto touches on these events—with an added overlay focusing on the ship's Captain and his efforts by calm and by focus to resolve the situation without loss to crew or crowd—and wraps them in a series of grand choruses, the massed singers voicing the hopes and angers and faiths and rages of Israel and Palestine. Indeed almost twenty minutes are consumed, before the plot per se begins, with the paired "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians" and "Chorus of Exiled Jews." The choruses are underlain with some of the most elaborately fine and varied music of Adams's extensive career; the "Night Chorus" that ends Act One shares a clear lineage with the great John Donne setting "Batter My Heart" that is the highlight of the later Doctor Atomic. 

It is Goodman's libretto that has been the flash point for "controversy" surrounding Klinghoffer, criticized as unbalanced in favor of the Palestinians and insufficiently critical of the hijackers' actions. The opera premiered a mere five years after the events it portrays, so that the wounds specific to the Achille Lauro incident were more raw than they are today. That the hijackers of 1985 utilized menace and violence as quid pro quo in pursuit of concrete demands (the release of prisoners) feels almost quaint or old-fashioned now, in an era in which death—whether by suicide bomb or transit station attack or the large-scale horror of September 11—seems more commonly wielded for its own sake.  In any case, Klinghoffer avoids taking particular sides on the political issues, electing instead to simply present them: reportage prevails over advocacy. The opera certainly does not endorse the hijacking itself or attempt to justify the murder of Leon Klinghoffer: even if the hijackers' cause is accepted as just, it is plain that their self-perceived righteousness and zeal has made monsters of them. There is an implicit pacifism lying beneath the entire drama, a rejection of violence as an acceptable method in support of any cause, noble or ignoble. The figure of the Captain, in fact, in his unsatisfying effort to extricate his ship from danger by logic and moral suasion, echoes a figure in an earlier pacifist work, another well-meaning commander who cannot stop death and injustice: Britten's Captain Vere in Billy Budd.



In an atypical move for a company that generally goes its own way, LBO has imported the production of Klinghoffer helmed by James Robinson in 2011 for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. This was the first new fully staged production in this country in nearly twenty years, since the last performance of the original Peter Sellars version of the piece. A group of imposing panels echoing the hull of the ship slide and turn as the principal elements of the set. A screen rises and falls bearing projections of sea, sand and, most memorably, the empty wheelchair of Leon Klinghoffer sinking into the depths, spinning slowly slowly as it goes. The wheelchair figures as well in a startling, too-brief effect in the seconds before the opera begins.

Klinghoffer has been preceded in Long Beach in earlier seasons by two other notable post-Minimal operas: Adams's Nixon in China and Philip Glass's Akhnaten.In all three, substantial musical and dramatic weight must be borne the Chorus. As in those prior productions, the Chorus in Klinghoffer Impresses out of proportion to its size, negotiating a complex musical rhetoric with variety and point.

As the earnest but ultimately ineffectual Captain, Lee Gregory exhibits dignity, fine posture, and gravitas, especially when obliged to convey to Marilyn Klinghoffer after the hijackers' departure the admission that her husband has been murdered. Three subsidiary passengers—a Swiss grandmother, a haughty Austrian surviving on the fruit basket in her cabin and dismissing the "idiots" around her, and a dancing girl who thinks one of the attackers was really a bit of a gentleman about it—are all sung by Danielle Marcelle Bond. These characters seem an odd stab at comic relief in a piece that is otherwise relentlessly dour and serious. Ms. Bond individualizes each of them, making the most of the awkward material she has been dealt.

Of the four hijackers, two stand out. The leader of the group, Mamoud, is sung by Jason Switzer. Although the actual hijackers were men in their 20s, Mr Switzer's Mamoud is older, more thoughtful perhaps, committed to his cause but troubled and flustered when the plan is not so easily carried off as it might be. The role of Omar, written for mezzo soprano, falls to Peabody Southwell. Omar has one furious monologue, a slow burning declaration of ruthlessness that here evolves into the videotaping of a propaganda piece—modeled at least partly on contemporary "martyrdom videos"—Omar smoldering on the verge of explosion, wrapped in a Palestinian flag. 

Robin Buck and Suzan Hanson bring to their interactions as the Klinghoffers the same sincere regard and fathomless affection that marked their performances as another longtime married couple in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Each of the Klinghoffers is granted two arias: Leon Klinghoffer pivots from a praise of their comfortable normalcy to a stern confrontation with his captors before being wheeled below where he will be killed, and is granted an apotheosis of sorts in the "Aria of the Falling Body"; Marilyn Klinghoffer sings of her closeness with Leon, their lives together, and the pains and fear with which she is afflicted, and is given the opera's final word, lashing out at the Captain for "welcoming" the men who killed her husband and at the world at large for having done too little to save him, ending in the wish that she should have been the one to have died. In Mr. Buck's hands, Leon Klinghoffer is a humane and decent man, and his offstage death all the more pointless and moving for it. Ms. Hanson's Marilyn is heartbreakingly exposed, her roar of grief and rage never to be answered and ultimately unanswerable.



