First premiering in 1988, “Hydrogen Jukebox” is an unorthodox take on opera that attempts to convey the overwhelming feelings held by American citizens from the 1950s to the 1980s. In tackling this deliberately dense work, Utopia Opera opted for a number of creative choices that made the performance as relatable as it was satisfying.
The characters of “Hydrogen Jukebox” are nameless, yet far from lacking in personality. Departing from the original archetypes of policeman, waitress, mechanic, priest, cheerleader, and businessman, the cast of Utopia Opera were costumed in a way that left few guessing who they were or where they came from.
As each character made their first interactions with one another amongst the minimalist set, each of their varying temperaments was wiped away by the disturbing words they silently read from a red notebook passed among them. The fourth song of the second act “Numbers in Red Notebook; To Aunt Rose” made the meaning clear: they were statistics concerning the death-tolls of the war, the destruction of the environment, the distance between Earth and the heavenly bodies, and the petty wages made by artistic endeavor; all things that gave a powerful sense of humanity’s insignificant existence. Faced with these cold, hard facts, it made perfect sense that the characters tore pages out of their red notebooks as an act of defiance in the first act.
Throughout the first act we saw how external forces shaped the events that the characters were steeped in with songs like ‘Yahweh and Allah Battle,” as well as how the characters turned to recreational drugs and eastern spirituality in ‘Consulting I Ching…” and “Marijuana Notation” to gain an outside perspective into their fates. One moment of great meaning was delivered as tenor Matt Hughes affectionately stroked the head of baritone Nathaniel Sullivan as he uttered “Did we take our malaria pills today?… Happy birthday, Peter, your 29th year.” I saw this as the continuation of love and intimacy despite the conditions faced by young men who had been shipped off to war in Vietnam.
Their ordeals manifested a wisdom born from experience, marked by the drastic shift in tone when music director William Remmers crossed from his keyboard to the piano for the song “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Rather than being delivered by one character, each of the cast had their own kernel of deep truth to share with the others, further emphasizing the theme of connection as the repeating chords welled alongside the joy that came from releasing these long-suppressed emotions.
In the second act, the blissful expressions left the audience with a dark, mechanical turn as we’re introduced to yet another deity: Moloch. Throughout the opera, the poetry of Ginsberg was projected on the wall behind the stage, lending form from which the constantly-changing emotions worked off. With the beginning of Act two, even this was thrown into disarray as the actors raged against the sentient discord of industry that was Moloch, aurally represented with a wild, blaring saxophone. Second baritone Jeff Goble stood out in this section, dressed somewhere between a boy-scout and a country club-goer made his bitter condemnations against Moloch all the more poignant.
In the aftermath of Moloch, there was silence, but not peace. The stillness lacked any greater meaning or religious authority as soprano La Toya Lewis muses “I haven’t thought of Buddha once today.” With no guidance man becomes their own master, and we saw this as Lewis gave the pages of her own red notebook to the actors who approached her.
As a whole, the cast was well-coordinated and used the small space of Hunter College’s Lang Recital Hall to its fullest potential. They shifted from a herd which changed directions on a beat, into pairs, singles, and trios; at one point emerging from their spinning huddle with sunglasses and crossed arms as they sang of the CIA’s involvement with the drug trade in South America with the song “Violence.” By the end of the show and their mutual journey, the cast sang with a wizened acceptance of the vast forces which control life in “Father Death Blues.” Though the suffering of the world had not been in any way conquered, it was in that suffering that love, and the characters, found one another to lend a shoulder to lean on and make the pain more bearable, ending with the lyric “my heart is still, as time will tell.”