Fresno Grand Opera stirred the pot some more on Friday night with its second “Opera Remix” concert at the Tower Theatre. The dish got even spicier than the company’s first foray of “Opera Meets Classic Rock” — and perhaps not to everyone’s taste. But that’s what happens when you take risks, as the company is doing with this initiative to attract new and different audiences to what many see as a staid and conformist art form.
The format for this second “Remix” was “Music & Verse,” and the evening paired a sextet of wonderful professional singers performing excerpts from the chamber opera “Hydrogen Jukebox,” with music by Philip Glass set to the poems of Allen Ginsberg, alternating with local Fresno poets, each of whom were given a few minutes to share their work.
The idea, as the excellent conductor Stuart Sims and company general director Matthew Buckman explained, is that opera isn’t just about the music — it’s also about the text. By mashing together two genres, a new relationship between them can be discerned.
The Glass-Ginsberg pieces were often exhilarating, with Glass’ insistent brand of minimalism charging the text at times and at others giving way to more upbeat and playful tunefulness. The singing was beautiful and pure, just the right style for the material, and in such selections as the opening piece, “Song from Iron Horse,” I could see in my mind the lightning flashing across the dark, sprawling Oklahoma plains.
When the first poet, James Tyner, took the stage, to recite his “After Jumping Some Kids and Taking Their Money,” I reflected on how the insistent notes from the preceding piece seemed to hang in the air, forming an unplayed accompaniment of sorts, thereby boosting the intensity.
Tyner, with his spare word choices and crisp allusions, was one of my favorite poets of the evening. Other standouts to me were Taylor Harris, whose quiet insistence filled the theater, and Jennifer De La Cruz, whose punchy “letter” to pornography — “your fingerprints were found on the body bag of my marriage” — wowed the audience.
I will declare my personal feelings up front: I often find it hard to warm to and connect with what I consider the stereotypical “poetry slam” style of delivery. I realize many other people feel differently. But to me, the scooped articulations and monotonous, insistent cadence of some practitioners of this style seem to me like the sing-song of a thundering preacher without the human connection. Too often, such a style can cover up for drawn-out cliches and bloated poetry that, frankly, could have used a good edit.
Aideed Medina’s performance was earnest and heartfelt, but it suffered from some of these excesses. So, too, did Michael Medrano’s work, which was awkwardly paired with musical accompaniment — I think it was another piece by Glass — whose minimalism clashed with Medrano’s pumped-up style.
S. Bryan Medina and Andre Yang were better able to escape the confinements of the slam vocal style, making their performances more personal and impactful.
Thanks to a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, Fresno Grand Opera gets to embark on a grand experiment in the coming year: pairing the poets who participated in “Opera Remix” with composition students supervised by faculty at Fresno State. The results will be performed at a future “Opera Remix.”
One important thing everyone involved in the project should consider is this: While it is true that opera is very much about text, it’s also about a specific type of text designed to be paired together with the music for maximum impact. The musical experiment with Medrano confirms this: Simply juxtaposing music and poetry together can result in a graceless union.
Buckman told the audience near the end of the concert that some great (and I mean great!) composers will be helping along the way. Scheduled are Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie (composer of “Dead Man Walking,” which Fresno Grand Opera performs May 7). That’s exciting news in itself.
Even more exciting is that the company continues to stretch and innovate in search of new audiences. While there were parts of this “Opera Remix” that fell flat for me, the important thing is that I felt immersed in an exciting and creative environment. Spicy is good.
UPDATED 4 p.m.: Fresno State students will be writing the music in the Fresno State-Fresno Grand Opera partnership. Faculty will oversee the process.
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