Finding a good librettist is the bane of an opera composer's existence. Ask Verdi and Richard Strauss.
But Philip Glass, one of our most active, 20th-Century opera writers has found a librettist. "A real one," he says.
It is poet Allen Ginsberg.
Longtime neighbors in Greenwich Village, Glass and Ginsberg were "just acquaintances," Glass says, before the composer ran into the poet one day in a New York City bookstore in late 1987.
Serendipitously, Glass--composer of "Satyagraha," "Einstein on the Beach," "1,000 Airplanes on the Roof" and "Akhnaten," to name only four of his well-known music-theater works--had just received a commission for a new one.
" 'Hey, Allen,' I said," Glass remembers, " 'Let's do this piece.' "
The piece turned out to be "Wichita Vortex Sutra," a cantata based on a 1966 anti-war poem of Ginsberg's. That cantata has now become the climax to the first act of Glass' latest opera, "Hydrogen Jukebox," which will receive its world premiere performances at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., Saturday.
"It's really a chamber opera," the 53-year-old composer said in a recent phone interview.
"Two synthesizers, two saxes, two percussionists, a conductor and six voices. There is no plot. Instead, the 21 poems make up a kaleidoscopic portrait of America."
It may be plotless, but "Hydrogen Jukebox," according to the composer, "has a dramaturgical shape--a beginning, middle and a sense of ending.
"It's really an extension of 'Wichita Vortex Sutra,' the success of which became the occasion, the impetus, for the larger piece."
But the poet was no bystander or passive participant in the creation of this large-scale work. From his home in New York City, Ginsberg recalled putting it together.
"We went through two volumes of my poetry, first the collected poems from 1947-1980, then a second volume written between 1980 and '85. Plus, I wrote some new texts just for the opera.
"We composed a libretto with a theme: the end of America and the loss of the Earth."
According to Jerome Sirlin, the designer of the production being unveiled in Charleston this week, he was part of the creating team from the beginning. Indeed, all three collaborators--Glass, Ginsberg and Sirlin--will be listed as authors on the program.
"Because of the subjects treated--war, peace, the nuclear dilemma, for instance--this turned out to be a political piece more than anything else. Allen, of course, has written on everything, on every subject," Sirlin said.
"So we looked at a lot of poems. Naturally, selecting the 21 texts was daunting."
But from the start, the designer--who has created sets for Wagner's "Ring" cycle, for a tour by pop singer Madonna, and for "1,000 Airplanes" (his first Glass collaboration), among other projects--the visualization of the work was one of its basic elements.
"From the very beginning, I was sketching ideas. The designs were started with the piece.
"Later, (stage director) Ann Carlson came in, and started working with the singers, once the music was written." Sirlin says the progress of the piece went forward without a break, from its inception a year and a half ago--a happy situation in opera-making, which can be slow when one member of the team is working on other projects simultaneously.
"The creation was continuous: the ideas, the storyboards, the imagery, actualizing the sets. Most recently, for the last six or seven months, I have been creating, drawing, designing and building, all at the same time."
Comparing this operatic production to the one he designed for "1,000 Airplanes," Sirlin says, "This is far more elaborate, much more complex and on a grander scale."
Because of the limited space in the Sottile Theater (a converted movie house seating 800 with a stage that is 30 feet deep and 40 feet across), and the larger space where the work will be performed in Spoleto, Italy, the sets--built in Charleston--"had to be highly transportable and expandable," Sirlin said.
This presented a particular challenge since some of the sets are quite massive, according to Sirlin.
"For the Moloch section, for instance, we have constructed a gigantic aluminum-mesh piece of scenery, which is both a hunk of city and a huge beast." (Moloch is the Old Testament god, a terrifying creature to whom first-born children were sacrificed, and who is mentioned numerous times in Ginsberg's 1954 poem, "Howl.")
"Fashioned as a piece of architecture, it is 10 feet across by 19 feet tall, a complex of urban structures that moves across the stage. It is built of aggressive urban concrete and steel, and it turns into a face: It is a metamorphic structure. And, it consumes the singers."
Also, Sirlin says, "There is a hotel room, based on a whitewashed room in India," for the section, "Last Night in Calcutta."
Commissioned jointly by the Spoleto Festival USA and the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia (where it was given in a concert version last month to generally enthusiastic reviews), the new work will be performed in Charleston eight times, Saturday through June 3.
The performing company remains the same in both Charleston and Italy. The singers are Darynn Zimmer, Suzan Hansen, Linda Thompson, Richard Fracker, Thomas Potter and James Butler.
Reached in Charleston on Tuesday--the first day of rehearsals--Potter said this opera "seems to be" a departure in Glass' style.
"There is not as much repetition as we associate with Glass' writing," Potter said, mentioning the long, repeated passages in "Satyagraha" and other Glass works for the musical theater. "Some people have said this is a new direction in Glass' development.
"This piece, which is not so much an opera as a staged song-cycle, is rather straightforward.
"Some of the songs follow directly, and suddenly, on each other, but there is no narrative connection--though Ginsberg is well-known for his descriptions and the autobiographical nature of his poems.
"The composer has set the words in a natural cadence. It's not hard to memorize, because it's in English--I don't envy the singers who had to memorize Sanskrit (in "Satyagraha").
"And Ginsberg's words are atmospheric, almost impressionistic. He can make you feel things, like the smell in the air. At the Philadelphia performances, we were thrilled when people told us they could understand our words."
Altogether, Glass says, compared to some other of his works, "this opera has been a breeze to create. Sometimes it's that way and sometimes it's not.
"And there is no correlation between how easy the piece comes and how good it is. I've had it both ways. But this one was really effortless."
Following are a few selected poems from the libretto to "Hydrogen Jukebox." Howl
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up
their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Chil-
dren screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old
men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Mo-
loch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jail-
house and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running
money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast
is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrap-
ers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose
factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and
antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity
and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch
whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the
Nagasaki Days (part VI)
2,000,000 killed in Vietnam
13,000,000 refugees in Indochina 1972
200,000,000 years for the Galaxy to revolve on its core
24,000 the Babylonian Great Year
24,000 half life of plutonium
2,000 the most I ever got for a poetry reading
20,000 dolphins killed in the dragnet
4,000,000,000 years earth been born
Wichita Vortex Sutra (excerpt)
I'm an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
but not afraid
to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
because not only my lonesomeness
it's Ours, all over America
O tender fellows--
& spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy
in the moon 100 years ago or in
the middle of Kansas now.