Phillip Glass’ Opera of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher


By B. Noel Barr, Music Columnist and John Farrell, Theater Columnist

On Jan. 19, we traveled to the beautiful Art Theatre on 4th near Cherry Avenue in Long Beach. In a program that was a bit of a tease for the Fall Of the House of Usher, Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, we were treated an old silent movie about Edgar Allen Poe and his poem, The Raven. Behind the film was the magnificent piano virtuosity of Ms. Michelle Schuman. Here she played other works of Glass to this sad life of Edgar Allen Poe and The Raven. The music by Glass that accompanied the film, were Metamorphosis and Orph’ee Suite.  

Long Beach Opera Company is bringing the Poe masterpiece, The Fall of the House of Usher, to the Warner Grand Theatre.

This is a psychological operatic work that chills you to the bone. The terror and madness that belies the story that seems to mirror Poe’s life. The deeply troubled Roderick Usher, like Poe,  is bipolar, though Poe’s troubles were brought on by his addictions to alcohol and opiates.

Our narrator enters a world of his friend Roderick Usher and his (twin) sister Madeline. Madeline, who is very attached to her brother, seems deathly ill, but from what? Who knows. With a story setup that includes being buried alive, incest and other introspective maladies, — Oh, we can get deep into contemporary drama with this trio.

Singers and actors Susan Hanson as Madeline Usher, Ryan McPherson as Roderick Usher, Jonathon Mack as the Physician, William is Lee Gregory and Nick Shelton as the servant bring a very striking and rich opera that takes the audience into the depths of insanity. The libretto or vocal story, written by Arthur Yorinks, is as breathtaking as is the music by Philip Glass. The beauty of this opera is the full vocals intertwined with deeply stark music. The intensity of the story really propels the music. This 18th century horror tale, recreated in present time, touche you in a very scary way.

Behind the Curtains of a Philip Glass’ Poe Production

The First United Methodist Church of Long Beach has a full-sized gym with blue painted brick walls, a basketball court under a suspended ceiling and a stage at one end. There, are gathered a rehearsal pianist, an orange extension cord running to her piano, a group of singers facing her and the two glass windows to the outside. Also, there is a man working his way through a book, keeping track of the singers. At the far end is a coffee pot and bottled water for the performers — the voice needs to be continually lubricated.

A conductor stands next to the piano, beating time with what looks like a pen as the singers rehearsed short sections of what is unmistakably a Philip Glass score. The singers, dressed in street clothes, ignore the children just outside the glass as carefully as the children ignore the singers.

This odd juxtaposition of noisy forces: the singers and the children, marks one of the first rehearsals of Long Beach Opera’s initial production of their 2013 season, The Fall of the House of Usher, an opera by Glass, libretto by Arthur Yorinks, premiered in 1988 is getting its first hearing on the West Coast in this production. Long Beach Opera has used the gym for rehearsals for several years, even for performances of Brundebar, an opera composed by Hanz Craza.

Early rehearsals are important for the performers, who learn the musical score and how the conductor and director view the music. The cast was rehearsing last week in the gym. This week they move to the Warner Grand, where they will rehearse the action. The opera, set originally in early 19th century Baltimore by Edgar Allen Poe, will be given an Art Deco enhancement by the elegance of the Warner Grand.

Suzan Hanson, who created the role of Madeline in the opera’s premiere 25 years ago at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., is one of the performers on folding chairs facing the pianist (and the children outside). She has no problems with her words, even though she is heard throughout the opera, and knows the score intimately, she doesn’t remember her words. She doesn’t have to. Madeline never speaks a word in the entire production.

She puts on gloves against the cold in the gym…er…rehearsal hall, and later in rehearsal she is seen calmly knitting through the music. The knitting, she explains later, is for a sweater to combat the cold in Chicago. After three performances in San Pedro the opera is being moved, with most of the cast, to performances in Chicago. This is the first co-production in which Andreas Mitisek, artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera, is taking to his new home at the Chicago Opera Theater. Mitisek was appointed artistic director there this past year.

The Fall of the House of Usher is a tale of Gothic horror telling a classic tale. William, a childhood friend of Roderick Usher, is summoned to his home. Roderick, the only survivor of the Ushers, tells William that his sister Madeline is dying from a disease that involves the loss of control of her body. When she does die, William and Roderick bury her below the ancient Usher house. But Roderick cannot rest. He believes he has buried Madeline alive, and eventually she reappears and kills Roderick. William flees and the house cracks and falls apart.

Mitisek decided to stage Fall in the middle of the past year, and hired Ken Cazan, who earlier directed Long Beach Opera’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen, to direct this production. Cazan, who is resident stage director at USC, sees this opera as something more than just a spooky story.

“I had an automatic reaction to the relationship of Roderick and William,” Cazan said in a recent interview. “Roderick’s desperate need of William, and William’s very ‘sensitive’ gift of a music box and anxiousness to be with Roderick, immediately impressed me as a budding or long desired homosexual relationship. Perhaps it was tending to go there in their youths, as they played together during puberty and adolescence. Certainly, Roderick wrote to William, beseeching him to come and help him, in a desperate voice, practically begging for him to join him. William feels an unusual sense of passion for Roderick, a long lost friend whom he hasn’t seen since they were children. William very forcefully speaks of taking Roderick away, and of saving him.”

That very different view of Poe’s Gothic horror story is fine with Mitisek, who expects to get very individual views from the creative people he works with.

Fall of the House of Usher is only the first of two tales by Poe to be featured in this year’s Long Beach Opera schedule. After a production of Gabriel Ortiz’ Camelia La Tejana: Only the Truth (Unicamente la Verdad) March 24 and 30 at Long Beach’s Terrace Theatre Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart in an opera by Stewart Copeland and Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh will be produced as a double-bill May 11, 18 and 19 at the Expo Center in Long Beach. The final production of the current season will be Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth set for June 15, 22 and 23 at the Port of Los Angeles.

Tickets for The Fall of the House of Usher are $29 to $160. Performances are Jan. 27 at 2 p.m., Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 3 at 2 p.m.

Details: (562) 432-5934,
Warner Grand Theatre
478 W. 6th St., San Pedro



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.