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Hydrogen Jukebox: The Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg Collaboration Comes to Long Beach

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Michael Shamus Wiles as The Poet. | Courtesy: Long Beach Opera.
Michael Shamus Wiles as The Poet. | Photo: Courtesy Long Beach Opera.

Sex, drugs, the anti-war movement and the environment may have figured prominently in the iconic rock musical, "Hair," but they also served as themes for the 1990 opera, "Hydrogen Jukebox." A collaboration between Minimalist composer Philip Glass and the iconic Beat generation poet, Allen Ginsberg (he died in 1997), the work grew out of a chance meeting the duo had at New York City's venerable St. Mark's Bookshop in 1988.

That work is now being presented by Long Beach Opera, with four performances beginning May 30. The multi-faceted staging is by one of LBO's favorites, the eminent theater/opera director, David Schweizer, whose credits include helming world premieres at the Geffen Playhouse and Mark Taper Forum, as well as having staged numerous LBO productions over the years, including "An American Soldier's Tale/Fiddler's Tale," in 2014.

But don't expect a traditional rendering from LBO, founded in 1979 by Michael Milenski, and whose artistic and general director since 2003, conductor Andreas Mitisek, is also known for groundbreaking, envelope-pushing productions. They've tackled operas other organizations have notoriously shied away from, last year's "The Death of Klinghoffer," a case in point.

Original production of "Hydrogen Jukebox." | Photo: William Struhs.
Original production of "Hydrogen Jukebox." | Photo: William Struhs.

With "Jukebox," whose title is taken from a line in Ginsberg's book-length poem, "Howl," the audience of some 360 will be immersed in the production as it unfolds in a 6,600-square foot warehouse, Crafted, at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro.

"I cut my teeth at Long Beach Opera under Michael Milenski," explains Schweizer, "and being connected to LBO got me intoxicated about the possibilities for opera theater."

The director, aware of the opera back in the day, said, "In the 80's, when we heard that Phil Glass and Allen Ginsberg -- both of whom I had met -- that they were collaborating, it was such an amazing idea. Then I saw the production, which was very artful and trippy and driven by slide projections. It was extremely visual in that regard. You could tell that they [Glass and Ginsberg] were having a creative bromance."

After a successful premiere in 1990 at Charleston's Spoleto Festival, "Jukebox" arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a year later, about which John Rockwell, then the New York Times' cultural critic, wrote, "Those who enjoy [Glass's] music will probably enjoy this; those who don't, won't."

Original production of "Hydrogen Jukebox." | Photo: William Struhs.
Original production of "Hydrogen Jukebox." | Photo: William Struhs.

But the work, which originally consisted of slightly less than two hours of music, broken by one intermission and was basically a song cycle of 21 Ginsburg poems that offered an expansive portrait of America from the 1950's through the late 1980's, had legs.

Indeed, after its premiere, "Jukebox" toured the country as well as making stops in Italy, and, was also restaged in the last several years. Schweizer's mounting, however, is a leaner, 90-minute intermissionless piece.

The score calls for six singers -- sopranos Jamie Chamberlin and Ashley Knight, mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain, tenor Todd Strange, baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez and bass Jason Switzer -- a musical ensemble of six, and an actor in the role of the poet, a role that Ginsberg himself took on at various times. Here the role is performed by Michael Shamus Wiles.

Said Schweizer: "There's a famous set piece where the poet reads this long poem, "Wichita Sutra Vortex," from "Howl," and there are also other lines within some of the other songs that are spoken. Ginsberg did it, and when he wasn't around they had his recorded voice, and slides of him running around naked."

Nikita Liza reading from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in front of Ginsberg poster. | Courtesy: Long Beach Opera.
Nikita Liza reading from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in front of Ginsberg poster. | Photo: Courtesy Long Beach Opera.

"I started to think about this whole idea of a poetic figure, [who] was remembering," added Schweizer, "he was conjuring this material, and having it sung to arrive at a catharsis. It freshly personalized it for me to think of it that way."

During a recent rehearsal, the energy was electric, the sounds of Glass the perfect accompaniment to Ginsberg's explosive poetry, with the singers, who are miked, creating a surround-sound quality. Schweizer, nattily dressed in leopard print shoes, khaki slacks, a tie and a black shirt sprinkled with skulls, was directing the cast and supernumeraries, who help move the sets -- scaffolding and wooden pallets on casters -- through the cavernous space.

At one point, Shamus Wiles (the poet), who'd never before been in an opera, and whose extensive list of credits includes a recurring role on the erstwhile smash hit TV show, "Breaking Bad," was perched high atop the tiered scaffolding, a manual typewriter also on view. From there he intoned the words of Ginsberg, his deep voice occasionally letting loose with bursts of sounds meant to invoke a bomb.

A mutual friend of Schweizer's, writer Marlene Gomard Meyer, recommended Shamus Wiles to the director. The actor said he'd read "Howl," "On the Road," and other Beat literature, but memorizing Ginsberg's poetry in an operatic setting was a decidedly new experience for him.

"It's not real linear, per se, so that was an interesting challenge," explained Shamus Wiles. "When you do a play, you rely on your other actors and you have some extemporal cues that you take. But to have a conductor and know you have to come in on a certain beat, that's daunting."

Schweizer has also done away with the six archetypal figures from the original libretto -- referee, businessman, cheerleader, policewoman, mechanic and waitress -- dressing them all, instead, in black and occasionally donning and doffing baseball caps and helmets.