Tickets are available for the remaining performance, on Saturday, March 22, at 2:00 p.m., in the Terrace Theater, Long Beach.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]  

  • Kling-4456
  • Kling-7308
  • Kling-7289
  • Kling-4153
  • Kling-7035
  • Kling-4153
  • Kling-4200



Grim Grinning Ghosts Come Out to Vocalize
[Pacific Opera Project: The Turn of the Screw]

  Be not hysterical about that staring man beneath the stairs.

Down an industrial side street south of downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from the heart of Skid Row, there is opera being made, and made well, this past weekend and next. The location is the theater inside the unexpectedly situated Inner-City Arts, and the occasion is Pacific Opera Project [POP] staging Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

POP is that grand quixotic thing, the plucky/spunky opera company. Founded little more than two years ago, POP's first production was a supremely intimate version of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti with props and sets more or less literally crafted from cardboard cutouts. I saw it, and I liked it, as much because of its "poor theatre" qualities as despite them, but I did not know then that the company would hang in and grow as, it seems, it has. With Turn of the Screw, POP now has nine productions to its name, including all three Mozart-Da Ponte operas—and only one Puccini, which is all to the good.

Turn of the Screw is a change of pace for the company, which since Tahiti has stuck to the generally-hummable repertoire (and will continue to do so with a Carmen in March). The company's Artistic Director/prodction director Josh Shaw and Musical Director/conductor Stephen Karr have taken Turn of the Screw head on and done all that is needed to put up a production that, while it forges no new ground in its conceptual approach, is compelling from beginning to end and shows off to full advantage a piece that is certainly. between Britten's music and the near-perfect construction of Myfanwy Piper's libretto, one of the very finest music dramas of the 20th Century.

Straitened resources notwithstanding, POP's production is in no sense "backwater opera." Rather, it does credit to everyone involved in its creation.


We have been fortunate in Los Angeles in recent decades to have two very good productions of Turn of the Screw via Los Angeles Opera. (Here are my thoughts on the better and most recent of them, in 2011.) Even those, however, had to fight not to lose impact in a house as large as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. One of the virtues of POP's production is to restore the opera to its proper "chamber" size, and to a scale where its effects and subtleties are more readily received by the audience. The results are consistently gripping.

The stage area is shallow, but also wide and tall, with a balcony that wraps around to the audience's right. Resourceful use of screens, scrims, shadows and windows adds depth and variety to the playing space. (Josh Shaw serves as designer as well as director, with lighting by Ryan Shull.) The forestage is occupied by blue fabric that, with the aid of fans and light, transforms as needed into the grim lake where the spirit of the late Miss Jessel first makes herself known.

The orchestra—Britten's full complement of thirteen—hidden in almost plain sight on the upper level, won through convincingly against a tricksy score at Saturday's opening performance. The percussion was occasionally out of balance and a touch clangy, and one or to string passages went foggy, but the reeds and harp particularly carried the evening.


After their fashion, the tenor roles Britten wrote for companion Peter Pears make demands on the singer as idiosyncratic as the Wagnerian heldentenor parts, and not every tenor adapts to them creditably. In the Pearsian dual role of the Prologue and Peter Quint, Clay Hilley was more than creditable, wittily spooky and poignantly heartsick by turns as the ghostly valet, more misunderstood perhaps than actually wicked. As young Miles, the object of Quint's attention in the living world, soprano Ariel Downs strikes the right balance of charm, boyishness, and ambiguously implied decadence, particularly in the "Malo" song and the spine-tingle conclusion of Act I. (Ms. Downing is making a small specialty of playing young boys, having also done so in The Industry's "(First Take)" program last summer.)

Rebecca Sjöwall portrays the beset and possibly unhinging Governess with the necessary blend of earnestness, resolve and stark panic, particularly in the pinpoint shift from triumph to utter despair in the opera's final crisis. Mrs. Grose (Jennifer Wallace), the housekeeper whose opinions of the departed Quint set the Governess's concerns racing, is more fully characterized and less of a cipher here than is often the case, each turn of her well meaning confusion projected with clarity. Marina Harris is the appropriately moody Miss Jessel, no happier in death than she seems to have been in life, and Katy Tang completes the ensemble as the alternatively sparkly and sullen Flora. 

With The Turn of the Screw, POP seals its place as a welcome addition to Los Angeles-area music community, reaffirming that "size isn't everything" and that it deserves to be judged as a peer alongside larger and longer established groups. The committed effort and inventiveness invested by all concerned in this production returns ample and lingering musical and dramatic satisfaction. Wider attention should be paid to POP and these performers in future.

The remaining performances of The Turn of the Screw are scheduled for the evenings of January 17 and 18, with a matinee to close out the run on January 19. Tickets [if they have not yet sold out] can be sought out here.



