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Absurdity for all ages: Long Beach Opera and LA Phil’s Toyota Symphonies for Youth

At first blush, a matinee at Long Beach Opera (LBO) would seem to have little in common with one of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Toyota Symphonies for Youth (TSFY) educational concerts.  If you knew that one had programmed a double-bill of surrealist operas by Poulenc (The Breasts of Tiresias) and Martinů (Tears of a Knife), while the other was designed around The Planets by Gustav Holst — well, you may think I was a little whacky (note:  I am, but that is beside the point).  Before this past weekend, I would have thought the same thing.

As it turns out, both programs ended up having more elements tying them together than one would have predicted.  Humor?  Check.  Violence?  Check.  Unrequited love? Check.  Science wrongly applied and later acknowledged as such?  Check and check.

There were certainly differences —  the opera chorus’s fully clothed, Kama Sutra-esque demonstration of multiple sexual positions likely being the most graphically obvious — but by Sunday night, I couldn’t help but reflect on the two events being equal halves of an unexpected whole weekend of absurdist comedy.

Sunday afternoon at the Center Theater, LBO mounted a pair of unconventional operas typical of their style.  The Breasts of Tiresias (Les mamelles de Tirésias)  by Francis Poulenc was the larger of the two works, with a two-act non-sensical plot that I won’t try to describe completely (you can read it HERE if you wish), but some salient details are:

  • Thérèse doesn’t feel like being a woman anymore, so she decides to become a man, Tiresias, and let her boobs turn into balloons and fly away.
  • She overpowers her husband, dresses him like a woman, and successfully convinces the populace that childbirth is bad.
  • The husband, fearing that humans will die off, decides to use the miracles of modern science to make babies, and manages to create 40,049 in one day.
  • With the city on the verge of famine due to overpopulation, Thérèse/Tiresias comes back to save the day.
  • The opera ends with a full-cast exhortation to the audience to make babies.

The Breasts of Tiresias (Long Beach Opera)

There are more characters who die, come back to life, sell newspapers, and other such things.  There are a couple of not-so-subtle digs at journalists, and an amusing account of how the various members of the 40,049 baby brood earn money to support their father.

If one were inclined to do so, it would be relatively easy to find parallels to current life and make political connections; however, LBO chose to avoid any overt statements through their production (um, except for the characters’ pleas to make babies), focusing on the comedy and letting the audience draw any philosophical metaphors for themselves.  Thank goodness for that.  I was quite content to laugh and enjoy the brightly-colored production at face value, like watching a live action episode of Robot Chicken unfold before my eyes.

Opening the double bill was Bohuslav Martinů’s Tears of a Knife (note “tears” as in crying, from the French translation, Les larmes de couteau, of  the original Czech title, Slzy noze).  Production, plot, and music all had a more brooding feel than in the Poulenc:  a young girl, Eleanor, falls in love with a corpse of a hanged man, but her mother prefers that she hooks up with the neighbor — who happens to be Satan.  Eleanor prefers her hanged man, but he doesn’t respond, so to make him jealous, she flirts with a passing cyclist — who happens to be Satan.  Unmoved, the corpse still shows no sign of returning her love, so Eleanor kills herself so she can be in the afterlife with her hanged man — who, when it’s all said and done, happens to be Satan.  The dark comedy had fewer laugh-out-loud moments than the Poulenc and was more weird than silly.   It was played with appropriate irony and restraint, with the brief funeral scene being particularly charming.

Center Theater’s sterile acoustic did no favors for the cast of LBO regulars, but they did their best to overcome.  All of them brought wit to their respective roles without overplaying the more ridiculous aspects of plot or character.  Soprano Ani Maldjian (Eleanor/Tiresias) was easily the vocal standout with a bright, robust voice that rose above her colleagues without overpowering them.  Robin Buck (Satan/Husband), Suzan Hanson (Mother/Newspaper Vendor), and Roberto Perlas Gomez (Hanged Man/Director/Gendarme)  were all effective in their respective roles.  Conductor Andreas Mitisek underlined the action nicely and gave the jazzier elements of both scores room to breathe, but mostly he kept the orchestra out of the way, both musically and literally (they played behind a screen at the very back of the stage).

Director & choreagrapher Ken Roht and set designer Alan Muraoka kept things compact in the Martinů, eventually opening up the action in the Poulenc.  Various images projected onto two video screens added some surrealist touches.  Lake Sharp’s costumes emphasized the mood change as well, dark and simple in the first half, bright and unapologetically cartoonish in the second.  I especially liked the yellow clean-room coveralls (or at least that’s what they looked like to me) the chorus wore when playing babies.

Other people’s opinion:

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Gustav Holst

We’ve been attending the LA Phil’s TSFY concerts for many years, though as CKDH Jr. has gotten older, we’ve gone less often and only when the music itself is appealing to him.  The Planets has always been one of his favorites, and that, combined with his love of all things science and outer space oriented, made him want to attend Saturday’s concert after reading the LA Phil’s website description of the program:  “Celebrate the exploration of space with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Discover for yourself the inspiring parallels between music and science, in a musical and scientific look at the planets!”  Based on that, we were expecting big screen projections of NASA imagery or something similar.

