Sunday, February 18, 2007

Still Waiting for Young Caesar

SFMike of the (San Francisco) Civic Center blog has a terrific photoblog-review of the new production of Lou Harrison's opera Young Caesar. The instrumental "Favorite Tunes From Young Caesar" cassette has had a special role in our household as lullaby music for our kids, and I did listen one to a recording of the original production, so I've been curious to hear the latest version, as the opera has been a moving object, going from chamber opera for puppets, to choral opera, and now, with more full-blow arias and real people on stage. The original scoring, for five musicians playing dozens of instruments, western, non-western, and newly-made, and all in just intonation, was replaced by a modest western orchestra in the second version, and this new version has reintroduced some of the original instrumentation. It sounds like the libretto has been improved somewhat, but not enough. Personally, I would have gone back to puppets (Mr. Harrison kept a few of the rod puppets from the original production in his house, and was particularly fond of the puppet of Caesar's father, who is having a heart attack upon learning of his son's exploits in Bythinia; he also pointed out the advantage of puppets: for the final Barcarolle, a fleet of ships is supposed to set sail, and with puppets, doing fleets of ships is not especially problematic).

When I did my own puppet opera (The White Canoe, with a libretto by Edward Gorey), I had had some trouble with the recitatives; I wrote to Lou with a urgent request for advice. Lou counseled me to follow his practice in Young Caesar and just use noteheads without stems, not indicating a precise rhythm, allowing the singers to use a more natural speech-like rhythm. However, I think I was right, in this case, not to follow the advice, as the precisely notated rhythm kept things moving forward, and that was especially important in The White Canoe, which was both an "opera seria" and funny.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

I'm seriously honored by the link. And you were probably right to go with the "precisely notated rhythm" because unless you've got a weird, great artist like John Duykers channeling your "noteheads," you're asking for serious disaster.

The "final version" of "Young Casesar," by the way, is musically really, really beautiful. The piece is going to have a long life.