Conductor Nicole Paiement and Ensemble Parallèle present the world premiere of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Feb. 16 and 17.
This opera is about the coming of age of Julius Caesar, of his travels east to the kingdom of Bithynia and his love affair with King Nicomedes—all traced out in Harrison’s interweaving of eastern and western musical modes, a blending characteristic of this composer.
Harrison, who died in 2003, was always reexamining his work—altering, revising and refining it. Young Caesar was no exception and the coming production will be the third and final version of this complex opera.
Part of Paiement’s challenge in mounting the opera was to resolve its many difficulties. She was blessed in that task by being able to work in close collaboration with Harrison during his final years. Paiement had been Harrison’s favored conductor since the early 1990s and he wrote of her: “Her sense of the telling detail is acute; and although she is physically short and slight, she wields big music.”
Young Caesar premiered in 1971 as a puppet opera, written for five vocalists, narrator and five instrumentalists playing a variety of instruments including ones designed and built by Harrison and his longtime partner Bill Colvig. The three-foot-tall puppets played in front of an unwinding panoramic scroll that gave the impression of movement through the long journeys described in the opera.
The opera was not well received and Paiement said that Harrison felt that the puppets had not been able to express the necessary emotional range. It is, after all, a drama about the passions of men who rule the world.
Harrison rescored the opera for standard western orchestra for the second version performed in Portland, Ore., in 1988. He added soloists and a male chorus. Again, there were problems. This time with the libretto.
San Francisco playwright Robert Gordon had written the two-act, 14-scene text as a historically accurate treatment of Caesar’s youth. But his text was primarily narration rather than dialogue or poems suitable for song. Critics complained that it was repetitive.
In response to the criticism, Harrison added a group of lyrical arias. And in 2000 the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center agreed to stage a third version of the opera with Mark Morris as director. Morris, however, wanted to cut more of the narrative, and a series of misunderstandings followed that resulted in the project’s cancellation.
Nicole Paiement was with Harrison when he received the letter from Lincoln Center rejecting the project. She told the disappointed composer: “I will do this.” And from that moment until his death in 2003, they talked about what needed to be done to make the score “right.”
Paiement also worked closely with Gordon to make the text more suitable for dramatic theater.
Now, true to her word and in celebration of what would be Harrison’s 90th birthday, Paiement will present the final Young Caesar, one mapped out with Harrison and synthesizing the best features of the previous versions.
“We’ve replaced the flute part with the original ocarina that Lou made,” said Paiement, smiling. That is only one of the original musical instruments that have been reinstated in the score. Her love of Harrison’s work clearly extends beyond the music on the page.
The puppets now take the form of the narrator who has become the “puppetmaster,” and the chorus will become like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action.
The scroll has been transformed into a series of 20’x6’ rolling panels that allow the characters to move easily through the many scene changes of Caesar’s voyage from Rome to Bithynia.
Stage director Brian Staufenbiel comments that the greatest difficulty in the staging has been to make the scenes move smoothly, so that the journey is “seamless.”
Staufenbiel directed the award-winning UC Santa Cruz production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is aided in his staging of Young Caesar by choreographer and principal dancer, Lawrence Pech.
The cast includes internationally acclaimed tenor John Duykers singing the narrator, tenor Eleazar Rodriguez singing Caesar, and Adler Fellow Eugene Brancoveanu singing King Nicomedes. The 21-piece orchestra Ensemble Parallèle provides the music.
The music itself has distilled into an intricate weaving of repeating patterns, much of which is percussive and Asiatic in flavor. The patterns often act as a drone over which floats the singer’s melodic line. Sharp percussive moments are used to punctuate the field of sound. As the action of the story moves from Rome to Bithynia, the music becomes more eastern in mode.
Spanning the composer’s last 30 years, Young Caesar is a musical diary of Harrison’s capacious musical interests. Although the opera deals with the love between two men of radically different cultures, it is finally about the immense landscape of human desires and emotions.
Nicole Paiement and Ensemble Parallele
Feb. 16-17, 8 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre
700 Howard St., San Francisco
For information (415) 978-ARTS (2787).
Photograph by Eva Soltes
Conductor Nicole Paiement