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January 2009 Archives

January 22, 2009

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.PH2009011403656.jpg


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.


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:

Continue reading "Playing the Hydrogen Jukebox" »

January 31, 2009

Redeeming The Deserter

Herewith the Dresser proclaims that the following is merely talkback to the informative review on the 18th century opera Le Déserteur her good friend and able colleague Charles Downey wrote for The Washington Post. In case you are wondering, Dear Reader, the Dresser saw Opera Lafayette's production of this comic opera by Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny with libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine in the company of musicologist Downey on January 29, 2009, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. But furthermore, the Dresser had no intention of writing a review herself because she is overbooked with travel, talks to present, and her own libretto which needs to be finalized for her collaborating composer.


So the talkback is this--while Dresser agrees that Le Déserteur is a minor work with mostly historic value, Opera Lafayette's production, done in concert style but with costumes, dance, and small props, gave the Dresser breath and serenity in her sea of overbusy. Briefly the story concerns a mean trick pulled on the young soldier Alexis who is in love with Louise. A local Duchess decrees that to test Alexis, Louise must mock-marry her daffy cousin Bertrand. In despair, Alexis tries to desert from his army post but gets sentenced to death.

Photo by Julie Lemberger

The Dresser disagrees with her venerable friend that the dancing and narrative assistance by Caroline Copeland was "perhaps superfluous." Au contraire, Copeland's mix of 18th century dance form with more modern ballet movement (and oh, how the Dresser loved the dancer's prim punctuating jumps-in-place) gave energy to what was mostly static stage presence of the singers. Another activity of the dancer was to present the titles (in English) of the scenes. She did this by placing large white placards on an easel. This was in lieu of projected surtitles and enhanced the French text and translation printed in the Kennedy Center Playbill.


One final action of this production was having the chorus (and yes, the Dresser noticed that Claire Kuttler who appeared prominently in John Musto's opera Later the Same Evening was the only female singer in the choral lineup) hold up the words for an audience sing-along. The Dresser realized that in trying to do her part by singing that Monsigny's music wasn't so easy produced from an unfamiliar tongue. Great respect and a doff of the Dresser's beret sweeps low to Dominique LaBelle as Louise and William Sharp as Alexis. And the Dresser must say she loved the charming number between David Newman as the young Montauciel and Tony Boutté as Bertrand, the simple cousin of Louise. One other thing not lost on the Dresser is the sub-text about how Montauciel who is the opera's narrator (the role is done by actor John Lescault and the singer David Newman) can just barely read.

In this time of diminishing reading and now, Dear Reader, have you noticed that not only has The Washington Post cut out arts reviews in their Sunday edition of the paper but they have also deep-sixed the Book World section? So here we are, people will say this is a problem caused by the success of the Internet, but we all know deep down there are many people in our current day world, like Montauciel, who just don't have good reading skills.

The Dresser leaves the talkback with Margaret Ingraham's poem "Satiety" from her new Finishing Line Press book Proper Words for Birds that has many poems about song. This one, however, ponders the question of the great beyond and whether we as humans have any control over our lives.


The shore birds
eat their fill
and yet still
never give themselves
over to the question
how tide decides
what to take,
what to leave.

Margaret B. Ingraham
from Proper Words for Birds

Copyright © 2009 Margaret B. Ingraham

About January 2009

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in January 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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