March 13, 2008
Mitisek and Co. expand boundaries of opera with puppets, poetry and ‘Frankenstein!!’
Critics have called the Long Beach Opera (LBO) "daring," "unconventional" and "innovative." While all those are accurate, another word that perhaps better describes the company is "playful."
Still, one wonders how the seasoned, classically trained LBO musicians reacted when their artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, unveiled a box of plastic toy instruments. The toy saxophones and tiny flutes will be played by band members as part of contemporary composer H. K. Gruber's bravura work for orchestra and singing narrator, "Frankenstein!!" Set to witty and often wacky poems by H.C. Artmann, the piece will be presented at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center March 14-16.
"It's really funny to get a box of toy instruments," Mitisek said. "But our orchestra really appreciates what we do, because they get to play what they don't get to play anywhere else. They know they will have some challenges and new music."
Described as "a 'pan-demonium' for chansonnier and orchestra," "Frankenstein!!" makes up the second half of a concert that also features Richard Strauss' 1897 melodrama for voice and piano, "Enoch Arden," based on a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Actor Michael York performs the demanding vocal parts in both works. Luckily, he clearly has a fine sense of humor -- he played Basil Exposition in all three "Austin Powers" movies and worked with Richard Lester in the 1970s.
According to Mitisek, who is Viennese, the musicians will perform "Frankenstein!!" on multiple instruments in Gruber's 12-piece ensemble version -- scored for strings, piano, brass and woodwind players. Simon Rattle and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave his original version for large orchestra a whirl in 1978, with, according to music critic Paul Griffiths, Gruber as soloist in a "vampirical vocalizing of horror-comic ditties."
If all this sounds a bit "out there," even by LBO standards, last month the company staged Ricky Ian Gordon's song cycle "Orpheus and Euridice" at the Belmont Plaza Olympic pool in Long Beach, with the pool setting re-imagined as the River Styx ï¿½"entrance to the underworld. And last year's haunting, claustrophobic production of Grigori Frid's monodrama for soprano, "The Diary of Anne Frank," took place in parking garages at Sinai Temple and in Lincoln Park.
So given this history, maybe staging Gruber's eerie comic-book world is a return to earth for Mitisek and the LBO. At least the work is being presented in a theater with properly cushioned seats, not on metal bleachers.
But did we mention the puppets? Strange and unique as Gruber's work was conceived to be, leave it to Mitisek to kick it up another notch by adding the Long Beach-based Rogue Artists, a group specializing in masks and puppetry.
Gruber's piece is not normally performed with puppets, but that didn't restrain Mitisek's own wacky imagination.
"Gruber calls it 'instrumental theatre,'" Mitisek said. "I think it's an open art form, and it's also something very Long Beach Opera-like, expanding the boundaries of whatever we do."
So the conductor turned to the Rogue Artists Ensemble. In 2005, the group collaborated with Opera Pacific on a story about puppets that interact with human stagehands while performing Wagner's "Ring" Cycle. The title: "Das PÃ¼ppet." One of their more recent projects is an original adaptation of "Mr. Punch," a dark graphic novel. "They have a vein for the macabre," Mitisek said. "They are not regular puppeteers -- their aim is not little-kid shows."
Tyler Stamets, the 27-year-old associate artistic director of Rogue Artists, agrees. While his favorite parts of the show are "the toy instruments that have a crazy, whimsical feel that lends itself to the type of work we do," he says "Frankenstein!!" is not for kids.
"It's great for teenagers of the 'Simpsons' generation," he said. "But it's not sweet and sunshiny."
Readers can sample some of Artmann's deceptively simple poems "after children's rhymes" online.
Mitisek also sees the work as appealing to adults.
"Being childlike is something to keep in our lives," the 43-year-old conductor said. "[Gruber's] piece appeals to the sophisticated adult in us and also to the fun part that we, hopefully, still keep from our childhood."
For Mitisek, staying "young at heart and mind" is crucial. As for Rogue Artists, they don't have to "stay" young; they still are. And it was Artmann's comic-book references to Batman, Dracula and Superman, among others, that resonated most with them. Founded in 2003 at UC Irvine, the company came together when Stamets met Patrick Rubio, one of the two lead designers for the "Frankenstein!!" project; the other is veteran puppeteer, Joyce Hutter.
