What Happens When Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass Create an Opera About America?

What Happens When Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass Create an Opera About America?EXPAND
Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

When composer Philip Glass bumped into Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan in 1988, they got to talking about the conservative mindset of the era and began exchanging ideas about how to approach subjects like war through art. That conversation soon evolved into a full-blown collaboration between the two that resulted in their 1990 opera, Hydrogen Jukebox. The pair’s intent was to summarize American obsessions and hysteria in the postwar era, and Glass adapted Ginsberg’s poetry into 15 loosely connected songs.

But even the gamest efforts of a resourceful Long Beach Opera cast and an unusual warehouse setting at Crafted by the docks of San Pedro aren’t quite enough to transform Hydrogen Jukebox from a quaint curiosity into a fully engaging story. Although Glass’ music is often moving, Ginsberg’s libretto is little more than a random series of images that never cohere into actual drama. The poet hoped to trigger powerful associations to historic events of the past century, but his flippant, free-flowing lyrics rarely alight in any place long enough to make a deep emotional connection. Despite occasional intriguing phrases, such as “The great crash of buildings and planets breaks through the walls of language,” many of Ginsberg’s words are bombastic and overheated.

Even worse, as the lead singers are reciting lyrics about death and destruction in Vietnam and the Middle East, some of the rest of the cast are prancing along behind them as if they’re in a campy Broadway musical. A true sense of menace and foreboding is finally achieved when actor Michael Shamus Wiles (Breaking Bad, Fight Club) enters the scene as the narrator-poet, standing astride a large, mobile platform and declaiming Ginsberg’s words in a stentorian voice. Rattling the railing of the platform and stomping around like an angry god, Miles exudes a commanding presence that seems to lift the rest of the cast.

Director David Schweizer’s staging and Caleb Wertenbaker’s scenic design are sometimes effective, as the singers move through the shadowy warehouse on a series of slowly rotating platforms and ladders. A long, silvery, foil-like carpet shimmers enigmatically in a rare moment of visual flash before it’s mysteriously pulled back up into the wall.

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Given the problems with the text, some of the best moments occur when soprano Ashley Knight, mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain and soprano Jamie Chamberlin conjure the wordless vocal passages of Glass’ score, stirring up eerie incantations like mysterious sirens. Kristof Van Grysperre ably conducts a small group of percussionists, winds, horns and keyboardists, with a synthesizer replicating some instrumentation.

Long Beach Opera at Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles, 112 E. 22nd St., #10, San Pedro; June 6-7. (562)432-5934, www.longbeachopera.org.


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