Thursday, September 26, 2013

REVIEW: LBO's King Gesar

Last year, Long Beach Opera initiated their Outer Limit Series with Gavin Bryars' Paper Nautilus at the Aquarium of the Pacific. This year, they continued that series with Peter Lieberson's King Gesar, a monodrama/opera that tells the story of a legendary Tibetan warrior king.

Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
This "campfire opera" was produced at Harry Bridges Memorial Park, right by the Queen Mary. Two narrators told the epic tale of King Gesar, accompanied by two dancers and a musical octet. Anyone expecting a traditional opera would have been disappointed, for the text was almost entirely spoken, with only a few moments of singing. The two narrators, Danielle Marcelle Bond and Roberto Perlas Gomez, did a fantastic job recounting a verbose narrative that spanned several decades.

Originally written for a single narrator, the text was bifurcated to give Bond and Gomez's characters distinguishable personalities. While Bond's character seemed in the vein of Shelley Duvall (a la Faerie Tale Theatre), Gomez portrayed a stearner counterpoint. Gomez also had all of the parts written in strict rhythmic unison with the musical ensemble. Many of these sections were lengthy, uptempo streams of language in odd time signatures that seemed to have no spaces for breaths, and I was surprised that they were able to pull them off. Dancers Javier Gonzales and Kelly Ray joined Bond and Gomez onstage, sometimes giving a literal physical portrayal of the story, sometimes holding symbolic masks or puppets.

Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Lieberson's score is in a 90's post-Stravinsky/post-minimal vein. While the instrumentation is similar to Histoire du Soldat, the rhythmic leitmotifs seem to recall the Augur Dance from the Rite of Spring, or Messiaen's rhythmic manifestions of his modes of limited transposition. There were some terrific moments of virtuosic playing, with Timothy Loo's cello solo being especially notable.

LBO always has creative venues for their performances. While the Paper Nautilus used the features of the aquarium to great effect, the framing of King Gesar as a "campfire opera" fit it nicely into the context of the outdoor performance space at Harry Bridges Memorial Park. It was an interesting outlier in relation to the types of outdoor performances I have seen in various parts of Asia.

During the performance, we were joined by an unexpected Long Beach resident, who sat down and promptly began talking on his cell phone during the performance. Ah, the peaks and valleys of social spaces! After a dramatic exit, the unexpected guest left and the audience could settle their attention back on the performers, who were doing an amazing job continuing their performance, remaining as unfazed as possible by the incident.

Long Beach Opera's next season starts on January 26 with Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie, followed by John Coolidge Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer opening on March 16.

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