Sunday, June 11, 2017

Hail Caesar!

On Tuesday, June 13, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series presents a new, “hybrid” version of Lou Harrison’s 1971 opera Young Caesar. Harrison originally created it as a puppet opera, which premiered at Cal Tech in Pasadena, but later refashioned it for more conventional, equal-tempered instruments and live performers. This version premiered in 1987, but Harrison worked on more substantial changes in response to a commission from Lincoln Center. This last version was not performed until 2007, after Harrison's death, at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The production premiering this week, created by the Los Angeles opera company The Industry, uses elements of the original and the revised versions. Here’s the story of the original production of Young Caesar, excerpted from our book: Lou Harrison:American Musical Maverick.

One day in the 1930s, while Lou Harrison was working as a dance accompanist at Mills College, he witnessed a group of young San Franciscans pull up to the college theater in their car. An older woman directed them to unload some pieces of wood from the back of their the car—and within minutes, it magically metamorphosed into an enchanting window onto a mythic world.

This was Harrison’s introduction to the Red Gate Players and their entirely portable production of Chinese shadow puppetry. The medium fascinated him even then; one of his favorite works was Manuel da Falla’s charming setting of the puppet scene from Don Quixote, El Retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show). Ever since, he had wanted to make his own puppet opera. His 1960s investigations of Asian music revived that notion: the ancient puppet dramas of China and Indonesia could represent far more elaborate settings and events than were practical to stage in conventional opera.

And now he’d have the chance, thanks to a commission from the Encounters new music series in Pasadena. Still, Harrison told his partner, Bill Colvig, one night, not long after one of their trips to the city to attend a gay rights function, he couldn’t find a suitable story.

“Why don’t you do a gay subject?” Colvig replied.

What a splendid idea, Harrison thought, and he searched his memory. He’d already used a story from the historian Suetonius’s chronicles of Rome about Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Cinna, as source material for a dramatic production. Now he remembered another Suetonius story about Caesar’s dalliance with the King king of Bithynia, long before he became emperor.

As with Cinna, the ancient story suited the times. At the height of the Vietnam War, Harrison’s puppet opera would recount the tale of a young citizen of a powerful, militaristic Western kingdom, expected by society to fulfill the roles of a husband, father, and soldier. Yet first he is assigned to go and confront the king of a province of the sensual East, where he encounters beauty and love. Without abandoning his duty, Gaius (Julius Caesar) gives himself openly to these pleasures and suffers the contempt of Western society as a result.

As Harrison delved into the history, though, he realized that the story posed dramatic challenges. For audiences to understand the significance of the opera’s events, the libretto would have to explain unfamiliar history at the risk of overshadowing the characters’ conflicts and motivations. Writer Robert Gordon, approached Harrison at a San Francisco performance of a Satie puppet opera and volunteered to take on the tricky task. Gordon began by conscientiously and carefully researching the story and the period—maybe too carefully, because the first draft he sent Harrison read less like a libretto than a historical novel and was the size of the latter. At Harrison’s insistence, Gordon whittled at the text over and over, down to 14 fourteen scenes but resisted cutting any further.
Gaius in the Bythinian palace in the original production of Young Caesar.
The set design is by Harrison himself.
Next, Harrison had to find someone to make the puppets and puppeteers to realize a production about a gay love affair—decades before such themes were openly represented on the concert stage. Harrison enlisted an art director at San Francisco’s public television station, KQED, Bill Jones, to help create a set of over 20 twenty rod puppets, which ultimately required seven puppeteers to manipulate. Colvig helped out by building the stage and lighting, and as the increasingly elaborate project progressed, Harrison found himself painting the moving backdrops as well as composing.

Harrison’s do-it-yourself method, reminiscent of his old days in San Francisco making instruments from junk and rounding up dancers to play them, turned out to have downsides as well as advantages. Instead of simplifying the production, this puppet opera wound up entailing more work and maybe even more expense than if he had relied on a conventional opera company.

For months through 1970 and stretching into the next year, Young Caesar consumed Harrison, with the libretto proving especially knotty. To give the audience the complex background and context needed to understand the action, he proposed a narrator. After experimenting with using a male chorus to provide narration, Harrison decided to make the narrator a central solo role, patterned after the tayu storyteller of Japanese bunraku puppetry, who not only sets scenes but also describes action happening onstage. Narration also helped overcome another limitation: the puppets’ limited movement capabilities. An action as simple as Gaius picking up his infant son had to be described instead of acted, and at times the narration would crowd out the characters’ dialogue.

