Q & A: Utopia Opera on ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’

Credit: Utopia Opera

On September 22, 2017, Utopia Opera will premiere its production of “Hydrogen Jukebox,” a modern chamber opera born from the collaboration of poet Alan Ginsberg and composer Philip Glass. During the 1988 presidential election debates between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, Glass and Ginsberg felt they weren’t addressing the real concerns of the American people and this became the impetus for their chamber opera. The overarching theme is that of expressing the deeply-profound, almost ineffable feelings shared across the country from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Operawire had the chance to sit down with the cast and crew of Utopia Opera, including but not limited to, stage director Gary Slavin, music director William Remmers, soprano La Toya Lewis, tenor Matthew Hughes, mezzo-soprano Kristin Behrmann, and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan to discuss their approach to such a thematically ambitious work.

OW: Ginsberg describes the hydrogen jukebox as this “state where people are at the limits of their sensory input.” How did you all work with the hyper-condensation of music and emotion, these vast themes like war, spirituality, and the environment, that are in this work?

Gary Slavin: We talked about this during one of the first days of rehearsal. [Ginsberg’s] quote from the poem ‘Howl” is “listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox” and it’s a great quote; I feel like the hydrogen jukebox is this collection of ideas and thoughts, but not necessarily a linear progress through anything. We’re discovering and finding ways to make it linear but on the page it doesn’t say “here are these people and they go to this place and this thing happens and they meet this person and this happens…” It’s not that kind of a story. It’s a selection of images, paintings, ideas, and poetry; and it’s been, certainly for me, I have exceptional artists and an exceptional collaborator, and there are moments that are startling in their honesty and power and I think that’s a testament to how good they are at what they do, and how good the writing is.

Ginsberg is a spectacular poet, and he puts together words that feel ordinary, but are not, all at once. With Philip Glass it’s his reverential way of treating the lyrics and he sets the text in a way that lets you discover things. We discovered that for one song the dotted quarter note changed the sense of the sentence. It became “over Denver, again,” rather than “over Denver again.” It becomes a different sentence. So it’s been really cool to explore in this collaborative environment where people speak up and say, “I want to do this,” and we’ve had some amazing discoveries that way.

OW: Let’s talk about the writing. The libretto is almost like a scrapbook in terms of putting all these poems together, do you feel that changes anything about how the story goes?

Gary Slavin: We’ve embraced the idea of the scrapbook libretto deeply. To know more you’ll have to come see it, because I don’t want to give it away, but that idea, there’s a piece called “Numbers in a Red Notebook” and that very idea resonated with me when I first read it, and we’ve adopted it as part of our thematic structure in terms of a clothes-line to hang it on so that the audience doesn’t feel like “I have no idea what’s going on.”  We’ve found a couple of things to hang on to and the notebook is one of them.

La Toya Lewis: And to your point, spoiler alert, Gary has said that we’re great performers and we’re able to see his vision, but Gary has been able to give us “who we are” and even though these things don’t really go together, it feels like it does, especially the way it’s staged. We’re able to find these moments where we’re like “Yeah, I was on my phone in this one, and I’m gonna be on my phone in this one.” I’m still that same person, even though now we’re talking about something different and I think that’s gonna be really good for the audience to hold on to so they can say, “this person is this, that person is that, I understand what’s happening here.”

OW: Can you speak about the characters being “All-American archetypes?”

Gary Slavin: Well, we have archetypes, but we’re not necessarily those, but we’ve all decided on “who we are”  and what we represent in the world. We’re working very much with the idea that all these people are just facets of the thing that is humanity. This is a commonality we experience in that everybody knows this given thing even though we’re all dressed in different ways. It’s heady but very accessible, we have a group of performers who are very engaging and they don’t sing at you, they sing to you.

OW: So the music is not the usual Philip Glass that you would normally listen to. Can you talk about the challenges you’ve had with singing this score?

Matthew Hughes: As far as learning this piece as opposed to traditional opera, I’ve actually had to go to the poet, open the poetry first, memorize it, then go to the music. I think to the point made earlier, Philip Glass is really reverential to Alan Ginsberg and the way the rhythm of the words go, so once you learn the poetry it becomes a lot easier to sort of “slide in” to the music of Philip Glass where it looks overwhelming on the page, going from 9/8 to 7/8 to 5/4 all the time, but in reality the words are very much as they’re spoken.

William Remmers: I think it’s a testament to Glass’ ability, like you said, to be reverential to the text and alter his style in accordance to the text. Of course everyone sort of knows the Philip Glass style, but he’s not afraid to divert from that and there’s several points in the show where it vastly departs from the Philip Glass style. The final thing is sort of a barber shop quartet, or sextet almost, and it just speaks to Glass being able to put the text before his own style.

La Toya Lewis: Yeah, in this piece in particular because I’m a super fan-girl of a lot of Glass’ works. I wasn’t expecting it to stick in your head for a different reason. One thing Gary pointed out is this song where we’re in Sacramento Valley and we’re all at bottom of our registers. He’s doing stuff like that which does way more “word-painting” than I’m used to.

OW: Since the opera spans from the 1950s to the 1980s, is there anything from your past experiences that you find yourself bringing to this production?

Gary Slavin: Well, as the oldest one here, I remember reading the poetry of Ginsberg and being taken aback by how relatable it was; being a gay kid in Idaho, it was amazing that someone was saying all these things and that it wasn’t smut, it was art; that these were feelings shared by others across the country.

OW: Let’s talk about the song “Wichita Vortex Sutra’ since that was the first collaboration between Ginsberg and Glass, with the rest of the opera developing around it.

Nathaniel Sullivan: So yeah, it’s right smack dab in the middle of the show. I don’t want to give away too much about how the text is set, other than to say that the text is purely spoken, and while most productions seem to have one cast member recite the whole thing, we divided the text among all 6 of us. So it’s more of a dialogue than a monologue, which makes it a much more dynamic scene.

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About the Author

Logan Martell

Logan Martell is a senior at Fordham University pursuing a degree in Medieval Studies. His passion for storytelling has led to opportunities studying under Broadway luminaries as he strives to take his work to ever-higher levels.

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