Photos by Martha Benedict, procured via Pacific Opera Project on Facebook.

Disclosures: Jennifer Wallace (Mrs. Grose) is, as the reader may have guessed, the blogger's sister. Every effort has been bent to maintaining objectivity notwithstanding the compelling fact of consanguinity. The blogger attended this performance as a paying customer, at his own expense. The first person singular and the active voice will be reassumed by the blogger in due time.


The Geography of Melancholy
Christopher Cerrone: Invisible Cities
The Industry, Los Angeles Union Station

Vapors of empire
Music, drama, art and technology conjoin and entwine in the world premiere production of Christopher Cerrone's opera, Invisible Cities, which opened at and in Los Angeles Union Station on Saturday evening, presented by operatic innovators The Industry. The production's successes are many, and such weaknesses as it has are intriguing in themselves. Whether or not it shows the way to a new mode of opera presentation, Invisible Cities is a richly fascinating expression of a multifold and rewarding new work. The original announced performances, through November 8, are reported to be sold out, but there is some possibility of additional dates being added.

Spirito serenissima

The work itself is a rich and marvelous thing, an opera of quick intelligence, resonant emotional depth, and lingering ambiguity. The libretto adapted by the composer from the novel by Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities emulates its source in having no conventional plot to speak of: it turns on a series of conversations between the emperor Kublai Khan and his Venetian merchant visitor and emissary, Marco Polo. The Khan's empire has grown so great that it is impossible for him to know it completely, beyond the certainty that it must fade. That the emperor might know more, Polo tells him of the many cities that Polo claims he has seen in his travels. The cities themselves are beyond knowing and, indeed, beyond belief: cities built on stilts and aerial walkways, cities in which every room is filled to its ceiling with sand, cities unheard of by the people who live there, abandoned cities, cities of the dead or the dying or the unremembered. Calvino spins out dozens of these cities; Cerrone's libretto focuses on three—Isidora, city of spirals and many women; Armilla, a lost city of water pipes inhabited by nymphs; and Adelma, whose citizens resemble those the traveler knows to be already dead—plus the equally unbelievable Venice, which Polo fears he may lose by speaking of it.

Polo and the emperor are themselves fictional inventions of Calvino and the librettist in this context, of course, and they cast doubt on whether they are really who they claim themselves to be even under those qualified conditions. Polo departs to return to Venice in the end, urging his host to continue to search for what is worth remembering and to hold to it. (In a move reminiscent of Britten's use of Yeats, Cerrone interpolates the famous lines from Eliot's "Little Gidding," that the end of exploration "will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Invisible supertitle

Kublai Khan (Cedric Berry) and Marco Polo (Ashley Faatoalia) are the only named characters. Two women, Woman 1 and Woman 2, sing as representatives of the cities, and a four-member mixed chorus enwraps and fills vocal space as required. In addition to the singers, the cast encompasses eight dancers from LA Dance Project, the company recently founded here by Benjamin Millepied (choreographed here by Danielle Agami).

The musical forces deployed consist of an 11-piece orchestra centered on prepared and unprepared pianos, harp and assorted percussion, supported by a small complement of strings and wind instruments. The music wends and spills over it banks in a wash of sad enchantment and chastened reflection. A sampling from the opera's seven scenes can be heard here. It is, to leap ahead and oversimplify, a beautiful and resonant piece that merits a continuing life after this premiere.

The invisible orchestra
The musical satisfactions in its score should make Invisible Cities a recurring pleasure simply to listen to*, but how does one translate that into engaging live theater? The central challenge in staging Invisible Cities is that the absence of "plot-plot"—action and incident—might make it appear static and uneventful in a traditional proscenium setting. Director Yuval Sharon and The Industry have finessed that challenge in an inspired move: using wireless sound technology, they have untethered the singers from the players and from one another, and similarly untethered the audience from the performers, and set them all free (within bounds) to roam an open ended space, performing and experiencing the opera together without a need for actual physical proximity.

The space in question is Los Angeles Union Station, formerly the southwestern terminus for the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, and still a busy regional rail and transit hub. Each audience member was provided a high-end wireless Sennheiser headset, and each heard the same opera at the same time. The orchestra and singers were fully mic'd and equipped with discreet earpieces of their own. Their performances were fed into a sophisticated mixing console to be transmitted back out to them and to the audience. The lot of us (other than the stay-at-home orchestra in the terminal's historic Fred Harvey restaurant space) wandered about, looking to find one another and to see what might be seen while the musical end of the performance played out in our heads. Throughout, the station continued its regular evening operations: passengers arriving, passengers departing, travelers and the displaced alike sitting, waiting, sleeping, watching as bits and pieces of an opera broke out around them.

