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Review: 'Hydrogen Jukebox' at Fort Worth Opera

by Jerome Weeks 30 May 2011 10:29 AM

A Philip Glass-Allen Ginsberg collaboration from 1990, ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’ is another smart bit of counter-programming by the Fort Worth Opera. The chamber opera about Ginsberg’s America, circa 1950s thru ’90s, can be potent, even ravishing — when it isn’t tiresome.


Breathing deeply: Amanda Robie, Corrie Donovan, Jonathan Blaylock

Trying to sweep the prodigiously prolific Philip Glass and the equally prolix Allen Ginsberg into a tidy little box is a fool’s errand. But let this earnest housekeeper get out his whisk broom, anyway. After all, it’s what Hydrogen Jukebox itself does, packing them and America and history and the cosmos all together into a chamber opera, currently revived by the Fort Worth Opera.

It’s Ginsberg who says — in the liner notes to the CD version of Hydrogen Jukebox — that what united the two artists were their shared interests in Buddhism, meditation and Eastern music. Many of Glass’ operas make it plain that he’s fascinated by believers, mystics and altered states, the otherworldly and the underworldly. Consider Satyagraha, Akhenaten, Orphee and — if we widen the idea of spirituality a bit — the harrowing extraterrestrial encounters in 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and the cosmic sci-fi of Doris Lessing in The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. Add to this the fact that Glass’ minimalist style was partly inspired by the drone traditions in Eastern music, and you hear intimations of the sacred, of temples of sound in all those running arpeggios he favors.

For his part, Ginsberg was — more than anything else — a religious writer. His early, spontaneous visions led him to this as his great purpose, practically his sole topic. Infusing the spiritual into the everyday informed his sexuality, motivated his explorations in hallucinatory drugs and Eastern faiths. It’s what powers many of his poems. They’re chants and sutras, hymns and invocations. (“I call all Powers of imagination / to my side in this auto to make Prophecy.”)

On the other hand, when it comes to political philosophy or social criticism, Ginsberg may have been a prophet outspokenly ahead of his times (pacifism, homosexuality, Krishna-ism), but he’s often thuddingly obvious. Twenty-one years after its creation, Hydrogen Jukebox is still somewhat daring for the Fort Worth Opera — with its explicit lyrics and men kissing on stage. (One recent YouTube poster loved Glass’ music to Jukebox‘s “Song #1” but resented Ginsberg’s lyrics so much, he assembled his own images to create a safely bland, alternative music- video.) Kudos to the FWO for continuing to counter-program its main-stage standards with provocative material.

But Ginsberg’s political poetry is pretty much what you’d expect from vintage-’60s chants and incantations: War kills, nature is holy, governments lie, unfettered sexual expression is good, capitalism is monstrous, and d everyone would probably be happier if we all lived in San Francisco. Perfectly valid claims, I’m sure, but while these ideas may be ornamented with Hindu gods and newspaper headlines, they are calls to arms and declarations of faith. They’re not particularly new, complex or profound.

As a result, Hydrogen Jukebox is vivid, compelling, even uplifting — when it isn’t tiresome. (One very strong recommendation: Bring a good, comfy cushion to sit on; the wooden pews are a penance).

When Jukebox was created in 1990, it immediately followed 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, and it has some of the same compact, pocket-opera format — composed, in this case, for a sextet of musicians and a sextet of singers. A collection of 15 Ginsberg poems that have no real storyline, Jukebox, strictly speaking, doesn’t have a chronological order, either. It opens with “Song #1” which is part of Iron Horse, Ginsberg’s 1966 memory of a train trip West in 1954. The famous “Moloch” section from Howl, Pt. 2 was written in 1955, fairly soon after the events in “Song #1,” yet it appears quite a bit later as “Song #6.”

Working hard for the money: Dan Kempson, Rosa Betancourt, Justin Hopkins, Amanda Robie, Jonathan Blalock

Nevertheless, Jukebox has a broad, decades-passing sweep. It’s more or less a trip through four decades of Ginsberg’s America and Ginsberg’s consciousness — opening evocatively with the poet seeing lightning fill the sky over Oklahoma and sensing an apocalyptic change in the country and himself. From there, it goes through the Beats and the ’60s (Vietnam and drugs and gay sex) to the ’80s (the Iran-Contra scandal)  to, at the very end, the incredibly powerful Father Death Blues.

To speed us along and set the scene, director Lawrence Edelson too often relies on the kind of signposts found in those quickie, news-clip montages from TV documentaries. The performers are in gas masks and camos; we’re in Vietnam. Now they’re wearing business suits and stock market numbers flash overhead; it’s the Reagan-Wall Street ’80s. And if we want to illustrate a poem like Yahweh and  Allah Battle, we dress one performer as a bearded rabbi, the other as a bearded Muslim.

