Opera with an edge

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MUSICAL HOWL | Allen Ginsberg’s poetry spoke to ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’s’ out cast members Dan Kempson, back left, and Jonathan Blalock, center. (Photo courtesy Ellen Appel)

Ginsberg & Glass team up for ‘Hydrogen Jukebox,’ the latest in FWO’s out-of-the-box operas

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

What do you get when you combine the Mobius-strip music of Phillip Glass with the vulgar, passionate lyricism of gay poet Allen Ginsberg? Believe it or not, you get an opera. Or an opera of sorts, at least.

Ever since converting to a festival format four years ago, the Fort Worth Opera has established a rep for doing edgy, unusual versions of that most august of theatrical forms: Opera. Yes, they have done grand operas in the classic vein (Carmen, Don Giovanni, Turandot), but they’ve also introduced world premieres and unheralded new works with complex, modern (often gay) themes: gay composer Tom Pasatieri’s dark Frau Margot, Jorge Martin’s challenging, frank adaptation of gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls; the reimagining of an opera based on Angels in America.

Up this time is perhaps the most unusually named opera in a while (Hydrogen Jukebox) composed by a master of minimalism and set to the granddaddy of the Beat Generation.

This is not your father’s — or your grandfather’s — idea of opera. Or, for that matter, the director’s.

“I never thought I’d direct a Philip Glass piece,” admits Lawrence Edelson, who is choreographing and directing Hydrogen Jukebox for his debut at the FWO. “They do not follow linear narrative arcs, and I personally tend to drift toward the more narrative type of opera as a director. As much as I’ve enjoyed his music, I never thought it was something I’d dive into. The conventional ideas about storytelling are put on hold.”

But Edelson was drawn to the piece, in part after meeting Glass.

“It was something quite unique — he’s an icon in American music,” Edelson says. “There’s usually not a tight relationship with the text [and his music], so what’s really fascinating about this work is, it’s Ginsberg’s poetry, and there’s a tremendous respect for the treatment of it.”

Setting the Howl author’s poems to music might seem like a foolish exercise, but actually, it’s a natural fit.

“Ginsberg really believed in the performative aspect of poetry, that poetry should live off the page,” Edelson says. And his poems, culled over 40 years for this opera, still speak to contemporary issues.

“Ginsberg’s poetry really spoke to me, and many of the issues he was struggling with in the ‘50s, ‘60 and ‘70s are among the same issues we still struggle with today,” says Darren Woods, general director of FWO.

“Ginsberg was a very out gay poet — his poems are about freedom from sexual repression and gay lib, and though this isn’t a gay piece per se, there are a couple of poems that” address those issues, Edelson says.  “As a gay man, to be able to work off of material that has personal relevance, but I am not the same sort of gay man Ginsberg was! My life is not so colorful,” Edelson says. “Hydrogen Jukebox could be gayed up; I think that would be wrong. Ginsberg was not writing just for gay America, but for everybody.”

Interpreting poetry for the stage posed an interesting dilemma for Edelson: As a director, he’s accustomed to creating a specific reaction in an audience; poetry, however, is subject to multiple interpretations, none of which are wrong.

“My job [this time] is not to impose a specific interpretation but rather to set up an environment where the audience is able to take in the poetry in a way that’s meaningful for them,” he says. “All these things will inform the way you receive it.”

For out cast members Jonathan Blalock and Dan Kempson, the work has personal significance.

“I find it interesting that the portion of the opera that deals with a gay love story [“Green Automobile,” an elegy to Neal Cassady, with whom Ginsberg has a long-term affair] is presented as just one story,” Kempson says. “It speaks to a universality of love, not just presented as ‘We’re gay! Notice us!’ It’s as normal and as painful and as lovely and as beautiful as any love story.”

“I think it’s wonderful Fort Worth Opera is brave enough to attack off-the-beaten path operas, both musically and topically,” says Blalock, who also appeared in Before Night Falls. “It can be scary for a number of reasons, including financial, but the FWO has brought their audience along with them to the 21st century.”

