The creation of the chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox can be traced to a chance meeting in 1988 between composer Philip Glass and poet Allen Ginsberg at the now defunct St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City’s East Village. When Ginsberg plucked a book with a copy of his 1966 antiwar poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra” off the shelf and said he’d be reading it at a Broadway theater, Glass decided to compose a piano piece to accompany the reading. The collaboration was a success, so the two decided to expand the performance into a longer music-theater work. The result, Hydrogen Jukebox, a rarely performed piece for six voices and a chamber ensemble, kicks off this year’s BU Fall Fringe Festival tonight.
Also part of the festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary, will be performances of the Caryl Churchill play Mad Forest and The Werther Project, a concert adaptation of the Jules Massenet opera Werther. The Glass-Ginsberg piece runs tonight through Sunday, October 16, at the BU Theatre’s Lane-Comley Studio 210. Music direction is by Allison Voth, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of music and principal coach of CFA’s Opera Institute, and Matthew Larson, a CFA lecturer in music and opera. Stage direction is by Emily Ranii (CFA’13), an Opera Institute lecturer.
A collaboration between the School of Music, the Opera Institute, and the School of Theatre, the Fringe Festival champions significant but infrequently performed works in the opera and theater repertoire.
Hydrogen Jukebox, which premiered in May 1990, was Ginsberg’s way, he wrote, of attempting to relieve human suffering “by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium.” Ginsberg, a major figure among the so-called Beat Generation poets, died in 1997 at age 70. The 70-minute, one-act piece features six characters—two sopranos, a mezzo-soprano, a tenor, a bass, and a baritone—in a series of 15 vignettes from the verse of the visceral poet who implored the reader to “follow your own moonlight.”
Glass’ often hypnotic score will be performed by two keyboards, percussion, flute, bass clarinet, and soprano and tenor saxophone. “The music is very tonal, also there’s something very tribal about it,” says Larson, adding that the six characters sharing the stage represent various travelers “on a journey that parallels life. They comment on war, on the passage of time, on history relentlessly repeating itself.”
In addition to “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” the songs include sections of Ginsberg poems “The Green Automobile,” “Nagasaki Days,” “Aunt Rose,” “Father Death Blues,” and his seminal poem “Howl.” Ranii, academic program head of the BU Summer Theatre Institute for high school students, has staged the opera on a kind of runway with audience members on either side, so the characters are moving along in a constant journey. “The vignettes are remarkably unified in the idea of searching for something, particularly asking why do we go to war,” says Larson. The work “is so timely now considering all the turmoil in the world, the election, ISIS, the police shootings. History really does repeat itself.”
Also chosen for its timeless message is British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest, which will run from October 27 through 30 at Lane-Comley Studio 210. With a 12-member cast and a design team of CFA undergraduates and alumni, the three-act play is set in Romania before, during, and after the uprising against the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was executed along with his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989, days after being overthrown. The play initially is set against the paranoia-drenched backdrop of Communist Romania in the months leading up to the revolution; in the second act, the actors portray different characters during the Ceaușescus’ overthrow; and the final act unfolds in a hospital where, as a character recovers from battle wounds, the play examines Romania’s treatment of its Hungarian minority and weighs the conflicting interpretations of recent history.
It’s a demanding play with “a lot of moving parts,” says director Judy Braha (CFA’08), a CFA assistant professor of directing and acting. The play toys with reality, employing an angel, a vampire, a dog, and a ghost. The characters emerged from interviews the British playwright did while visiting Bucharest after the revolution, and its mortal population includes students and a security officer. “One thing I like about the play is it has a lot to do with words,” says Braha. “By the end of the play words are squandered and cruel. People have years of pent-up frustration which they take out on each other.”
Being part of both Hydrogen Jukebox and Mad Forest has been an education for CFA students, the directors say. For Jukebox, the opera opened the door to a study of Ginsberg’s poetry and the context of his restive, Vietnam War–era times. And Mad Forest, which premiered in London in 1991 before moving to New York, has taught students about the nature of revolt. “I’m really keen on doing plays that require a lot of research for actors and designers,” says Braha. To help the students grasp what it was like in Bucharest in those times, she had them meet with Cornel Ban, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of international relations and a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies professor. The Romanian-born Ban was 16 and living in Bucharest at the time of the Romanian revolution. “The citizens in the play, as the third act shows, don’t know how to navigate or live in an allegedly free society,” says Braha. “American students have always been as free as possible. It’s an interesting challenge for them, to get a feel for what it would be like to have every place that you went to bugged.”
The festival will conclude with a performance of The Werther Project, an adaptation of the opera Werther by the late-19th-century French composer Jules Massenet, which he based loosely on an epistolary autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Fringe Festival performance on October 28 will feature most of Massenet’s score along with narrations from the original libretto. Stage direction is by Nathan Troup, an Opera Institute lecturer, the music director is William Lumpkin, a CFA associate professor and Opera Institute music director, and the dramaturgists are Voth and Jerrold Pope, a CFA associate professor of music.
All CFA Fringe Festival productions are performed at the BU Theatre’s Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performance dates and times are as follows: Hydrogen Jukebox: Friday, October 14, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, October 15, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, October 16, 2 p.m. Mad Forest: Thursday, October 27, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, October 28, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, October 29, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, October 30, 2 p.m. The Werther Project: Friday, October 28, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 general admission, $3.50 with CFA membership, free with BU ID at the door on the day of the performance, subject to availability. Buy tickets here or call 617-933-8600. Take an MBTA Green Line E trolley to Symphony or the Orange Line to Mass Ave.