Edelson’s choices in this regard aren’t deepened by C. Andrew Bauer’s literal-minded projections. Ginsberg’s poem mentions rivers, we get images of water. Ginsberg writes about war, we get images of corpses. Rain means rain, money turns into dollar bills floating down. One longs for the kind of resonating, allusive designs that other Glass collaborators — Robert Wilson, Jerome Sirlin — developed for their opera projects.

In fact, the disappointment is felt partly because Jukebox opens very promisingly. Edelson has laid out the production stadium-wise. In the small, black-box Sanders Theatre, the audience is separated along opposite walls with the stage between — and a wooden train track running down the middle of it. Projection screens are behind both banks of benches.

With “Song #1,” Glass opens with quiet, portentous music, conjuring up isolation and emptiness, lightning flashes and a throbbing diesel engine, while Ginsberg’s train ride and his visions of the Western plains are conveyed by Bauer’s projections. It’s a somber, minimalist landscape with only gray, horizontal strips of dark and light. The train’s trail of smoke slowly separates them as it moves across the screens.

What’s more, the young cast is strong, notably soprano Rosa Betancourt and baritone Dan Kempson, who basically plays the lead. Under Steven Osgood, the musical ensemble is spot-on. (Mention, again, needs to be made of their collective cool-headedness during the opening night’s meteorological festivities.)

But they can’t prevent Jukebox from becoming tedious. One can’t help seeing the railroad track, for instance, as a miniaturized reference to the prominent locomotive in Einstein on the Beach. But while Edelson clearly intends the tracks as a central image (life as trip), it’s such a well-worn notion, it ‘s more an illustration than an added depth. Edelson has the cast manipulate sections of the track to suggest fences or jail cells — again, more to illustrate/explicate Ginsberg’s lyrics than to inject any other significance.

As for the show’s political theater, its level of sophistication is best summed up by the battling rabbi and Muslim. Or the scene in “Song #14” (Throw Out the Yellow Journalists) when the performers pummel a giant pinata shaped like the White House. Perhaps the agit-prop scene is meant to be faintly ridiculous; it doesn’t come across that way. Yet it’s not as though Edelson doesn’t bring humor to the proceedings: We sail through various plane trips by Ginsberg with what I like to think of as “The Waltz of the Stewardesses.”

When Glass’ music, Ginsberg’s poetry and Edelson’s direction do fuse into a thrilling experience, it’s often when the staging’s simple and direct and when Glass’ songs explicitly echo sacred music  — while the poems themselves address death or the moral life of America (this seems to happen towards the end of each act, building them both to hushed, stirring conclusions). “Song #6” wraps up the first act with an excerpt from Wichita Vortex Sutra (from 1966), with most of the anti-war content mercifully left off. When delivered beautifully with fervor and ease by Justin Hopkins (left), this section of the sutra is like a sermon that rises to an ecstatic rejoicing in the divine, the Midwest-ordinary and Ginsberg’s own faith in poetic language:

this Act done by my own voice … blissfully received by my own form… in chill earthly mist / houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward / in every direction / one midwinter afternoon Sunday called the day of the Lord – / Pure Spring Water gathered in one tower / where Florence is / set on a hill / stop for tea & gas.

As for Father Death Blues at the opera’s very end: The poem was actually written about the loss of Ginsberg’s father Louis in 1976. But here, it’s placed in such a way to suggest the poet facing his own death (he died in 1997). In Glass’ hands, Blues becomes a yearning, a cappella hymn like something out of the 19th century, classic and crystalline in its harmonies. It lends the end of Jukebox a beatific stillness: This is death as a final benediction, a welcome home.

It’s an utterly ravishing moment. It almost redeems what’s come before.

  • Aaron Majors

    Re: the water, I’ll concede that point. Yes, Ginsberg’s meaning is deeper (pun intended) there and the production was a little shallow (also pun intended) in not diving into (I know, I know…) some of the more abstract emotional concepts that Ginsberg clearly is citing using allegories.

    I feel like they could have used the train imagery a little less, but it is in the text of the first song and was only primarily used as a vehicle there if I recall. We’ll just disagree on HOW prominent it was. Honestly, I wish I could have seen, either live or on video, that collaborative Glass/Wilson production of ‘Einstein.’ I’m 25, so the last time it was fully staged I was 7 years old had no idea who Phillip Glass was… LOL. They’re reviving it again in 2012, so there’s still hope for me! Thanks for the response!

    • Jerome Weeks

      If you’re truly interested in Glass and ‘Einstein,’ there’s some footage of the ’92 BAM revival (if memory serves) in the very good PBS’ American Masters documentary from 2007: ‘Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts’. Of course, the opera’s 5 hours long, so nothing on video can reflect its eons-passing sense of time. On the other hand, the 2012 revival will preview in Ann Arbor in January, so that’s not exactly an eon to wait.