With so much explaining to do and an entirely prose text, Harrison decided, conventional arias, which generally use poetic texts to allow characters to express their emotional states, wouldn’t work. To get through the prose exposition as quickly as possible, Harrison relied almost entirely on recitatives (which sometimes obscure the opera’s most alluring musical moments), often modeling them on the psalmody of the Gregorian chant he had learned as a teenager. As in a chanted psalm, each line would have many rhythmically free syllables chanted on a central psalm tone or “tenor” surrounded by an introductory intonation motive and a termination motive.

Harrison added another exotic element to narration and dialogue that he remembered from the Chinese operas he had seen as a youth: punctuating the vocal melodies with percussive woodblock sounds, where percussion ostinatos bubbled under the onstage action, a technique in turn inspired by Japanese Noh drama. In Young Caesar, those ostinatos add texture and depth to the recitatives and sometimes suspense to the scenes.

But the opera still lacked what Harrison called the audience’s “take-home pay” of such a work: beautiful arias. “[W]hen I wanted to make an aria, I had to extract sentences and repeat them, take a phrase and make an aria out of that, and so on,” he remembered ruefully. “It was a very hard libretto to work with.” Even the few places where Harrison dwelled on the text long enough to grace it with snatches of lyricism—Gaius’s lullaby for his daughter, his sorrow when he learns of his betrothal, Nicomedes’s confrontation with the financiers—hardly qualify as full-fledged arias.

Without typical Harrisonian modal lyricism, it is left up to the central pitches (or “psalm tones”) of the recitatives to establish a tonic and mode and thus unify each scene. The characters firmly associated with Rome—Gaius’s aunt Julia, the tutor Gniphos, General Thermus—sing on diatonic scales, the class of modes used in classical Rome. These scales were supported by the new metallophones that Colvig had begun to build for Harrison’s Chinese ensemble using conduit tubes and aluminum bars cut to the lengths of a five-limit just-intonation diatonic scale.

The scenes depicting the despair of Gaius’s spurned fiancée Cossutia and Caesar’s escape from the dictator Sulla use the equal-tempered octatonic scale, popular with Russian modernists such as early Stravinsky but then unusual for Harrison. The scale’s alternation of half- and whole-tones half tones and whole tones creates a tense ambiguity appropriate for these painful moments without being entirely chromatic. In contrast, the characters associated with Bithynia and the East use colorful non-diatonic scales often associated with the Middle East. For these scenes, Harrison decided to build a new set of metallophones tuned to the harmonic series, and when the scene changes to Rome’s client kingdom of Bithynia in Asia Minor, they ring out the surprising sounds of harmonics seven and eleven. Gaius himself, the Roman who falls in love with the East, partakes of both types of scales.

West and East also collide in other instrumentation that Harrison collected for the production, for which he relied almost completely on the instruments in his own large collection: his Chinese zheng zither, sheng mouth organ, flutes, and various percussion; Korean piri and drums; percussion orchestra instruments including metal trash cans, cymbals, woodblocks, various bells, rattles, and rasps; European harp, violin, viola, and organ. Much of the score’s colorful character stems from these delightfully distinct and unusual timbres: the breathy sound of the syrinx (Greek pan flute) as sixteen-year-old Gaius processes to his manhood ceremony; the haunting ocarina and weird slide whistle accompanying his delirious dreams; a ram’s horn for the courtly procession; the sweet sensuality of the zheng together with an Indian ektara (plucked lute) and; elephant bells as Gaius moves in wonder through the Bithynian palace.

The set pieces played by these colorful instruments use forms similar to the miniature works Harrison had focused on during the 1960s, especially his lovely compositions for harp and for psaltery. A sensuous psaltery piece, “Palace Music,” accompanies Gaius’s wonder at the Bithynian opulence, with idiomatic slides but a very un-Chinese scale. The funeral procession (done in shadow) is set to a solemn melody on harp and violin with spare percussion ostinatos.

The episodic story that Gordon distilled from several years of Julius Caesar’s life lacks a conventional dramatic arc, juxtaposing several incidents in the first half and then showing the trip to Bithynia in the second. Caesar first appears in his manhood ceremony at age sixteen, then he hatches political schemes after the death of his father, and he reappears next with his new wife and daughter. Unfortunately, the real drama doesn’t begin until he defies the dictator Sulla and appears as a soldier preparing to charge a besieged city. Harrison’s scrolling backdrop mechanism depicted these grand settings.

