Reviewed by George Basler
A lot of words could describe Hydrogen Jukebox: experimental, anti-establishment, provocative and surreal.
So Tri-Cities Opera deserves credit for taking on this challenging work in a production that opened April 21 and will continue with performances this weekend.
The production is admirably directed by Alison Moritz and well sung by a cast of six young performers. The opera itself, however, is a mixed bag with moments of emotional intensity and beauty intermixed with stretches of hippie-dippy musings that a young Woody Allen would have had a field day parodying.
It’s certainly a polarizing work. The woman in the seat next to me walked out at intermission, but other audience members gave it a standing ovation at the end.
Actually to call Hydrogen Jukebox an opera is a misnomer. There’s no plot to speak of. Instead the Allen Ginsberg-Philip Glass work is a song cycle of 15 pieces — some discordant, some lush.
The genesis was a 1988 benefit for American military veterans during which Ginsberg read part of his antiwar poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” while Glass accompanied him on piano.
The performance went well enough that the two men expanded it into a full-length work with Ginsberg’s poetry set to music by Glass. The score features six singers, two woodwinds, two synthesizers and two percussionists.
Ginsberg is considered by many to be one of the premier American poets of the 20th century. He was a prominent figure in the Beat Generation of the 1950s and something of an icon in the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
He has his detractors, though. Writing in the National Review, John J. Miller called Howl, one of Ginsberg’s best-known works, “vulgar and verse less” and added, “I’d rather spend an entire lunar-cycle listening to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog bark at the moon than read this pathetic poem again.”
That’s another way of saying Ginsberg is not to everyone’s taste. The poet’s central concerns and attraction to Eastern religions are on full display in Hydrogen Jukebox. Critiques of militarism and what Ginsberg saw as America’s spiritual emptiness are intermingled with sexual references and musings on drug use and homosexuality.
Glass’ dissonant, jarring score accompanies the words. While this is striking at first, it becomes repetitious over the course of the first act, largely because of the lack of variety in the music. Ginsberg’s words are pretty dense as well. As one audience member said at intermission last Sunday (April 23): “I was expecting it to be weird, and I’m not disappointed.”
(That being said, a college student sitting near me said he liked the Glass music because it’s modern and thought Ginsberg’s words “pertained to what we’re going through now.”)
The second act, at least from my perspective, was far more engaging. The act focuses on Ginsberg’s thoughts as he faces death. Figures from his past appear and disappear. Glass’ score becomes tender and melodic. The combination makes for some deeply touching moments.
The final cycle of songs, finishing with the a cappella singing of “Father Death Blues,” is especially moving.
So Hydrogen Jukebox ends on a very high note.
The Tri-Cities singers — Scott Purcell, Stacey Geyer, Abigail Smith, Jordan Schreiner, Mary Beth Nelson and Jake Stamatis — do a commendable job, both in their solos and as a unit. They also act well in the roles of Ginsberg’s friends and colleagues who come to visit the poet in his last days.
The staging by Moritz makes great use of the intimate setting of the Tri-Cities Opera Center. The action takes place in Ginsberg’s cluttered New York City apartment, and Moritz’s direction places audience members in the apartment themselves, increasing the intensity of the action.
Credit also goes to Bill Gorman, a veteran Broome County actor, who plays Ginsberg. His recitation of an anti-war Ginsberg poem at the end of the first act is one of the opera’s highlights.
TCO is pushing the envelope with Hydrogen Jukebox. The result is an opera experience that is different, but, as some say, “Vive la difference.”
IF YOU GO: Hydrogen Jukebox will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday (April 28 and 30) in the Savoca Hibbit Hall at the Tri-Cities Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Tickets are $50 and $40; call 607-772-0400 or go online to www.tricitiesopera.com.