The dancers from the dance

The audience was first convened in the restaurant to be greeted and to hear the overture—during a period when he had little hope of the opera being produced, Christopher Cerrone spun off the overture as an independent piece, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed as part of its "Brooklyn Festival" earlier this year—at the end of which we were set loose about the premises.

Three principal terminal spaces were used in the performance: the main concourse and waiting area, a pair of outdoor courtyards on either side, and the enormous original ticketing lobby of the station, which is typically used today only as a site for film shoots. Polo and Kublai Khan began in separate parts of the complex, eventually meeting face to face in the concluding scene. Each began in contemporary dress, the great Khan a seemingly humble figure in a wheelchair. How long he had sat there pre-performance, unnoticed, who can say. Unless you spotted his earpieces and mic, he would have looked like any other injured or disabled passer-through. Polo began, and remained, in baseball cap, flannel shirt and red ski vest, occasionally checking his phone or settling at a table to sip a glass of water. 

The two Women were in motion through the evening, in an array of more costume-like robes and dresses. Masks were donned for singing of Venice. The chorus and dancers, variously bedecked as travelers from various points in the past century, appeared and disappeared, rising from the crowd or discovered mopping a floor or repacking a suitcase. The action played out in multiple locations simultaneously, so no attendee could see everything that was happening at any given moment. The emperor eventually rose and walked, disappearing for a time at the far end of the now befogged ticketing cavern. with the dancers and Women as subtle guides, the entire audience found its way to that room by independent routes, to find Kublai Khan emerging in full imperial regalia for his farewell to Polo.

Xanadu station
Farewell to the merchant of venice

Although the technical end of the evening's project was carried off with impressive elan, it was not perfect: it may have been only my own headset, but I was beset by occasional random interference that, when it occurred, distracted from the immersive feel of the performance. The headset itself grew slightly tiresome in extended use, but removing it to let air into the porches of sweaty ears meant no longer hearing any singer not in the immediate vicinity nor the orchestra secreted in another building. Since the piece is definitely worth hearing in its entirety—and required extra attention on this first occasion simply by virtue of being new and previously unheard—even brief interruption was a minor irritant. All that said, the headset generally functioned exactly as promised, and the sound mix as transmitted was particularly well done, with the life and presence one would hope for from a particularly authentic live concert recording. (The singers' microphones even picked up a shading of sound from their immediate surroundings, lending an extra air of ambient verisimilitude to the sound in the headsets.)

I chose to stay on my feet through the 70-minute performance. Others elected to sit down from time to time on their way. The potential aggravation at "not seeing everything that is happening" passed quickly, overcome by the enveloping presence of the music and singing and by the sense of shared adventure or pilgrimage with my fellow travelers. Given that the performance was in such an open and public place, no one was discouraged from photography, and thousands of cell phone photos (such as those in this post) must have been taken, by audience and bystanders both. 

Things not seen

The verdict? On its own terms, this production has to be deemed a solid success. It is a fine piece of operatic writing, performed with grace and vigor by musicians and dancers alike, and the experience of landing in the middle of it was exhilarating. The technology is not perfect, but what is? Even with my quibbles, it delivered very nearly all that was asked of it. Did I mention that the opera itself is really really good? Yes, I suppose I did.

This is not—and, to be fair, was not being sold as— The Future of Opera. The bulk of the repertoire, including work already receiving workshop support from The Industry, would not adapt well to the headset approach. But in this singular case, a fatefully successful meeting of art and technology has indeed paid off. Well played, all.

L'arc d'or

As of opening night, all future performances were reported sold out. There is talk of additional performances, and I would recommend interested readers keep track of the Invisible Cities website linked above for updates.

Photos and rudimentary processing by the blogger.

* The blogger attended this performance as a ticket holder, at his own expense. Additionally, Invisible Cities was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, to which the blogger was a contributor, at a level that promises a complete audio recording of the production. The blogger believes he chose wisely in this regard.

Petals on a wet black bough
Nom de spectacle

Let Us Sit Upon the Ground
and Tell Some Stories of Tibetan Kings
[King Gesar, Long Beach Opera]

A good story, well told, draws the hearer in. Add speech or song, rhythmic sound, rhythmic movement, the play of light and color, perhaps a prop or two, and story becomes theater and such a story, for the duration of its telling, may become to the audience all there is. A compelling tale supplants the world.

That power to make a distracting world disappear was on display on Saturday evening in a park adjacent to the Queen Mary, where Long Beach Opera premiered its production of the late Peter Lieberson's King Gesar.

In the open air, this king found himself potentially in competition with traffic noise, police helicopters, and megahits of the 70s and 80s (Earth Wind & Fire! Billy Idol!) pumping out to the crowd at a dockside Lobster Festival across the narrow stretch of water separating the park from downtown Long Beach. As the performance began, one last helicopter circled and searched for malefactors—somehow appropriate, actually, to an introductory segment complaining of the mechanized awfulness of contemporary life—but then flew off. At that point, either good fortune or the aforementioned power of the tale took hold and this mortal plane fell away for the ensuing hour.

