Playing the Hydrogen Jukebox
Leading up to our 44th president's inauguration came Georgetown University's and American Opera Theater's production of Hydrogen Jukebox by Philip Glass based on a libretto of poems by Allen Ginsberg. On January 16, 2009, the Dresser had the pleasure of experiencing this Washington premier to a sold-out house in the University's Gonda Theatre at the Davis Performing Arts Center.
THE EYEBALL KICK
This song cycle, often called a chamber opera, made its fully staged premier in 1990 at the Spoleto Music Festival, which had also commissioned the work. The title Hydrogen Jukebox comes from Ginsberg's long poem Howl and the phrase is what Ginsberg called an "Eyeball Kick" --two unlikely things put together that might represent something weak with something strong, a mix of high versus low culture, a juxtapositioning of sacred versus profane. The collection of songs presents a portrait of America from the 1950s through the late 1980s and deals with such social issues as the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, drugs, eastern philosophy, and matters of the environment. If another production gets mounted, do not bring young impressionable children because Ginsberg lets it all hang out in his colorful language.
What struck the Dresser immediately was how contemporary the piece seemed with its mention of Bush (albeit Bush Daddy and not the Decider son who has thankfully retreated back to his Texas ranch), Allah versus Jaweh, violence, drugs, same sex love songs (e.g. "The Green Automobile"), and the yearning for a natural landscape in the midst of a huge city. What also hit the Dresser foursquare was how accessible Philip Glass's music is in this 90-minute piece. The music actually seemed less repetitious than what is Glass's usual approach.
OF SLOW LIGHTNING AND COWBELLS
What the Dresser adored about the music was its whimsical soprano sax and often droll percussive sounds--lots of woodblock and cowbell taps. And yes, Glass does love percussion in spite of no percussion in his Gandhi opera Satyagraha. And the Dresser was indeed reminded of the music of Satyagraha in the opening number of American Opera Theater's (AOT) production of Hydrogen Jukebox: