Review: Hydrogen Jukebox

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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.

 

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