A good story, well told, draws the hearer in. Add speech or song, rhythmic sound, rhythmic movement, the play of light and color, perhaps a prop or two, and story becomes theater and such a story, for the duration of its telling, may become to the audience all there is. A compelling tale supplants the world.
That power to make a distracting world disappear was on display on Saturday evening in a park adjacent to the Queen Mary, where Long Beach Opera premiered its production of the late Peter Lieberson's King Gesar.
In the open air, this king found himself potentially in competition with traffic noise, police helicopters, and megahits of the 70s and 80s (Earth Wind & Fire! Billy Idol!) pumping out to the crowd at a dockside Lobster Festival across the narrow stretch of water separating the park from downtown Long Beach. As the performance began, one last helicopter circled and searched for malefactors—somehow appropriate, actually, to an introductory segment complaining of the mechanized awfulness of contemporary life—but then flew off. At that point, either good fortune or the aforementioned power of the tale took hold and this mortal plane fell away for the ensuing hour.
Technically a monodrama—for a single narrator and an octet of two pianos, cello, flute, horn, clarinet, trombone and percussion—Lieberson also characterized King Gesar as a sort of "campfire opera," envisioning perhaps a small company of travelers holding off the night swapping incidents from the legendary life of the enlightened warrior Gesar of Ling, a towering figure in the epic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. (Lieberson, himself a follower of Tibetan Buddhism throughout his adult life, apparently also envisioned King Gesar as a Rheingoldische precursor to a Ring-like cycle of operas to be drawn from that tradition, but only completed one more [Ashoka's Dream (1997)] in his lifetime.)
Director/designer Andreas Mitisek has expanded the company by dividing the narrator's part between two performers, male (Roberto Perlas Gomez) and female (Danielle Marcelle Bond), and by the addition of a pair of dancers (Kelly Ray and Javier Gonzalez). There are only small segments of outright singing involved: most of the narration consists of rhythmically accented patter-speech or sprechstimme, much of it taken at a challengingly furious pace matching the high adventure of the saga. Both narrators managed the piece's intricacies with skill, point and impressive clarity, as well as moments of surprising humor. The octet negotiated the challenges of Lieberson's evocative serialist score with similar success, under the direction of Kristof Van Grysperre.
Two central incidents illustrate how much can be conveyed by simple means. First, Gesar becomes king by tricking his wicked uncle into sponsoring a horse race, open to all comers, with the throne as prize. Being a magical being, Gesar puts the idea in his uncle's head while in the guise of a raven, which appears as a stick puppet, voiced in a Yodaesque style by Mr. Gomez. The race itself is illustrated with more puppetry, character masks wielded atop staffs, as all of the performers jockey and jostle for position. Naturally, Gesar prevails, his scrawny nag of a horse being revealed as powerfully magical in its own right.
Later, Gesar fights for all mankind against the evil Tirthikas, with the aid for four godlike emanations of himself. As the narrators breathlessly describe the aspects and actions of each mighty avatar, the dancers' combined shadows depict them on a sheet above. The shadow work was a particular creative highlight of the evening.
The staging as a whole brought Peter Brook to mind, with reference both to his production of The Mahabharata (another epic from another, related tradition) and to his proposition that any empty space can be declared a stage: "A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."
Varied and adventurous as the company has been over the years, King Gesar resembles nothing else that Long Beach Opera has done. It surpasses expectations with ease, resulting in a short evening of marvelously satisfying music theater, a testament to the simplifying, clarifying, mesmerizing power of song and story.
King Gesar was commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennial, where it premiered in 1992 with an ensemble including pianists Peter Serkin and Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The U.S. premiere came at Tanglewood the following year with the same principals, who also performed on the recorded version issued in 1996. The Southwest Chamber Music Society gave the work its West Coast premiere in 1997, here in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance. My own admittedly not-exhaustive research has not revealed a fully "staged" version of the piece prior to this one.
Saturday's opening performance sold out; tickets may be available for the remaining two performance, September 13 and 14. All performances are at 8:00 because stories should be told at night.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.
[As ever with Long Beach Opera, the blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.]