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Harrison Tried Hard To Settle This Score


February 11, 2007

Performances of 'Young Caesar' in San Francisco are the culmination of decades of rewrites.

Composers quite often pull frayed scores out of their desk drawers, but for Lou Harrison, tinkering with his opera "Young Caesar" was a four-decade journey that continued even after he died.

With his unique skill for combining culturally diverse musical forms such as Cantonese opera and Native American song, the composer helped alter the course of 20th century American classical music, earning the admiration of the likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Keith Jarrett and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas along the way.

But few works in Harrison's canon symbolize metamorphosis more radically than "Young Caesar." It's not just that themes of chance, homosexuality and
unpredictability flow swiftly throughout this opera about the tumultuous early career of Julius Caesar. The opera's development, like many Harrison
compositions, is itself a story of complex and erratic transformation.

This week's performances of "Young Caesar" in San Francisco mark the end of a long, turbulent journey for a work whose roots date to the late 1960s. The composer revised "Young Caesar" three times before his death as a result of heart failure in 2003 at 85. Collaborators and creative concepts came and went. Reviews were mixed and producers fickle. Yet Harrison wouldn't let the opera go. It was the one project he was determined to complete. "I'm going to get that work right before I die," he vowed to Leta Miller, a flutist, musicologist and co-author, with Fred Lieberman, of two books about Harrison.

Harrison first conceived of the idea of using Caesar's early political ambitions, military campaign to Asia and love affair with Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, as a way to unite his deep-seated beliefs in East-West accord and homosexual love with his fascination for hybrid musical ensembles, puppet-theater and homemade instruments. Commissioned in 1969 by Encounters, a Pasadena-based concert presenting organization, the first version of "Young Caesar" received its premiere Nov. 5, 1971, at Caltech.

Driven by a desire to create an intimate chamber work as well as by budgetary restraints, Harrison composed "Young Caesar" as a puppet opera for five vocalists, an unseen narrator and five instrumentalists. Each musician played a range of Western and Asian instruments, many of which had been elaborately constructed for the production by Harrison and his partner William Colvig out of items including tin cans, aluminum slabs, steel conduit tubing and cut-off oxygen tanks.

"Young Caesar" broke with tradition musically and thematically. Composed in the wake of the Stonewall riots and during the early years of Harrison's own joyous relationship with Colvig, it may be the first overtly gay opera ever written (Benjamin Britten's "Death in Venice" wouldn't appear until 1973). The opera espoused the unity of East and West through the widely believed love affair of the Rome-based Westerner Caesar and Nicomedes, whose kingdom lay to the East. In the opera, the worlds of Rome and Bithynia offset each other musically, with Caesar's songs accompanied by Occidental instruments and tuning and Nicomedes' by Asian ones. Harrison also experimented with a new type of recitative, influenced by Chinese opera, in which the pitches but not the rhythms are notated.

Despite these innovations, Harrison's work garnered a mixed reception from critics and from its backers.

"The puppet opera was initially financed by two wealthy Pasadena ladies," librettist Robert Gordon recalled. "But they were so shocked by the 'Dance of the Penises' scene in Act 2 that they withdrew their support." Other financers stepped in to make ends meet.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, reviewer John Rockwell expressed admiration for the music, which he called "simple, colorful, tuneful, in every way a reaffirmation of Harrison's preeminent status among American composers." But he criticized the "precious, self-indulgent" libretto and "pompously orated" narration, finally condemning "Young Caesar" for its "pervasive, embarrassing ennui."

The creators themselves saw that there might be room for improvement. The rod and shadow puppets used to personify Caesar, Nicomedes and other characters in the story presented a particular problem for their lack of erotic appeal.

"We were forced to concede that puppets simply aren't all that sexy," Gordon said. "And their sheer tunics weren't helping one bit."

In July 1986, while listening to the Portland Gay Men's Chorus perform "Three Songs," a work Harrison had written for the group the previous year, the composer decided to rescore "Young Caesar" for conventional orchestra and male choir. In collaboration with conductor and orchestrator Robert Hughes, Harrison added dramatic choruses and expanded and altered the scoring. Despite a lavish budget and colorful staging, the Portland production, which opened in April 1988, was not a success. " 'Young Caesar' may have worked with puppets, but it definitely does not with people," wrote the Oregonian's critic, David Stabler.

"The difficulty of the second version was that Lou took a puppet opera and didn't change it radically enough to make it successful with human performers," said Miller. "Parts for the narrator that were essential in the puppet version were unnecessary with human actors…. In addition, these recitatives, modeled on Chinese opera, were sung on few pitches and had very little instrumental accompaniment."

According to Miller, Harrison took the criticisms to heart. He continued to work on his opera, hoping to rectify the problems through the addition of arias to balance out the recitatives.

