Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hydrogen Jukebox

Photo credit: mellopix
Last Friday I attended West Edge Opera's staging of Philip Glass's Hydrogen Jukebox. The performance was in the lobby of the Ed Roberts Campus at the Asbhy BART station. I found the institutional setting off-putting. I arrived while a pre-performance talk was in progress, & I'm afraid I was one of those grabby people that Patrick complained about. My seat was about halfway back, & it felt far away from the small raised stage at the other end of the lobby. One elderly patron decided she also was too far away & simply moved her chair to a row closer up.

Though the opera has no plot, characters or setting, director Elkhanah Pulitzer filled every moment with activities for the entire cast. We saw lots of cigarette smoking & making out between same-sex couples. Every male performer was shirtless at some point. I liked when the cast threw paper airplanes toward the audience. Good use was made of ladders leading up to the walkways above either side of the stage, where a small band played, hidden from the audience. Conductor David Möschler could be seen, though, via monitors in plain view. At the end of the 1st act he climbed down a ladder to get to a piano in front of the stage, where he accompanied an animated recitation by actor Howard Swain. The music, libretto & staging all functioned at different levels, & I frequently felt adrift.

Soprano Sara Duchovnay displayed solid high notes & a strong, bright-edged sound. Mezzo Molly Mahoney sang a sultry vocalise while standing halfway up a ladder. Mezzo Nicole Takesono was soft-edged. Tenor Jonathan Blalock has a distinctive high, clear voice that is sweet & almost sexless. Bass Kenneth Kellogg sounded anchored & secure. Baritone Efrain Solis's voice is both warm & brawny, & he sounded ethereal in the piece's opening & closing moments. Maestro Möschler led the trance-inducing music at an even pace. In the 2nd act, a saxophone player sat atop one of the ladders & convincingly evoked the 1950s with his improvised accompaniment to another recitation.

Following the performance, the audience was invited to mingle with the performers at a wine & dessert reception on the roof of the building. I saw a great view of the moon & was offered a beautiful s'more cupcake by the person who baked them.

§ Hydrogen Jukebox
Music: Philip Glass
Words: Allen Ginsberg

West Edge Opera
Conductor – David Möschler
Stage Director – Elkhanah Pulitzer

Soprano 1 – Sara Duchovnay
Soprano 2 – Molly Mahoney
Mezzo – Nicole Takesono
Tenor – Jonathan Blalock
Baritone – Efrain Solis
Bass – Kenneth Kellogg
Narrator – Howard Swain

Fri, August 8, 8:00 p.m.
Ed Roberts Campus, Berkeley


Patrick J. Vaz said...

Actually, I was complaining about the awkwardness of having a pre-performance talk while people were trying to find a seat. I'm sure your behavior was above reproach -- open seating is the law of the jungle and only the strong survive or have unobstructed views. We were invited for a glass of wine after the first performance; if I'd known there might be cupcakes, I might have gone.

Unknown said...

We learned the hard way to get there early, even before the talk to get the best seats. Overall the three shows were a great experience! Still, let's hope next season WEO is able to find a space with fixed seats!

Axel Feldheim said...

The timing of the pre-performance talk was awkward, & it did seem to be content-free. Sometimes you have to be a bit aggressive to get past the old ladies.

I think I kind of lucked out with the cupcakes. I seemed to know more people than usual at the event, so I was unusually chatty, & the tray of cupcakes appeared only after the reception had started to thin. Perhaps they were concerned there would not be enough to go around otherwise.

I got there half an hour before curtain, but really I wouldn't have wanted to be any earlier. Who wants to hang around a vocational school? The seats were a pain. I had to be careful just crossing my legs, in case I scraped the chair on the floor.

Unknown said...

Haha! I'm glad you liked the cupcake. I made them for my cast mates and didn't want to take the calories home with me.

David Lasson said...

Two points:
1. I'll wager that your aggression towards old ladies was nurtured--as many of ours is--though years of encountering those sweeties carrying egg tarts and live chickens on San Francisco's 30 Stockton bus.
2. You've shown your true opera snob colors by disparaging vocational schools. Who do you think teaches the people who tune Philip Glass's piano? You would do well to confine your disdain for the hoi polloi to your trips to the War Memorial, where it is both welcome and expected.

Axel Feldheim said...

Gosh, I thought that cupcake hostess looked familiar! Thanks so much for sharing & giving me an extra treat that evening!

1) I did not see any egg tarts or live chickens in the audience, though the lady next to me was clutching copies of Howl & Graham Greene's An Affair to Remember.

2) Oops, I do not mean to disparage the Ed Robert Campus itself or vocational schools in general. I took for my 1st adult computer programming class in such a setting, & I was trying to communicate the venue's unsuitability as an immersive performance venue. It's just not a space that puts me in the mood for art appreciation. The presenters did their best to provide amenities, but I couldn't shake the feeling I was sitting in a hospital waiting room.

The lobby does have a cool area enwrapped by a Guggenheim-style spiral ramp, but it was clearly demarcated as a "Donor Lounge" for the evening.

As for the piano tuners, the performance did utilize one actual piano, but it was out of tune, presumably by intent, though there was some discussion about this afterward.

David Lasson said...

An exclusive donor lounge? It's good to know that, even at a BART station, the snobbery of opera is intact--and trumps even the "universal access" trumpeted by the Ed Roberts Campus.