Review: Hydrogen Jukebox

While much of the opera world is focusing on the behind the scenes drama at the Met, now would be a good time to take a look at the smaller, more intimate opera companies in your back yard, the ones that are doing amazing work with a teensy fraction of the resources available to the big houses. Here in the Bay Area, the resilient West Edge Opera company (formerly Berkeley Opera) has compressed its entire season into a summer festival whose programming reads like a page from the small opera company’s guide to staying viable in an increasingly dire environment. It includes a reimagined warhorse (Puccini’s La bohème), a tuneful and accessible work from a living composer (Jake Heggie’s The End of the Affair), and a more experimental work from a pair of american giants (Philip Glass’s setting of Ginsburg’s poetry, Hydrogen Jukebox). The productions are all done in a non-traditional space, the airy (and heavily windowed) atrium of the Ed Roberts Campus, right above the Ashby Bart Station, and this determined company tackles the ensuing lighting and acoustic challenges head on.

I was able to see the final dress rehearsal of Hydrogen Jukebox, and found the production a testament to what a small company can do. Despite my ambivalence around Glass and Ginsburg, who somehow manage to be simultaneously too much and too little for my tastes, I was won over by the appealing cast and imaginative and resourceful staging. Bay Area stage stalwart Howard Swain plays a non-singing narrator role, providing a worldly wise counterpoint to the fresh-faced sextet of young singers enjoying the fruits and pits of post war, pre-millenial America. War, drugs, sex, and the search for enlightenment are recurring themes in a plotless review as our modern crew of bohemians cross the country via plane, train, and green automobile, responding to the daily news, invoking the dark lord of capitalism, and, surprisingly often, taking their shirts off. Tenor Jonathan Blalock (who was fantastic in Prototype’s Paul’s Case in January) and bass Kenneth Kellogg have been brought in from the east coast, but the rest of the excellent cast is local. Their performances and Elkhanah Pulitzer‘s staging elevate Glass’s music and Ginsbug’s poetry into a rewarding night of theater.

West Edge Opera is a sterling example of a regional company doing remarkable work. As the Bay Area continues to struggle with its artistic identity in the face of an onslaught of internet fueled fortunes with uncertain priorities and values, we would be wise to support this worthwhile institution.

 

Share Button

Quentin Letts Shows Us What Ugly Is

There’s been an uproar in the opera world after London critics delivered a series of very personal insults regarding Tara Erraught’s weight. “Dumpy of stature”, “unappealing”, and “chubby bundle of puppy fat” gives you a sense of it. Most of the critics have since tried to contextualize their comments as specific to the role atContinue Reading

When Bad Music Happens To Good Critics

In an article entitled “The Composer As Critic” composer Andrew Ford conflates two points, first that one should be able to divorce your own taste from one’s criticism of a piece, and second, one should refrain from reviewing bad works in general. In making his case, Ford cites Auden: “Attacking bad books is […] a wasteContinue Reading

Battle Chorale at the SF Conservatory

Choral writing is the foundation of Western music, the genesis of counterpoint, and the basis for functional harmony as we know it. Writing for chorus (as well as singing in a chorus, regardless of vocal abilities) was a requirement for compositions students of Nadia Boulanger, (as well as in the European American Music Alliance programContinue Reading

Four Laughs Per Minute: What Music Can Learn From Comedy

In his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, premiered last week in its entirety by Cantori New York (and again this Saturday, May 10), composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle finishes each verse with a recapitulation of the refrain “Ierusalem, Ierusalem, conertere ad Dominum Deum tuum”. With each return, the treatment of this text becomes increasingly ecstatic,Continue Reading

Review: Singing Sexbots – The Companion

The other brief opera presented last week at Roulette by Ear Heart Music, American Opera Projects, and the American Modern Ensemble took a much more traditional approach to the theatricality of opera. While The Wanton Sublime was a static, largely plot-less monologue, The Companion was a fairly straightforward musical play, with conventional scenes, dialogue, conflict,Continue Reading

Review: The Wanton Sublime

Ear Heart Music, the American Modern Ensemble, and American Opera Projects joined forces at Roulette to present two short operas that represented drastically different approaches to the melding of music and theater. Today I’ll focus on the first half of the evening and return for the second later this week. The Wanton Sublime is anContinue Reading

Dvorak vs Twerking

I can’t tell if they’re serious. I think they might be. I think they really might believe that the only thing that keeps classical music from overtaking Miley Cyrus in the hearts and minds (and other body parts) of today’s listeners is the twerking. If it works for Miley, surely it can work for Antonín.Continue Reading

Review: Prototype Festival – Thumbprint

One of the larger productions in this year’s Protoype festival was the world premiere presentation of Thumbprint, an earnest and righteous account of the first Pakistani woman to prevail in a court of law against a group of tribal elders responsible for her “honor rape“. It’s the sort of subject matter that dares you toContinue Reading

Review: Protoype Festival – Paul’s Case

The Prototype Festival, a multi-week festival dedicated to showcasing new works of opera for reduced forces in smaller, more flexible spaces has garnered a lot of press in recent months. Last year’s inaugural festival has made it into several top 10 lists of 2013 and producer/cheerleader/impresario Beth Morrison was recently profiled in the NYTimes (apparently her striking neo-goth rockabilly style confounded the photo editors, believing her to be too hot for the classical world).Continue Reading