Boy, were we off the mark.  As the concert began, a “scientist” (played by actor and professional clown Jon Monastero), looking like a cross between Bill Nye the Science Guy and a young Albert Einstein, came out onto the stage.  He started speaking directly to the audience about being an “astronomolologist” (i.e. musicologist, astronomer, and astrologer, all combined into one) and how we were going to explore the planets and The Planets together, and show how everything in the universe is interconnected.  He continued to talk about militaristic marches and the use of trumpets and drums.  It seemed like an attempt at a funny lecture, but a lecture nonetheless.  Now, Jr. and I were worried:

  • First, how exactly was this faux scientist talking about astrology going to inspire “parallels between music and science” as the LA Phil website promised?
  • Second, the most enjoyable of previous TSFY concerts we’ve attended were the ones that were theatrical, not ones that were didactic.  It didn’t matter if it were serious or comedic, as long as there was a “play” going on (as Jr. called it in his younger days), it was good, and if someone were standing there talking to him directly, it was less compelling.

Within a few minutes, our concerns were gone.  Mr. Monastero turned out to be quite funny, mainly through his physical comedy and miming skills.  OK, I know what’s going through your head:  you’re picturing a striped-shirt-wearing, white faced Marcel Marceau look-a-like and thinking,:  “A funny mime, that’s an oxymoron, isn’t it?”

Jon Monastero

In this case, it wasn’t.  For “Mars, the Bringer of War,” he demonstrated an arsenal of karate chops, kicks, simulated machine guns, and grenades.  For “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” he talked about Venus as the goddess of love represented by the tuba — um, flute and violin, and when the movement started, he began to play out a scene of a boy meeting a girl, wooing her, and eventually proposing to her — before she disappears as an illusion.  Mr. Monastero was impressive in his ability to mime the action in a way that was clear enough for the kids to understand, funny enough that the love story would hold the intersts of the girls AND the boys in the audience, and subtle enough to impress the adults.

The astrology references turned out to be comic foils unto themselves as the scientist tried in vain to draw astrological connections between the musical movements and the musicians.  Paraphrasing one example:  “Mars, the god of war, was known as Ares by the Greeks, and that sounds like the astrological sign Aries, a ram, which has horns, and trumpet is a horn which features prominently in the movement, therefore all trumpet players are Aries.”  The LA Phil players would, on cue, look at each other with quizzical looks and shake their heads, to the amusement of the crowd.  By the time the orchestra played “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (the finale for the day since only the first four movements were played), the scientist realized the error of his ways, astrology as a scientific predictor of human behavior was debunked, and all was right with the universe.

It was all completely ridiculous, but when all the nonsense was done, it came together nicely.  Gustav Holst composed each of the movements of The Planets to reflect astrological personalities, not scientific realities.  All of this silliness actually ended up doing more service to the music and getting the children in the audience into the right frame of mind more than a NASA slideshow would have.  Who says you can’t do some kind of Theater of the Absurd for children?

Musically speaking, it was very good.  Joshua Dos Santos, one of the orchestra’s “Dudamel Conducting Fellows,” was on the podium.  His interpretation was middle-of-the-road and his conducting technique looked generic, though one certainly couldn’t complain about the results coming from the orchestra.   I’m always amazed at how cohesive the LA Phil plays at TSFY concerts, despite using a large contingent of substitutes and having little rehearsal time.  The brass, especially the trumpets (led by Rob Schaer, who typically has been playing as 4th trumpet this season), sounded notably good.  Nathan Cole (concertmaster) and David Buck (flute) played their respective solos beautifully.  If the orchestra were to play similarly at a subscription concert, very few people would be disappointed.

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Long Beach Opera: March 11, 2012; Center Theater
Martinů: Tears of a Knife
Poulenc: The Breasts of Tiresias

CAST

Hangman/Theatre Director/Gendarme Roberto Perlas Gomez
Eleonore/Therese/Tiresias Ani Maldjian
Satan/Husband Robin Buck
Mother/Newspaper Vendor Suzan Hanson
Monsieur Lacouf/Reporter/Son Doug Jones
Monsieur Presto Benito Galindo
Dancers Lucie McGrane, Daniele Manzin
Chorus Linda Alexander, David Blair, Eric Carampatan, Scott Levin, Jennifer Miller, Dabney Ross Jones, Nandani Sinha, Shawn Taylor
Actor Paul Oppenheim
CREATIVE TEAM
Conductor Andreas Mitisek
Stage Director/Choreographer Ken Roht
Set Designer Alan E. Muraoka
Video Designer John J Flynn
Light Designer Azra King-Abadi
Costume Designer Lake Sharp
Chorus Master/Asst. Conductor Benjamin Makino

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Los Angeles Philharmonic presents Toyota Symphonies for Youth:  March 10, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Joshua Dos Santos, conductor
Leon Martell, writer
Barbara June Dodge, director
Jon Monastero, host

Holst: The Planets (first four movements)

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Photo credits:

  • Homage to Mack Sennett, René Magritte
  • The Breasts of Tiresias:  Keith Ian Polakoff for Long Beach Opera
  • Gustav Holst:  courtesy of The Gustav Holst Website
  • Jon Monastero:  courtesy of Ten West
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