Technically a monodrama—for a single narrator and an octet of two pianos, cello, flute, horn, clarinet, trombone and percussion—Lieberson also characterized King Gesar as a sort of "campfire opera," envisioning perhaps a small company of travelers holding off the night swapping incidents from the legendary life of the enlightened warrior Gesar of Ling, a towering figure in the epic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. (Lieberson, himself a follower of Tibetan Buddhism throughout his adult life, apparently also envisioned King Gesar as a Rheingoldische precursor to a Ring-like cycle of operas to be drawn from that tradition, but only completed one more [Ashoka's Dream (1997)] in his lifetime.)

Director/designer Andreas Mitisek has expanded the company by dividing the narrator's part between two performers, male (Roberto Perlas Gomez) and female (Danielle Marcelle Bond), and by the addition of a pair of dancers (Kelly Ray and Javier Gonzalez). There are only small segments of outright singing involved: most of the narration consists of rhythmically accented patter-speech or sprechstimme, much of it taken at a challengingly furious pace matching the high adventure of the saga. Both narrators managed the piece's intricacies with skill, point and impressive clarity, as well as moments of surprising humor. The octet negotiated the challenges of Lieberson's evocative serialist score with similar success, under the direction of Kristof Van Grysperre.

Two central incidents illustrate how much can be conveyed by simple means. First, Gesar becomes king by tricking his wicked uncle into sponsoring a horse race, open to all comers, with the throne as prize. Being a magical being, Gesar puts the idea in his uncle's head while in the guise of a raven, which appears as a stick puppet, voiced in a Yodaesque style by Mr. Gomez. The race itself is illustrated with more puppetry, character masks wielded atop staffs, as all of the performers jockey and jostle for position. Naturally, Gesar prevails, his scrawny nag of a horse being revealed as powerfully magical in its own right.

Later, Gesar fights for all mankind against the evil Tirthikas, with the aid for four godlike emanations of himself. As the narrators breathlessly describe the aspects and actions of each mighty avatar, the dancers' combined shadows depict them on a sheet above. The shadow work was a particular creative highlight of the evening.

The staging as a whole brought Peter Brook to mind, with reference both to his production of The Mahabharata (another epic from another, related tradition) and to his proposition that any empty space can be declared a stage: "A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." 

Varied and adventurous as the company has been over the years, King Gesar resembles nothing else that Long Beach Opera has done. It surpasses expectations with ease, resulting in a short evening of marvelously satisfying music theater, a testament to the simplifying, clarifying, mesmerizing power of song and story.



King Gesar was commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennial, where it premiered in 1992 with an ensemble including pianists Peter Serkin and Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The U.S. premiere came at Tanglewood the following year with the same principals, who also performed on the recorded version issued in 1996. The Southwest Chamber Music Society gave the work its West Coast premiere in 1997, here in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance. My own admittedly not-exhaustive research has not revealed a fully "staged" version of the piece prior to this one.


Saturday's opening performance sold out; tickets may be available for the remaining two performance, September 13 and 14. All performances are at 8:00 because stories should be told at night.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]


Who'll Stop the Thane?
[Ernest Bloch: Macbeth, Long Beach Opera]


The Scottish play.There is always occasion for another production of the Scottish play, and on this occasion the occasion is Long Beach Opera's season-ending staging of the U.S. professional premiere of Ernest Bloch's 1906 operatization of—let's just say it and have done—Macbeth.

Bloch's Macbeth is yet another case of Long Beach Opera championing a piece whose obscurity seems, upon actually hearing the thing, inexplicable. The composer was all of 24 when he wrote it. It is his only opera. Its premiere engagement was in Paris at the Opera Comique in 1910, and it epitomizes much of what was best in then-contemporary music two brief years before this year's Centennial Birthday Boy, Stravinsky's Sacre de Printemps, kicked in the doors of the 20th Century. Bloch's influences are Wagner and, most particularly, Debussy. Much in Macbeth is clearly Bloch's own, but he draws enthusiastically on the burly brawling Debussy of La Mer and the Nocturnes. It turns out that that Debussy, given the chance and the proper material, might have been an even better operatist than the Debussy of Pelleas. Patron of the standard repertoire who are willing to embrace the secondhand Debussismo of, say, Madama Butterfly should be equally comfortable with the more interesting sounds of Bloch and his Macbeth.

LBO has made a habit of performing in spaces that are in, on, or closely bounded by the Pacific Ocean. The company has staged operas in a swimming pool (adjacent to the ocean), in the Aquarium of the Pacific, and deep in the hull of the Queen Mary. In September, LBO will be staging Peter Lieberson's King Gesar not only in Long Beach, but on Long Beach, 'round the campfire under the stars. For Macbeth, the maritime site in question is an empty passenger terminal at Berth 92 of the Port of Los Angeles. The playing area is a long thin slot of a space, the audience on risers on either side. A heavy wooden table dominates the center, additional abandoned furniture lies at either end, draped in blood-spattered fabric. The orchestra—a full-Romantic complement of roughly 40 players, with a large, unseen and unexpected Chorus—is secreted behind a scrim at one end of the room.


