- Reporters Desk
Long Beach Opera produces an unsettling dark journey into a neon American apocalypse
Ivan Adame, Contributing Writer
Hydrogen Jukebox, which closed June 7 after a weeklong run in San Pedro, was staged in the rear of the same space that houses Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles. It was an appropriate setting for the American wistfulness wrought by Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, who penned the opera. Warehouse 10, with its exposed ceiling and concrete floor, echoes our history of blue-collar working people and mechanical production.
The composition is the result of a late—1980s collaboration between composer Philip Glass and Ginsberg. It shares a few themes with another of Glass’ operas, Einstein on the Beach; as a contemporary opera, it examines the post-World War II American identity. It also looks ahead to the future and asks moral questions.
However, Hydrogen Jukebox is heavily darkened by the shadow of Vietnam. It shows the nation in desperate need of soul-searching. It calls us out on present, and questionable, American values that could drag us again onto a destructive path.
The show is a loud, frightening and colorful 90-minute neon odyssey into Ginsberg’s headspace—a harrowing psychedelic revue of more than a dozen poems, performed as songs with operatic, apocalyptic bravado. It pushes its audience to look at the present conflicts in the Middle East and our current foreign policy failures, as words are projected in large type on a wall.
As each song closes, the opera becomes more stoned, delving deeper into a vast desert of the poet’s frustrations with sexuality, mortality and spirituality, peaking with an excerpt of Ginsberg’s poetic opus Howl, crying “Moloch!”
Everything in this play feels retrofitted. There is no real stage; instead, the audience surrounds the flat space in which the characters perform.
The character of the poet, modeled after Ginsberg, is wheeled around in an aluminum shelf, while the singers and dancers—half of whom are dressed in black uniforms, the others dressed in Eastern robes—jump into and push around a wheeled wooden crate. During the performance, both props looked like something borrowed from inside the warehouse.
The performers, sometimes acting as crazy, little abstract figures, moved around the stage, sometimes pointing and making weird faces at the audience. They handed audience members tiny sheets of paper, with printed poetry— like a souvenir from a crazy dream.
While much of it is unsettling, accompanied by Glass’ signature drone of repetitive notes, it’s contrasted with moments of beauty. A transcendent, gospel-like interpretation of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” simultaneously captured the tragedy of the status quo and a hope for future change.
The effort of interpreting Ginsberg’s poetry in both Glass’ composition and the Long Beach Opera’s production was potent enough to alter perceptions. The grand voices of these performers not only reflected against the wall, but left an impression on them. As the neon shapes ran across the floor, it definitely made one re-think the way Ginsberg’s poetry — with all its madness and destruction — is visualized.
Hydrogen Jukebox operates like one of those black lights: You turn it on and then all the unusual and nasty stuff begins to glow. Suddenly, it becomes a moral choice for you to decide whether or not it was ever there.