Blalock was in the closet when he first met Kempson four years ago, so doing this production together has brought him full-circle in more than one way: “In this show, I kiss someone, but it’s a girl. It’s OK, though,” he says, “I’m a good actor.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 20, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Culture: Year in Review 2010

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | jones@dallasvoice.com

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WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? ‘Before Night Falls,’ above, was one of two acclaimed operas (both by gay composers) to get their world premieres in North Texas in 2010.

While 2009 got a lot of the arts ink with the opening of the new performance spaces Downtown — which have turned out to be problematic behemoths with too many issues to name here — 2010 had its own highlights culturally (both high and low culture at that), especially those of relevance to the gay community.

While the Winspear Opera House itself continues to underwhelm with its limited restrooms, awkward configuration and confusing ergonomics, the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s opera Moby Dick turned out to be an artistic highlight of the year. Combining a massive set with video graphics, it may usher in a new technological advance to the venerable art form.

Over in Tarrant County, Fort Worth Opera general director Darren Woods helped cultivate his own world premiere, Jorge Martin’s Before Night Falls, based on queer poet Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir. It was shocking, frank and a promising addition to the canon.

As the Dallas Theater Center continues to toil in the cramped Chinese box that is the Wyly Theatre, Uptown Players held its first full season at the mostly vacated Kalita Humphreys Theater — making it truly an Uptown troupe now. The experiment proved so successful that not only was the entire season staged there, but 2011’s full season (with a few special events) will be there, too.

College student John Otte tried to put on an excerpted version of Terrence McNally’s controversial play Corpus Christi as part of a school project, but threats by others in the community led Otte to cancel his production. Threats were not able to derail several screenings — local and national — of Dallas filmmaker Israel Luna’s grindhouse revenge fantasy Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, which caused a hoopla at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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X MARKS THE SPOT | Jorge Rivas’ Faces of Life photo exhibit seeks to raise money for AIDS Arms.

Jorge Rivas’ Faces of Life photographic venture took the concept of stylized photos that make a political and artistic statement — from PETA to NOH8 — and gave it a local angle, with dozens of Texans posing with oversized red ribbons to raise money and awareness for AIDS Arms.

Gay sports fans had a lot to cheer about this year, too. First, Uptown Vision’s TKO team took the top trophy at the gay softball World Series in Ohio this summer. Unrelatedly, but still impressively, the second annual NAGAAA Cup — a kind of prelim to the World Series — will be held in Dallas next spring. Major League World Series fans also got to see the Texas Rangers in their first bid ever, though they lost in the fifth game to San Francisco.

In the fall, the Dallas Diablos held the second HellFest rugby tourney and exceeded all expectations when teams from eight cities participated in an event everyone involved declared a success …. even the half-dozen escorted off the field in stretchers. Hey, it is rubgy.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Sneak preview of FWO's 'Before Night Falls,' the story of a gay man in Fidel Castro's Cuba

DVtv’s Cindy Chaffin reports:

Last night I attended the KERA/Art&Seek panel discussion, “Before Night Falls: Relationships, Politics and Opera,” at the Robert J. O’Donnell Lecture-Recital Hall at SMU. KERA’s Jerome Weeks led the panel discussion which featured composer and librettist Jorge Martín, costume designer Claudia Stephens and the oh-so-yummy star of the opera, Wes Mason.

Here’s what the Fort Worth Opera tells us about the upcoming production:

“As Reinaldo Arenas lies dying of AIDS in New York City, he remembers his beloved homeland before and after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. Born in extreme poverty, Arenas joins Castro’s rebellion as a teen. As he matures, he realizes that Castro is not interested in a free Cuba after all. A rising poet and writer, he defies Castro when a manuscript is smuggled out of the country and published in France. Embarrassed by the bad publicity, the regime imprisons Arenas for being a homosexual. After imprisonment and torture, he agrees to stop writing as a condition of his release, but can not handle his ‘silence’ for long. He escapes to the U.S. in the Mariel exodus, but during his new found freedom outside of Cuba he contracts HIV/AIDS. He rushes to complete his memoir before he commits suicide to end his suffering.”

This short video is a taste of what to expect. Just imagine fabulous costumes, an impressive set design and a backing symphony. Personally, I’m going to imagine Wes Mason shirtless. “Before Night Falls” runs May 29 through June 6.

—  John Wright