Most of the action plays out around, or atop, that central table, and it is there that we meet immediately with the three Witches (Ariel Pisturino, Danielle Marcelle Bond and Nandani Sinha - stay weird, sisters!). They are a sunken-eyed, hungry, spasmodically hissing crew, and they reappear throughout the evening, unseen by the other characters, to press along the inexorable working of their prophecy/curse.

Any Macbeth must first decide how capable and decent Macbeth himself is at the start: is he a good man who goes wrong or is he simply a dupe, a catspaw to the witches, his ambitious Lady, or both? Long Beach opts for the former: As portrayed with strength and lustre by Nmon Ford, Macbeth is a leader of men, initially content with his service to and regard from his King. Suzan Hanson is Lady Macbeth who here is not some overweening shrew but, at the outset, a beloved companion and equal to her husband, lively, intelligent, sexy, cherished, respected. The Macbeths have a relationship of trust and mutual admiration, until the Thane becomes King and a celebratory canoodle turns selfishly brutal, the first symptom perhaps of his ultimately fatal overreach.

Macbeth's error grows out of his strengths: The witches have promised that he will be king, but warned that he will not father future kings. Macbeth is able first to implement the witches' prophecy by the murder of Duncan. Power achieved, he foolishly attempts to thwart the remainder of the prophecy by the slaughter of perceived rivals such as Banquo (Doug Jones, also appearing as divers servants, etc.) and the Macduff family. Naturally, it does not end well: all Scotland rises against him, his wife runs fatally mad, and the witches return in the end to savor Macbeth's own death at the hands of Macduff (Robin Buck), all as they have foretold.


LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek conceived and directed this production. The orchestra and chorus were subtly and propulsively led by Benjamin Makino, overcoming a difficult placement at the far end of an acoustically challenging room. The opera's three acts were run together without intermission, and events never flagged over the near two-hour running time.

The unanswered mystery of this Macbeth is why it is so little known. Bloch ultimately revised his original French libretto into English (the version heard here) and incorporated nearly all of the best known lines and speeches from the play, yielding an admirable adaptation that lands all of the requisite Shakespearean beats. A good Macbeth is a good evening in the theater, and this is assuredly a good Macbeth.

Two performances are still to come on June 22 and 23. The bad news is that those performances are reported as being sold out. Perhaps some helpful witches could get you in. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Mac1-103
  • Mac2-126
  • Mac2-150
  • Mac2-220
  • Mac2-117
  • Mac1-301

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]


In the Ripening-Shed
[The Industry: (First Take)]

The Industry is the new kid in town pressing the cause of innovative/new opera and music drama in Los Angeles. To date, the company has one production to its credit—Anne LeBaron's Crescent City, for the missing of which due quantities of self-kicking have been administered—with highly intriguing plans to premiere Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities in October in situ at Los Angeles' Union Station. And at the Hammer Museum this past Saturday, with wild Up as its house band, The Industry presented (First Take), concert versions of extended excerpts from six new operas in various (but comparatively advanced) stages of development.

The roots of (First Take) lie in New York City Opera's VOX programs, for which Industry founder/Artistic Director Yuval Sharon served as Project Director. As with VOX, (First Take) aims to spot and spotlight projects that warrant the opportunity to receive quality, professional performance to help them to move that much closer to completion and full production.

In part because I fancy myself an aspiring "freelance librettist" these days, I will confess to a personal bias in favor of music drama in which the composer has been enabled to draw on a well-turned text. By that subjective standard, the pieces I most favored were the three presented in the later parts of the day, each very different from the other but each engaged in the joinder of words and music with particular effectiveness.

Ellen Reid's Winter's Child, with a text by Amanda Jane Shank, is a ghost story, southern gothic style: a girl about to turn 15, living alone with her mother, is beset by visitations from the ghosts of her three dead sisters, each of whom died just prior to her 15th birthday. The chittering ambiguously ominous spirits of the three sisters are embodied in a six-member chorus, their warnings (threats?) emerging as from a shredding mist. Britten's Turn of the Screw is something of a gold standard for operatic ghost music; Reid's angular, shifty score never imitates it, but achieves comparably unsettling effects. The excerpts on offer comprehended much of the opera's narrative arc, leaving this listener hankering to hear the story whole. The librettist is (In September, Ellen Reid ventures to a different supernatural realm, supplying music to accompany the Getty Villa's production of a new translation of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.)