"We've been heavily influenced by that [comic-book] style," Stamets said, "and this is a great chance for us to put some of that work on stage. Andreas has given us free rein to build on these ideas to make it all come to life." Indeed, to create this Frankenstein, the Rogue Artists, like the LBO, are "pushing it to the extreme." They will be using everything from shadow puppetry projected onto large screens to 10-feet tall puppets. Spoiler alert: one of the culminating theatrical moments in "Frankenstein!!" shows how the monster comes together out of objects scattered about the stage.
Of the several different styles of puppetry the Ensemble will present, one is Bunraku, an early 19th century Japanese art in which a puppet is so large it requires three people to manipulate it.
"It's not just one person with his hand in a sock," Stamets said. "We work with puppets on the scale of Walt Disney and Cirque du Soleil, but without the budget."
According to Mitisek, the composer's title, "Frankenstein!!" may be a bit misleading, since only one of the poems is set to music about that fabled 19th century monster. "But they all have that flavor," Mitisek said, "a poem about Little Miss Dracula and comic-strip heroes. It's all a little nightmarish and scary."
One of the key elements in any production of "Frankenstein!!" is the "chansonnier," in this case actor Michael York, who will also be intoning Strauss's tragic story of "Enoch Arden" in the show's curtain-raiser with pianist Lisa Sylvester. "I have a terrible instinct to say 'yes,'" York said, about agreeing to do Gruber's unclassifiable, if not certifiable, piece. "It's got me into a lot of trouble, but also into a lot of pleasure."
But unlike the Gruber work, in which the actor will be required to sing and play one of the toy instruments, "Enoch Arden" has become a York specialty. He's performed it all over the world, including the Royal Palace in Stockholm and in poet Alfred Lord Tennyson's former house on the Isle of Wight. He also successfully recorded it in 2003 on CD, with accompanist John Bell Young.
The story of "Enoch Arden" is as memorable and heartbreaking -- and as old-fashioned ï¿½"as Tom Hanks' tale of plane wreck and return in "Cast Away." That is to say, it's a plot device that still works. Enoch, a fisherman's boy in rural Britain, marries Annie, a village girl. They have three children. He goes to work at sea and is shipwrecked for 10 years. When he returns, he finds Annie remarried to his childhood friend, Philip. During his absence, they had a child together. Enoch, seeing Annie happy, doesn't tell her he's back.
"One doesn't want to shout or strain," York said about performing the piece, "but there are times when this poor man is agonized." York cites the part in Tennyson's poem where Enoch, home from his desert island, looks in and sees his best friend married to Annie. "This is the truly noble, self-sacrificing part of the story," he said, "but he holds off [telling her] and it literally breaks his heart."
In doing all the voices, York says he'll bring "a slight variation of accent, so that the narrator can be heard apart from Enoch and the other voices."
Though he could just read Tennyson's words, York wants to do a lot more.
"I guess it's the actor in me," he said.
York met Mitisek in 2006 after an LBO performance of Wagner's "Ring" Cycle. It was a condensed English version that ran over a weekend -- about 10 hours, instead of the usual 15 or more -- and it thrilled York. "They got it down," York recalls. "I thought, 'Any company that has the balls to do this....'" So when Mitisek approached him, York already had what he calls "a frame of reference."
As for his role as "chansonnier" in "Frankenstein!!," York still seemed slightly at sea at press time in early March but was excited as rehearsals were about to begin for the first show, less than two weeks away.
"I just took a new version of 'Camelot' around America," York said about his singing-speaking role as King Arthur. "So the chansonnier part doesn't seem too far-fetched."
Mitisek thinks the Center Theater in Long Beach will be ideal for York's version of "Enoch Arden."
"It's a very intimate setting," he said, "a half-round stage with every seat a good one. It's great because you can create the atmosphere of the 19th century salons, and having Michael York so close up, it's almost like being in a movie."
Meanwhile, with "Frankenstein!!" Mitisek continues to explore and expand the meaning of the word "opera."
"It just means it's a 'work,'" he said. "That's its root meaning. When people think of opera, lots of times they think of a language they can't understand, people who don't fit the parts.... There's so much out there that is as beautiful and wonderful as 'Boheme' and 'Traviata,' and people have never seen or heard it. We're here to bring that."
"Enoch Arden" and "Frankenstein!!" will be performed March 14-15 at 8 p.m. and March 16 at 4 p.m. at Center Theater in Long Beach.
Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.