Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Sound of Glass

November 24, 2006


Last weekend, Long Beach Opera mounted a production of two one act operas by Philip Glass and librettist David Henry Hwang – The Sound of a Voice/Hotel of Dreams. The company, under the leadership of its current director Andreas Mitisek, has had a fitful but fascinating trajectory. Like many smaller companies, it has relied on staging less common works and more familiar fare in smaller and more unorthodox ways. While these results can be thrilling, they can suffer from the haphazard administrative issues inherent in some smaller organizations.

Sound is representative of this struggle in both ways. One of the first fully staged Glass operas in Southern California, this production was a unique local experience. However, much about it seemed thrown together and last minute despite the relatively high production values. With virtually no marketing and a season that was only announced a few weeks before the first production, Sound had little chance of drawing even a 50% audience at an unusual location – the Aratani Japan America Theater in downtown LA. Additionally, even though the production team was nearly identical to that involved with the work’s premier in Cambridge, MA, a few years ago, it seemed very unrehearsed with poor timing of the relatively minimal set changes and a complete loss of (unnecessary) supertitles less than halfway through.

The work itself ostensibly deals with the obstacles to isolated people falling in love and are based in some part on Japanese ghost legends. Sound concerns an isolated woman who may be a hermit and a warrior she encounters who may have been sent to kill her. Hotel deals with an elderly disillusioned writer and a madam who runs a brothel he has come to investigate in the hopes of using it in a novel only to confront the despair in his own life. Both pieces end in suicides and there are many moving moments in the work. The end of Hotel is particularly affecting as the writer dies in the aged madam's arms. But the work suffers from what is certainly not Glass’ strongest music, and even more so from the incredibly weak libretto by Hwang. Both Glass and Hwang have commented on the intention to create a more theatrical experience with a “conversational” libretto. Unfortunately, the lack of any poetry in the text creates an especially awkward sensation in what is otherwise a highly stylized and esoteric plot.

The vocalists, Herbert Perry and Suzan Hanson, both of whom appeared in earlier stagings were excellent and made the most they could of what they had to work with. Its hard not to admire the plucky spirit of LBO - this is the company that presented a two day condensed Ring cycle earlier this year and will unveil a new production of Golijov's Ainadamar next year without any of the original cast or collaborators. However, a little more planning might help.

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