Judging by applause and audience reaction, Pierrot Lunaire from composer Mohammed Fairouz was the popular favorite of the day, and it is a piece with prodigious reserves of unwholesome appeal. On the cusp between song-cycle and opera, this Pierrot has only a tenuous relation to Arnold Schoenberg's famed setting of twenty-one poems by Albert Girauds. Here, the text is a sequence of ten poems (the latter six segments were performed on Saturday) by Wayne Koestenbaum, which allude to Girauds's poems principally by imitating their rondeau form. Otherwise, the poetic material goes very much its own way, swimming and spattering about, contemporizing the creepy JungundFreudische dream visions of High Surrealism. Koestenbaum is a gleeful name checker, inserting the likes of Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag in to discomforting circumstances, like Lenin on a grand piano. Fairouz's score fully exploits the simultaneous zaniness and dread of the text, larking sharply through a kaleidoscopic range of styles and backhanded references. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov, in the role of Pierrot, was called upon to croon, burn, wheedle and shriek, or all at once, and did so commandingly. Pierrot is a literate, nightmarish treat.

(Pierrot Lunaire in full receives its premiere production in New York later this week. In that connection, the composer posted an essay about the work last week at the Huffington Post. In his fast growing catalogue of work, Pierrot contrasts neatly with Mohammed Fairouz's earlier opera, Sumeida's Song, a well tuned little clockwork tragedy of a piece of a more traditional operatic kind: a sort of verismo on the upper Nile, it is excellently crafted, dramatically and musically compelling, and well worth seeking out. An earlier collaboration with Koestenbaum, the three-song sequence "POSH," is featured on the fine new survey of Fairouz's work recently released by the Naxos label, Native Informant.)

Showing The Youth How It Is Done, the afternoon concluded with the latest work from the perpetually questing Pauline Oliveros, just turned 81. If The Nubian Word for Flowers had an epigraph, it would perhaps be T.S Eliot's "Old men ought to be explorers." With a text by the poet Ione, the opera imagines the British general Lord Kitchener, a skilled botanist in addition to being a maker of wars, plucked out of the world to a mysterious island where he meets an equally mysterious Nubian boatman/astronomer, catalyzing a communion of the past and the infinite.Three strands of music underlie the piece: prerecorded electronics incorporating found sounds and birdsong, fully notated parts for the singers, and "guided improvisation" by the orchestra with substantial infusions of traditional Nubian motifs. Saturday's performance shared just enough of the full work to make plain that it is a dream one would fain enter more fully.

Aaron Siegel's brother brother, with which Saturday's program opened, meditates on the condition of brother-hood through pairs of real and imagined brothers: Orville and Wilbur Wright and twins named Red and Blue. Combining sparely poetic arias with spoken questions and narratives that verged on non sequitur, the selections from the three-act work that were performed on Saturday did not coalesce in to a clear idea of the larger whole, but were never less than intriguing from moment to moment.

Alexander Vassos' The House is Open ruminates on family and on the relations between waking and sleeping life, hanging its narrative on Charley, a nine-year old boy who has spent six of those years asleep. Consciously modeled on the "horror of the ordinary" aesthetic of David Lynch, House is also interested in different ways of presenting sound to the audience: at one point, Charley is fitted with a "crown" of microphones and turns slowly about as family members sing in to them, their voices traveling around the hall depending on which mic each is faced with at the moment. Plenty of ideas are moving about the piece, but again the overall dramatic shape was hard to glean on Saturday.

Davið Brynjar Franzson's Longitude was the most "unoperalike" piece, and the least suited to being taken in in a concert format. It is inspired by the figure of Jørgen Jørgensen, who in 1809 "liberated" Iceland from Denmark and ruled the briefly independent nation as a Protector/dictator for forty days before the Danes returned, ousted him and turned him over to British authorities. The composer and collaborators describe it as a "site specific monodrama," and on this occasion it was wordless: an actor stands, largely motionless except when his arm is manipulated bunraku-puppet style, his profile silhouetted by projections as live musicians and realtime electronics scrape and creak and crackle. It is more interesting than that may make it sound, but it would make more sense as an immersive sight and sound installation upstairs on the Hammer's video gallery than it did on stage.

Each of the six works on this initial (First Take) program is deserving of the encouragement it received by its inclusion on the program. The largely-full house in the Hammer's Billy Wilder Theater responded with enthusiasm to them all. The greatest enthusiasm, however, was reserved for The Industry and for the (First Take) project itself. This fool, for one, hopes that the first (First Take) is far from the last, and that it will become an annual fixture in the Los Angeles new music landscape.


Print the Legend
Camelia la Tejana: Only the Truth
Long Beach Opera

The general notion of Opera does not associate it with current events and social ferments, but topical engagement has a long history in the opera house. The class struggle embedded in Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro was still a sore spot for many aristocrats when Da Ponte and Mozart operatized it. Verdi was politically active in the unification of Italy, and the assassination depicted in Un ballo in maschera was as recent to his audience as the events of John Adams' Dr. Atomic are to us. Adams' Nixon in China, dismissed by some at the time of its premiere as mere "CNN opera," opened the door to an ongoing string of new opera examining political and cultural events and figures.

