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The Arts
March 28-April 4, 2007

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Lou Harrison

Leave it to Lou: The Santa Cruz genius knew his way around music, experimentalism and, of course, puppets.

Master of Puppets

Lou Harrison's opera 'Young Caesar' is coming to UCSC, minus the marionettes

By Tim Fitzmaurice


King Nicomedes of Bithynea was young Julius Caesar's Monica Lewinsky--or was it the other way around? I am not sure who was lighting whose cigars. But the messages in Suetonius' The Lives of the Twelve Caesars and other Latin sources were pretty much as damning as the latter-day attacks on Clinton. And they may have been made for the same reasons.

Leave it to Lou Harrison to write an opera about it--and a puppet opera at that. So we not only get the language of it, but the gestures and the caresses, wooden perhaps, as well.

The result will be presented at the UCSC Recital Hall April 3, in what's being billed as a celebration of Lou Harrison's 90th Birthday and world premiere of his final version of his opera Young Caesar. (An earlier production was presented in San Francisco at Yerba Buena Center.)

Unfortunately this version of the opera has been reshaped without the puppets--to make it more accessible, they say. Still it has a physical presentation with costumes and sexually charged actions provided by the Ensemble Parallèle.

Santa Cruz should be celebrating Lou Harrison, one of the five greatest artists to live and work in our area. Look at Mozart! In his hometown of Salzburg, Austria, where the locals during his life often showed little interest in sustaining Mozart, they have made a thriving economy out of Mozart, putting his image on T-shirts and sugar bowls everywhere you go. Maybe Santa Cruz could discover that this is cultural tourism at its most beneficial.

While Suetonius promises in his biography of Caesar to pass over the gossip, he nevertheless provides a pretty good record of the rumors about Julius Caesar as a young man who acted as a cup-bearer in the court of the king of Bythinia. Suffice it to say that a cup-bearer was a demanding profession that included more entertainments than just pouring and passing. Think of Tony Curtis with Lawrence Olivier in the expurgated bathing scenes of Spartacus. The rest of this story, the mise-en-scène, is the imaginings of everyone from Cicero to Lou Harrison. It makes great opera when the production captures the intentions in this work.

Lou Harrison managed, in 1971, to combine a complex communion of sources, from Indonesian gamelan and Chinese opera to the Roman political intrigues and Northern California liberation movements in the plot. But staging all this will require some adroit handling as well as some faith in the purposes of a genius. It does not do to try to recast the opera in some current more palatable form. I think Dr. Johnson said, with disgust, that all opera was irrational. Well, it is best for opera to be true to its intentions, even if not every culture critic gets it.

In his review of this opera in San Francisco, one major critic said that it has no protagonist or dramatic course. Then he says that the narrator of the opera, in fact, tells us this very fact in the prologue to the action. Well then, maybe that's a clue that this is not your usual romantic opera.

The same critic says that the heart of this opera is about being shocked at the same-sex situations. He says that in 1971 gay sex was enough to hold an audience. Now it isn't.

I'm not sure what world he lives in, but gay sex and politics do have some ability to shock people ,and even more shocking is the determined intention of Lou Harrison to make this sex beautiful and innocent with the unmentioned but looming threat presented by the politics of that time.

And even more peculiar is the notion that anyone who would go to see Young Caesar in 1971 would have been shocked by gay sex when we already had Fassbinder and the Cockettes. It seems more likely people will be shocked by the percussion.

I am only sorry that we do not get the puppets. Why no puppets? After all they can be much more pornographic and cross more of our imaginary lines of obscenity than real people, as was proven in the Team America movie. I am not sure we are ready for grown-up entertainments this complicated. It seems about as challenging as those peculiar operas must have been when Mozart thrust them upon the unsuspecting but aggressively worldly Viennese.

Still, if anyone can handle it, Santa Cruz can. And then we should make sugar bowls shaped like Lou.


Young Caesar, an Ensemble Parallèle production, plays Tuesday, April 3, at UCSC Recital Hall, as part of a weeklong opera symposium, New Directions in Contemporary Opera, on campus. Tickets $12/$20/$28; call 831.459.2159 or go to www.santacruztickets.com.


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