"I grabbed the poet strongly as a central context for the production and the idea that this creator/poet/guru/spirit man was essentially creating the production," he says. "It was going on in his head, and the six singers are in search of an opera. They appear as kind of empty vessels ready to be used."

The director continues: "Glass, of course is his own challenge, because of the repetitiveness and the extremely rhythmic quality. And sometimes the way the words are set is challenging. Everyone in this cast is very comfortable with that. But the actual mechanics of learning the thing so confidently that you can really spit them out are insane. Ginsberg did not prune the poems and turn them into lyrics. He and Phil decided which poems they liked."

Schweizer posited that the opera is, "sometimes political, sometimes personal, sometimes it's Buddhist spiritual. The subject matter's all over the map, and it's not really a story or a narrative in the conventional sense."

Soprano Jamie Chamberlin, who also has ties to LBO and was recently seen in the U.S. premiere of Gavin Bryars' "Marilyn Forever" (she was the "outer" Marilyn Monroe), said this is her first time singing Glass and that although the ensemble work is fiendishly rhythmic, there is still emphasis on diction.

"Glass said that because of the intricacies of Ginsberg's poetry there's an inherent musicality in it. You can feel that while you're listening to it and performing it. We're required to accompany each other's solos with underlying pulsating rhythmic figures. There's kind of a percussive nature that we have to adapt to as singers, so we have to become instrumentalists in that moment and it's super cool."

L.A.-born Chamberlin, whose character is a "current day" person, said her solo aria is about trying to meditate, but distracting thoughts invade the mind.

"It's so L.A.," she says with a laugh, "because everyone's running around in their yoga pants all day long. It's perfect that I'm the modern day person struggling in this cacophony of freeway noise, traffic, news reports and earthquakes where you're struggling to find your center. That's a universal theme through 'Jukebox.' It's also a very natural thing, because we're not being characters, but versions of ourselves in this production."

Schweizer, who'd met Ginsberg and recalled that the poet, "wanted to squeeze the juice out of every moment he could," maintained that the work, while having its roots in the past, is relevant to the 21st century.

"The issues -- Ginsberg's concern about the corruption of our culture -- are completely right on for today. His concern about the kind of vast industrial military complex siphoning away all of the spirit values of America is also as apt today as ever. More personally and intimately, he and Glass were devout Buddhists.

Schweizer adds: "The whole issue of life in the face of death and acceptance of that is extremely relevant to people my age who have survived things like the AIDS plague. I have a lot of experience with ushering people out of the world. I'm not a Buddhist -- I'm not an anything -- but I'm cognizant of the preciousness of life in the shadow of death, and that's a huge theme in the opera."

David Schweizer, stage director. | Photo: Richard Anderson.
David Schweizer, stage director. | Photo: Richard Anderson.

By not going in for what Schweizer said are tie-dyed costumes, slides of lava lamps and the like, he added, "for me the production is about the act of creation at any time and I hope it feels fresh and immediate."

Aiding Schweizer is assistant director Suzan Hanson, a singer who created the role of the first soprano -- or cheerleader -- in the 1990 opus and toured with the work. She recalled that it was exhilarating, albeit difficult.

"What was particularly exciting was that Philip was there most of the time and Allen, too, early on. In the initial stages they would leave and then come back. When we performed it, Allen did the 'Wichita Vortex Sutra,' although there were a couple stops on the tour that they didn't do, but for the most part they performed with us every time we did the shows."

As for working with Ginsberg, Hanson recalled that he generally kept to himself, but was not unfriendly. "It was a really interesting experience. For the first few weeks in rehearsal he would watch the text on the page and listen to us and correct what words he couldn't understand or what words we got wrong.

"After two weeks of him listening to us, he finally looked up and saw what we were doing. You felt it was a lot to live up to -- to get his approval -- not that he was in any way unsupportive, but his concern was his text, as it should have been."

Hanson agreed with Schweizer about "Jukebox" being relevant.

"There is a nostalgic element to it, because of the subject of Allen's poetry, but it's not just about the time frame in which it was written. Then, when you put it with Philip's music, which tends to be timeless in my mind, the combination makes the piece go beyond nostalgia."

Courtesy: Long Beach Opera.
Photo: Courtesy Long Beach Opera.

Belgian-born Krystof van Grysperre, another LBO fixture who recently conducted "An American Soldier's Tale/Fiddler's Tale," leads the ensemble in "Jukebox." He admitted he was unfamiliar with the piece and that conducting Glass was also a first for him.

"As a conductor, the tempo needs to be exactly right and maintained," explained van Grysperre in accented English. "It would be easy to get lost or slow down or speed up and you lose that sense of motoric drive. To create that quality, it needs to be steady.

"The singers have a million words and each syllable has a specific length," added the maestro. "It's my job to keep it all together and to cue every entrance and every release. They have to memorize all that. It's not that they're off on their own and they do their job and I do mine -- it's a real collaboration."

That kind of partnership also includes working with the director. And while Schweizer said that the staging director doesn't need to be as musically knowledgeable as the conductor, one needs to have a feeling for music and what it does.

"The kind of lift-off the music creates and the feelings it elicits in opera, if it's done well, it kind of blows audiences away. In a play you might have a few music cues in the background, but plays are just talking. They might be in some dream circumstance and there might be a stylized staging, but opera is always a dream world."

Courtesy: Long Beach Opera.
Photo: Courtesy Long Beach Opera.
Courtesy: Long Beach Opera.
Photo: Courtesy Long Beach Opera.
Hydrogen Jukebox cast. | Courtesy: Long Beach Opera.
Hydrogen Jukebox cast. |  Photo: Courtesy Long Beach Opera.

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