Camelia la Tejana: Only the Truth is one of these, and is receiving its first U.S. professional production now via Long Beach Opera. Composed by Gabriela Ortiz, Camelia's libretto is described as being "compiled" by Rubén Ortiz Torres [the composer's brother and a noted visual artist in his own right] "from various sources", emulating the method favored in recent collaborations between John Adams and Peter Sellars. The piece explores not so much current events as the landscape in which they are played out and processed, the intersection of art, media, belief, truth and untruth.

For those who—not unlike this blogger—are unfamiliar with norteño music: the woman known as Camelia la Tejana ["Camelia the Texan"] features in the song "Contrabando y Traición" ("Contraband and Betrayal"), which in 1974 made superstars of Los Tigres del Norte. The song tells the story of Camelia and her lover, Emilio Varela, smuggling marijuana from Tijuana to Los Angeles concealed in their vehicle's tires. When the deal is completed, Emilio announces that he is leaving to join another woman in San Francisco; this news is not received with equanimity. "Seven shots rang out" and Camelia and the drug money were not heard from again. That is, they were not heard from again until the song, with its tale of a woman standing against male domination, proved so immensely popular that it spawned two additional songs, several films, and a fervent belief the Camelia must be, or must at least be based upon, a real woman.

The operatic Camelia springs from an actual incident some years after the figure of Camelia had taken root. In Ciudad Juarez, one Eleazar Pacheco Moreno killed himself in a fit of drunken pique by laying his neck across a railway line. His locodecapitation was reported by the lurid tabloid ¡Alarma! in a story suggesting that the mysterious Camelia la Tejana was real, was still alive, and was somehow connected to the tragedy. (¡Alarma!'s slogan, "Únicamente la verdad", provides the opera's subtitle.) The opera is a collage of investigation, speculation, and fabrication, as a somewhat more legitimate journalist investigates Camelia's possible reality.

The Camelia of the song hovers over the proceedings, manifesting at intervals above it all. Two different women each claim to be her: one tells of childhood rape, a life on the run, and eventual redemption as an evangelist, the other demands "absolute discretion" but tells little, denying that she killed anyone (and by the way the man she didn't kill wasn't named Emilio) and asserting that her only run-ins with the law have been "administrative discrepancies," minor fines involving, ahem, "imported goods." Both women deny that there is a word of truth in the song, while implying that they are the truth behind it. A U.S. scholar comments in English. The songwriter of "Contrabando y Traición" tells how he made the whole thing up. Jorge Hernandez, lead signer of Los Tigres, is pointedly ambiguous in his beliefs concerning a figure who has loomed so large in his group's success. A blogger weighs in conspiratorially—with the sort of profanity that is rigorously disdained by this blog. Nothing is ultimately resolved: you believe what you want to believe ... and the legend will outlive us all.

The Long Beach production, directed by Mario Espinosa, spins the fractured facets of Camelia''s mirror ball on a high platform surrounding the orchestra, traversed by a structure recalling the international bridges connecting the U.S. and Mexico across the Rio Grande. A stream of evocative video imagery—train tracks, border wire, the zeroes and ones of the digital world—plays out on the surrounding walls. 

Musically, Camelia is a mash of contemporary composition technique—some minimalism here, a lot of postminimalism there, tonality eschewed, tonality embraced—spiced with norteño tuba and accordion and enveloped in electronic soundscaping, eventually subsiding to the legendary Camelia singing a melancholy a capella arrangement of her song. It is all well done, but (other than the corrido itself) hardly hummable, if that's the sort of thing you insist upon.

The hard working chorus does much of the narrative heavy lifting, while members of the Nannette Brodie dance company play out yet another, high body count version of Camelia's story throughout. Teresa Rios is dancing/pantomime Camelia, last seen running and running and running toward apotheosis. Singing Camelia, in all of her manifestations—legendary Camelia, evangelical Camelia/Agustina Ramirez, and Woman of Mystery Camelia—is Enivia Mendoza. Nova Safo charms in his brief appearance as Jorge Hernandez, "El Tigre," the very model of a self-effacing superstar who knows he is one. John Atkins brings appropriate self-importance to the role of the U.C. professor. Adam Meza fills several roles, including the disreputable blogger, with vigor, while John Matthew Myers is earnest as can be as the inquiring reporter for la Jornada. The flying severed head of Eleazar Pacheco Moreno is uncredited.

Camelia la Tejana is an opera more to be admired than loved. It is undeniably smart and well made, if occasionally as murky as the clashing "truths" that are its subject. An imperfect but ultimately intriguing piece of contemporary music drama, worth a trip by the adventurous to the Terrace Theater where its final performance will run on Saturday, March 30.

[Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.]