Eight Summer Olympics ago, it was Los Angeles’ turn. We did well with the Games (traffic and weather cooperated). We built no monuments, no starchitect stadiums or the like. But a progressive Olympic Arts Festival gave a lasting boost to our modern dance and international theater scene and stimulated the creation of Los Angeles Opera.
Then there was director Robert Wilson’s “the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down,” the centerpiece of the festival. It was meant to be the grandest of grand operas and proved the Olympics’ great letdown. Planned as an all-day extravaganza, the work was to consist of six parts, each created in a different country and assembled in the Shrine Auditorium. Five composers were employed. Sopranos Jessye Norman and Hildegard Behrens and pop star David Bowie were to head the cast.
Most of “CIVIL warS” did get made abroad (sans Norman, Behrens and Bowie), but funding could not be found for the full event in L.A. And every now and then something comes along to remind us of just how badly we blew it. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has performed Philip Glass’ magnificent Rome segment in concert and the melancholy outer-space music Glass wrote for the Cologne, Germany, one. A touring production of David Byrne’s captivating “Knee Plays,” the opera’s entr’actes, passed through town a generation ago.
Friday night, 28 years on, we got a puissant, if roundabout, new reminder with the American premiere of Gavin Bryars’ “The Paper Nautilus.” It contains a good chunk of the gorgeous score the British Minimalist wrote for the Marseille segment. Long Beach Opera gets the credit. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach was, of all places, the venue.
Bryars based his original “CIVIL warS” material around a speech by Marie Curie (many historical and mythic figures found their way into the concept, including Lincoln, Garibaldi and Hercules in the Rome segment), in which she extols the beauty of science in French. Pope Leo XII then extols the beauty of photography in Latin. This is framed around liquid literary substance derived from Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and a poem, “The Queen of the Sea,” by Lebanese poet Etel Adnan.
Six years ago, Bryars adapted this material, along with new ocean-specific texts by Scottish poet Jackie Kay, into “The Paper Nautilus,” for a production in Glasgow, Scotland. The work, which lasts only 60 minutes, is more music theater than opera, and that is how Long Beach Opera treated it.
The production by the company’s artistic and general manager, Andreas Mitisek, pretty much went with the flow. The setting was the aquarium’s Great Hall, with chairs set up in front of the towering “Blue Cavern” tank, which remained darkened until the end.
The instrumental ensemble calls for six percussionists and two pianists, and they convey rippling, lush textures. Suzan Hanson, dressed in Madame Curie couture, recited the scientist’s lines with cool focus. Soprano Ashley Knight and mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, dressed in flowing drapery, made like mermaids and warmly, effusively handled everything else. Four dancers (the choreographer was Nannette Brodie) helped the singers make like mermaids.
Nothing happens. Five of the eight sections come from Kay’s poems, and they reflect on the dark mysteries of the deep, where “luminous fish swim through you” and “large journeys begin in you.”
Bryars’ music is like both a buoy bobbing on the waves and an underwater capsule seeking explanations for the weirdness of the sea’s black bed. Like sirens from the marine depths, the seductively effective singers intoned the languid sea’s lips and its entangling hair. “The sea is you,” they sang. “The sea is me.” The ocean’s meaning is not to be found on the surface.
You knew what was going to happen next. At the end, the large display tank was slowly illuminated. Large fish swam as if choreographed to Bryars’ score, making the dancers irrelevant. It was an enchanted moment.
Benjamin Makino, placed out of the audience’s sight, conducted an appropriately fluid performance. Dan Weingarten made lighting fit for a watery realm. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation footed the bill with a special grant for a new Long Beach Opera series, “Outer Limits,” of which “Paper Nautilus” was the first.
It’s a start. Now maybe someone should try to pry out more (a lot more) Mellon money and see whether there might still be enough fight left in “the CIVIL warS” to make the full project finally happen. It’s not too late.