Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

A Soldier of the Great War

January 31, 2010

Matthew DiBattista and Alex Richardson
Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2010

“Opera,” as Eddie Izzard opined at the Nokia Theater in downtown LA this weekend, can be described in sight and sound as "rich people watching large people shaken by small people.” And while this assessment still holds some truth, particularly here in America, there may be no company fighting it more than Long Beach Opera. This lone wolf of an organization continues to do much, much more with much, much less than virtually anyone I know of. LBOs productions are certainly not to everyone’s taste. The programming under artistic director Andreas Mitisek, is decidedly more outside the standard repertoire than any of those of the company's peers. The productions are not about opulence and glamor, which irks the kind of people that like to be “transported.” (I have long wished that opera would in fact transport these people somewhere. Hopefully a somewhere far away from me, but it’s a small world after all.) Nevertheless LBO is exceedingly good at making compelling and interesting opera that is almost always worth considering even when it isn’t always a complete success.

This weekend in Santa Monica the company offered the second performance of Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik. The opera, which premiered at New York City Opera in 1958 adapts Jaroslav Hasek’s 1920s satirical novel about war and the military in WWI for the lyrical stage. A probably half-witted young private, Schweik, is drafted into the army where his naïveté unwittingly benefits him in numerous comical situations. He’s a Candide of sorts, winningly sung here by Matthew DiBattista. In fact the quality of singing in the production was quite good overall. The eight other members of the cast play a huge number of roles that swirl around Schweik’s episodic adventures until he finally reaches the front lines. The music is mid-Century Americana. Kurka’s orchestration calls for no strings and gives the feel of a military band. Sadly, the music is perhaps the least intriguing thing about this piece, although the orchestra, under the direction of Mitisek made the most out of what they had to work with and did provide a handful of very satisfying passages.

LBO’s production was broad, aiming for many laughs, which it mostly got through the very crafty direction of local theater legend Ken Roht, who also provided the evening’s choreography. The minimal set involved few props and relied on scenic video projections for the most part. But Roht created a very physical production that actually worked quite well in the space. The opera was both witty and light on its feat and despite the episodic nature never dragged. So while The Good Soldier Schweik may not be an important opera in its own right, it is a significant piece of American opera history, and LBO should be commended for bringing it to light in a season focusing on American composers. Next up for LBO will be John Adams’ Nixon in China, which will return to the Southland for the first time in two decades on March 27 and 30. And if you’d like a little more preparation, you’d be advised to check out a live appearance by John Adams in conversation with Andreas Mitisek at LACMA on Monday February 1.


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