LONG BEACH, Calif. – All of a sudden, concert life in Southern California is coming back, riding the wave of the federal government’s ramped-up vaccination drive and the anticipated lifting of most COVID-related restrictions in the state on June 15.
Pacific Opera Project jumped the gun April 24 with a production of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti outdoors before a live audience – the first time that has happened anywhere in Los Angeles County in 13½ months – and the company has another production coming up the first weekend of June. Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil returned to live performances at Hollywood Bowl May 15, albeit for first responders and health workers only for now but with a more-or-less full schedule starting in July. LA Opera goes back indoors with Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex June 6. The San Diego Symphony’s brand-new outdoor Rady Shell finally opens for business Aug. 6. The pandemic is on the run.
Long Beach Opera, the maverick company that relishes doing innovative things in strange places, was ready to put on a show, too, having gone through more leadership changes than almost any other organization lately. During the pandemic, outgoing artistic director Andreas Mitisek finished out his time, interim artistic adviser Yuval Sharon couldn’t really get started and took off for Michigan Opera Theatre, a “minister of culture” arrived in the person of Alexander Gedeon, and another progressive-minded stage director, James Darrah, assumed Mitisek’s role.
Darrah was due to transfer his indoor production of Philip Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles from Opera Omaha to Long Beach, and even when the pandemic struck and canceled so much of LBO’s lineup of productions, Les Enfants somehow remained on the schedule. But when it finally emerged May 21, it was, shall we say, somewhat transformed.
With COVID times in mind, Darrah turned his production into a drive-in affair on top of a parking garage next to an upscale outdoor shopping mall in the Marina Pacifica area east of downtown Long Beach overlooking the vast harbor filled with private boats. As we have seen in Darrah’s work for the San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he likes to work with many mediums – and for Les Enfants he called upon practically all of them. He served up music, dance, theater, and video in a dizzying swirl of sound, light, and motion for 103 minutes – longer than the 90-minute time frame in which Glass’ opera usually runs.
Our cars were parked in various slots on the garage’s top floor, all socially distanced. Most people, including myself, stayed in their cars while others brought along lawn chairs to be set up next to their vehicles. A video curated by Anna Schubert accompanied by somnolent ambient music performed by baritone Edward Nelson filled time before the opera; prior to that, the incongruous strains of old Frank Sinatra records were piped in from the shopping mall. Really.
The cast of singers and dancers posed, walked, ran, or danced up and down the lanes of the garage, with Darrah himself in hot pursuit at all times wielding a video camera that transmitted live images of the performance to big screens scattered throughout the space. The bright spotlights were sometimes blinding, depending upon where your car was located. With each vantage point being different, no one saw quite the same show as anyone else.
It would be nice to say that the clever staging ideas cast an illuminating light on Les Enfants Terribles, the last in a trilogy of Glass operas in different formats based on Jean Cocteau stories, but this was a particularly opaque case. I found it to be a rather uninvolving, depressing storyline, sung in French, with English supertitles and occasional narration that didn’t help much in giving us a sense of where the plot was going. Two orphaned siblings, Elisabeth and her brother Paul (sung by Schubert and Nelson), seem to live in their own imaginary world – and Elisabeth seemingly wants to keep it that way, interfering with the personal lives of Paul’s friend Gérard (Orson Van Gay II) and Agathe (Sarah Beaty), a colleague of Elisabeth’s at a modeling agency. The four characters worked in tandem with and around four dancers (Joe Davis, Shauna Davis, Samantha Mohr, Maleek Washington).
Glass’ strongest musical inspirations come right off the bat in the Overture, raising one’s hopes. But after that, he just rambles away in his usual minor-key patterns that fit the mood of the piece but do not comment on or illuminate the action or push it along until near the end where the score gathers some urgency. Glass long ago found a single all-purpose manner that has an uncanny way of fitting into whatever situation he chooses to set – and so he stays with it here.
As per the score’s modest requirements, the “orchestra” consisted of three digital pianos occupying a small space under the top floor’s solar-paneled roof, played by Stephen Karr, Vicki Ray, and Sarah Gibson and led by Christopher Rountree. The music was broadcast on the FM radios in our cars and on P.A. monitors outside; the audio reception was pretty good in the car, better than the mono sound coming through the outdoor loudspeakers.
Darrah’s production can be seen either as another manifesto in a campaign to remake opera as a future-world mash-up of all the artistic disciplines and technical resources available in the 21st century, or as a last gasp of drive-in opera – a strange breed born out of necessity that may be declared obsolete as soon as pandemic restrictions fade away. But for now, the most significant and heartening takeaway is that this live production happened at all. Welcome back, Long Beach Opera.