Around the same time that "Young Caesar" was being produced in Portland, Stuttgart Opera invited Harrison and Gordon to create a German version. But when translating the work proved to be too difficult and time-consuming, the composer and librettist withdrew.


"THERE'S one last thing that Lou would like to do, and that's a remake of 'Young Caesar.' "

Eva Soltes, a longtime friend and collaborator of Harrison's and the creator of an upcoming documentary about the composer, recalled saying that in 1997 to Rockwell — who had gone on to become director of the Lincoln Center Festival — at a party she hosted in honor of Harrison's 80th birthday at New York's 92nd Street Y.

"I was already interested in doing the opera, and Eva corroborated that we should do it," Rockwell said. So in 1999, the Lincoln Center commissioned Harrison to revisit "Young Caesar" again. With conductor Dennis Russell Davies, he added seven arias and reinstated some of the unusual tonalities from the 1971 version. Choreographer Mark Morris — an ardent Harrison fan who had been setting dances to the composer's music since 1985 — came on board as director.

But Morris soon dropped out, citing a very busy touring schedule. The production was put on hold for a year.

Meanwhile, Nigel Redden, who had taken over from Rockwell as director of the Lincoln Center Festival in 1998, hoped to enlist choreographer Bill T. Jones in Morris' place. But discussions about the creative direction of the opera stalled, mainly over the libretto.

"Lou was reluctant to change any of the libretto," Redden said. "He said we could change it if we wanted, but that if we did, it wouldn't be 'Young Caesar' anymore — it would be 'After "Young Caesar." ' This became a bit of an issue."

Eventually, finances got in the way. "The costs began to mount up until it became unfeasible to do it anymore," he said. In 2002, the Lincoln Center Festival canceled the production.

Harrison initially was upset. "Lou didn't get angry very often," Miller recalled. "But I was at his house when he was on the phone to the Lincoln Center. He said that he was tired and that he was through with making changes to the work." But according to Hanson, Harrison quickly moved on: "Lou had a long career with many ups and downs; he understood the Lincoln Center's decision and was just fine with it in the end."

That same year Harrison approached French-Canadian conductor Nicole Paiement. As artistic director of the San Francisco-based new music group Ensemble Parallèle, Paiement had a history of performing and recording Harrison's works. Under her baton, the group had presented numerous world premieres of the composer's pieces since its inception in 1993, including the world premiere recording of Harrison's only other opera, "Rapunzel," as well as arias from "Young Caesar."

Harrison experts and fans advised Paiement to avoid the project. "People told me not to get involved because of the opera's troubled history and because the score needed so much work," she said.

"Young Caesar's" poor critical reception, the Lincoln Center debacle and Harrison's general lack of recognition as a composer of operas created particular hurdles in terms of securing funding for a new production. Nevertheless, Paiement persisted. After she began working on the project, Harrison created additional arias for Nicomedes, Aunt Julia and Caesar as well as a duet for Caesar and his wife, Cornelia. Harrison also developed new scoring, which helped to restore some of the Asiatic flavor that had been so integral to the 1971 version. Over the course of two years, Paiement also coaxed Gordon into streamlining the spoken text. The librettist shortened the recitatives and cut superfluous narrated sections. By the time of the composer's death, the music was complete, though Gordon continued working on the libretto. "Lou's passing was terribly sad, but it didn't interfere with the development of the opera," he said.

On stage

WHEN it opens in San Francisco just three months shy of what would have been the composer's 90th birthday, "Young Caesar," though close to 40 years in the making, will wear a youthful complexion. Paiement has assembled an eclectic group of actor-singers for the production, from seasoned pros such as tenor John Duykers as the Narrator and mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse as Aunt Julia to such relative newcomers as Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodriguez as Caesar and Romanian baritone Eugene Brancoveanu as Nicomedes. In addition to the principal roles, the production includes a chorus of 20 men, playing Roman citizens and visiting noblemen.

Although many staging elements have changed since "Young Caesar's" last iteration in Portland, the new production also looks to the past.

The puppets may be gone, but director Brian Staufenbiel's decision to turn the Narrator into a looming puppet master pays homage to the original spirit in which Harrison created the work.

Similarly, Ensemble Parallèle's 21 musicians will mix standard orchestral instruments with handmade instruments borrowed from sources that include the Lou Harrison Percussion Instrument Collection held at Mills College in Oakland. "Instruments like bells, a harp tuned to Asian tonalities, and an ocarina will create a more exotic sound for the scenes in Bithynia," Paiement said.

With this fourth incarnation, Harrison's dream of completing a successful, gay-themed opera seemingly is finally fulfilled. "I think Lou would be pleased with this final take," Gordon said. "We worked on it for so long that by the time of his death, there was nothing much left for him to do on the piece. If he were still alive, he'd pretty much just be able to sit back and enjoy it."


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