OPERA NEWS - Hydrogen Jukebox
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In Review > North America

Hydrogen Jukebox

SAN PEDRO, CA
Long Beach Opera
5/30/15

Long Beach Opera ended its season of operas by living composers with the 1990 Philip Glass–Allen Ginsburg collaboration Hydrogen Jukebox, performed at the Crafted warehouse near the waterfront in San Pedro (May 30). The venue proved ideal for the piece and the production a strong one. That neither could quite overcome the tedium of the work was another matter.

Glass calls Hydrogen Jukebox a chamber opera; it’s more like a staged song cycle. It sets Ginsberg’s poetry to music in a series of fifteen songs lasting some ninety minutes. Six American stereotypes are featured as characters — a waitress, a policeman, a cheerleader, a businessman, a mechanic and a priest — but those roles, such as they are, were dispensed with here. The singers were just singers, in generalized garb. There is also a spoken role: The Poet.

The poems, including excerpts from “Howl” and “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” are hippie-dippy, anti-establishment, angry, ecstatic, whacked-out and anti-war. There’s an ode to marijuana and an elegy for Nagasaki; something or other about Israel and Palestine and American interference. Together the songs range over American life (or a version of it) from the ’50s to the ’90s. They don’t usually make strict sense — at least not in the context of performance, where closer study is impossible — but you get the gist.

The production, directed brilliantly by David Schweizer, used the warehouse space effectively, the performers wheeled about the floor (the audience around three sides of it) on platforms and ladders. The Poet, dressed to look like Ginsberg, appeared atop a wheeled scaffold structure representing the creator of all we see. Sometimes the action had a carnival-like busyness; sometimes it was spastically avant-garde; at others, mathematical, symmetrical. The words to the poems were projected on a giant screen at the other end of the room.

Many of the songs are compelling in themselves, and Glass colors his minimalistic style with harsh dissonance, jagged rhythms and dark, dystopian moods, as need be. But when taken one after another, they become monotonous, partly from a lack of variety in the music and its basic simplicity, but also from a lack of dramatic structure and narrative. Hydrogen Jukebox is just a string of songs. That the poetry is mostly apocalyptic and preachy also wears on the listener.

The cast — Jamie Chamberlin, Ashley Knight, Karin Mushegain, Todd Strange, Roberto Perlas Gomez, Jason Switzer — sang assuredly and unaffectedly as individuals and came together harmoniously as a choir. Their movements over the open space were fluent; they kept singing as they moved into the audience and passed out fliers (I got a Beat poem dated 1959). The amplification of the singers was excellent, too, clear and well balanced.

Michael Shamus Wiles, stomping, screaming, pontificating, turned The Poet into an unsympathetic egomaniac, but perhaps that wasn’t intended. Kristof Van Grysperre conducted the six-member orchestra (woodwinds, percussion, synthesizers) with supple efficiency. In the end, the opera proved interesting and annoying in equal measure, but the production was right on. —Timothy Mangan 

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