Gaius is saved from this battle by orders to collect an overdue tribute of ships promised by the elegant and handsome king of Bithynia, Nicomedes. Overwhelmed by the opulent palace and the flirting king, the adolescent Gaius is treated to a lavish banquet, followed by entertainment of dancers to a “Whirling Dance” for violin, harp, and gongs in the form of an estampie, and then acrobats accompanied by a thrilling melody on the sheng. The celebrations intensify to a climactic “Eroticon” dream ballet in which Western strings and Eastern winds entwine lines in a sensuous musical intercourse.

“Here we find a young Roman noble of conservative and upper class parentage confronting, for the first time, an elaborately Asianized court by which he obviously found himself dazzled,” Harrison later described the scene—Determined to unflinchingly represent this (historically accurate) orgy, Harrison advertised the production as an “opera for X-rated puppets.” The flying phalli nevertheless so upset two of the original wealthy funders, Gordon said, that they withdrew their support.

Still, Gordon discreetly handled the ensuing love affair between Gaius and Nicomedes. Gaius’s dalliance at the court creates a scandal, but the future emperor faces up to gossipers, and in the end, by force of love instead of arms, he gets his ships, which cross the Mediterranean (to Harrison’s rousing barcarole) at the final curtain.

The audience at the California Institute of Technology, intrigued by such an unusual production, greeted the hour-long hourlong Young Caesar warmly, on the whole. After returning north, the troupe put together another performance, directed by gay poet Paul Mariah, in the auditorium at the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco.

The opera presented a contemporarily relevant, too-little known true tale featuring positive and historically accurate portrayals of homosexuality, peace, love, and intercultural understanding—along with some of Harrison’s most compelling dramatic music. Thanks to the homespun instruments and puppets, and occasional humor, despite Young Caesar’s ambitions, it retained an appealing intimacy lacking in such large-scale works as his symphonies.

But performances in front of audiences revealed some unforeseen weaknesses. The unexpressive puppets often made Harrison’s attempts to express love, sexuality, and other emotions clumsy or even unintentionally comical. And by devoting the first half of the opera to exposition of history, rather than the central drama (which really doesn’t ignite until Caesar meets Nicomedes, the natural starting point for a classic heart-versus-head conflict), the original Young Caesar spends too much time in chattering explanation and not nearly enough in singing and action.

Worse, “the crippling weakness of Young Caesar is its precious, self-indulgent libretto,” wrote critic John Rockwell (who decades later tried to revive the opera when he was running the Lincoln Center Festival) in the Los Angeles Times. While praising Harrison’s music and the singers, he noted that traditional Asian puppet theater works precisely because of its acceptance of its mythic assumptions, whereas Gordon’s realism produced only a “pervasive, embarrassing ennui.” In trying to make the story more approachable to contemporary audiences (by using colloquial language and realistic—for puppets, anyway—action), the production vitiated the suggestive power of its mythic theater origins.

More important than these dramatic failings, though, is the sheer audacity of Young Caesar. In the year that Richard Nixon was on his way to a landslide reelection, serial complexity was the new norm, and neither “world music” nor “gay rights” had entered the popular lexicon, Harrison had brought to a mainstream stage a homosexual puppet opera with unheard of unheard-of instruments and sensual melodies. But such an accomplishment, inconceivable by anyone but Lou Harrison, could not overcome Young Caesar’s fundamental flaws and practical difficulties. Its failure crushed Harrison, who had devoted two and a half years of his professional life—and some fine music—to a story he cherished. Like a father who refuses to give up on a problem child, Harrison continued to pursue opportunities to rehabilitate his beloved work for the rest of his life.

The Industry’s sold-out production of Young Caesar, featuring the LA Phil New Music Group, the men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, dancers and actors, runs for one performance only, Tuesday, June 13, at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The recording of the original version of Young Caesar, with its unusual just intonation instruments, is available at the Other Minds archive.

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere. 


  1. Does anyone know if it is possible to look at the score to Young Caesar?

  2. Harrison's last version of Young Caesar is published by Peer Music. It is available in some libraries, including UC Santa Cruz. The original version of Young Caesar exists only in manuscript in the Lou Harrison archive also at UC Santa Cruz.