What a pleasure it has been to spend these weeks in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area as we work on a new production of Hydrogen Jukebox at West Edge Opera. In JUKEBOX, Philip Glass writes compelling musical theater that is different from the conventions of most operas. We still hear the signature minimalism in this show that we all associate with this composer; the unique nature of this opera largely stems from the libretto. Here Glass didn’t turn to a typical story; instead, the text consists of poems by the iconic Beat Poet, Allen Ginsberg.
Hydrogen Jukebox, Ginsberg’s poignant words essentially skip the typical storytelling devices of exposition and characters. We cut through the traditional theatrical conceit and jump straight into life’s most supreme questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes us human? What is love? What is life? What is death? How do we deal with suffering? How can we care for all life on the planet?
I had the pleasure of singing in the Fort Worth Opera production of Hydrogen Jukebox in 2011. It was one of the most challenging, beautiful and meaningful experiences of my life, and I’ll always remember that creative team fondly. However, I’m thoroughly enjoying a chance to revisit this gorgeously dense work after three and a half more years of experience. I’m referring to LIFE experience, not just work onstage. Personal growth is more important to me than professional progress, especially for this particular project. Additionally, although this piece first premiered almost 25 years ago, it’s more relevant in 2014 than ever before.
Ginsberg was possibly the foremost figure of writers known as the Beat Generation. He and other post World War II authors including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady confronted the popular culture with uncomfortable realities that many were afraid to face. A few of their common themes were spirituality, drugs, freedom of deep emotional expression, alternative views of sexuality and a rejection of materialism and hardcore capitalism.
When I consider the subject matter promulgated in some of our current popular entertainment (Fifty Shades of Grey, top 40 singers and rappers, etc), it’s nearly unfathomable to think that both Ginsberg and Burroughs faced obscenity trials for their work. We have a mainstream movie called SEX TAPE that’s currently playing in theaters across the country! Ginsberg’s groundbreaking poem HOWL seems fairly tame by today’s standards, but we can’t forget that he first published it in the mid-fifties. This was the era dominated by conservative entertainment such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” In “I Love Lucy,” the married couple slept in separate beds; when Lucy found out that she was expecting, the TV censors didn’t even allow her to use the word “pregnant!” I’m currently reading Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers, a love story set in DC during the rise of McCarthy and the Lavender Scare. This kind of paranoia and repression circulating around Washington and Middle America in the 50’s was completely contrary the more liberated thinking and writing of the Beats.
I can surely only scratch the surface of the message behind Hydrogen Jukebox, but more truth is emerging each time I revisit the words and music. When asked about this opera, Ginsberg explains, “Ultimately, the motif of Hydrogen Jukebox, the underpinning, the secret message, the secret activity, is to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium.” We’re well into the next millennium, but these issues are still weighing heavily in our lives. Human suffering is sadly still a strong presence, particularly now in places such as Ukraine and the Gaza Strip. Additionally, we each face struggles in personal trials with work, family, friends and various daily trials.
Our brilliant stage director, Elkhanah Pulitzer, implements powerful elements of Brechtian Theater in our production. We create dramatic images from the past 100 years including 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, daily metropolitan life, love scenes and various human interactions. In the first scene we all begin with our heads buried in our personal electronic devices. Each of us is stuck in our own dream state, unaware of life beyond our personal sphere. It’s a snapshot of my daily experience on the NYC subway as I bury myself into my kindle or my Iphone, drowning out life outside my headphones.
We then move into a quiet number that pointedly asks, “Who’s the enemy?” It’s a vital question that I often don’t often take time to ask in my life. Our latest official conflict was a “war on terror.” Terror can be a legitimate foe, but for me the source of that enemy isn’t something external. This portion of the opera occasionally brings me to tears because I realize that the enemy is actually MYSELF. More specifically, it’s the power, negativity and delusion of the egoic mind that often overtakes my thoughts and actions. Shedding light on this actuality can be difficult, but the text we sing doesn’t seem to judge anything. It merely observes elements of human experience. Non-judgment is another key to peaceful living that I’m attempting to adopt daily, and Jukebox has been a wonderful reminder for me.
Hydrogen Jukebox is all about life’s journey. The characters onstage travel through time, space and life experiences. In the second act, the soprano and bass sing a duet about robotic life we often lead. They describe an endless stream of traffic on highways and trains as we all robotically check our watches simultaneously and await the next elevator. The other four of us don’t sing in this section, but we murmur, “ba ta ba” in a ceaseless and monotone voice. We have no vocal rests at all during this portion. It reminds me how often I’m not even a human being. Sadly I’m only a human DOING, and I don’t quiet my mind enough to be fully conscious of my inner self and my surroundings.
Near the end of the show, we demonstrate the devastation of nuclear warfare. People are crawling across the stage as bombs drop all around them. Meanwhile our wonderful soprano, dressed as Lady Liberty, sings a heartbreakingly lyrical line above the cacophony, crying in desperation over the destruction she sees and perhaps caused. Immediately afterwards the music shifts into a gorgeous chord progression with a gently pulsing rhythm flowing like a fresh stream. We then take the bombs scattered throughout the stage and transform them into new flowers. It’s a beautiful picture of peace and healing, and it’s a crucial message for the world.
In the final movement we sing “Father Death Blues,” a hymn featuring a melody that Ginsberg composed himself. We sing to death as a welcome friend who comes as a father, mother and teacher. For me this personification is not only about a moment at the end of life. It’s a daily process of releasing the negative, toxic parts of the mind and allowing them to disappear. As the false self dies, new and pure consciousness is born anew. I believe this can only happen through inner quiet, stillness and reflection. In a stark contract from ceaseless noise in the robotic section, this final movement features long periods of silence. It’s during this peaceful, patient waiting that I feel most connected to the source of all love and life. The people and pictures onstage all melt away, and all the audience can see is a vast cosmos of stars and light. It represents the transcendent truth that we’re individually only small specks of reality, and the space between us is actually the life that connects us all.
What has Hydrogen Jukebox taught me? I’m learning on a deeper level that regardless of political, religious, economic or societal differences we seem to face, we all have so much more that we share than the superficial illusions which seem to separate us. The human experience is a dazzling and delicate journey, and it’s worth letting go of anger, shame and resentment in order to fully connect with others. It’s worth quieting the mind and receiving and remembering this truth that we already know deep in our hearts. Digesting all of this has been cathartic and transformative, and I sincerely hope our audience will take away this same spirit that Ginsberg and Glass have so generously shared with the world.