Opera-Remix-MV-Web-Widget-FGOFresno 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.

Donald Munro

Donald Munro

Donald Munro is The Bee's arts and culture critic. He currently has the opening song to "Galavant" stuck in his head and doesn't know if he can ever get it out.
Donald Munro
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8 thoughts on “CONCERT REVIEW: ‘Opera Remix: Music & Verse’

  • October 19, 2015 at 8:14 pm
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    After reading this, and several of your other reviews, I don’t know how you manage to be so disconnected from what the rest of the audience is experiencing. The Friday event was electric, and each poem was well connected to what the music lyrics were speaking too. What I pulled from it, and thought was incredibly powerful as a woman from the Beat Generation, is that basic human emotions around government, politics, and the angst of life NEVER change. I hope that the opera company continues to provide alternative experiences outside of traditional opera. On another note, it is incredibly disappointing that you did not even acknowledge the excellent work of the chamber opera. The music was incredibly difficult, particularly for the percussionists. If you’re going to give a review, try to avoid why you couldn’t make a relevant connection. Maybe it’s just you.

    For the record, my favorite piece was Wichita Vortex Sutra, the Medrano piece, that is simply a piece full of angst for an old man who wanted an end to war.; and particularly relevant considering our current state as a nation. It was intense, and deep. Guess you missed that too.

    Reply
    • October 20, 2015 at 1:58 pm
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      From my review regarding the chamber opera: “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.”

      You write: “If you’re going to give a review, try to avoid why you couldn’t make a relevant connection. Maybe it’s just you.” Um, of course it’s just me. That’s what reviews are. But I don’t understand what you’re saying with “try to avoid why you couldn’t make a relevant connection.” Are you saying that if I don’t feel connected to something then I shouldn’t write about it? I’m not writing this to be adversarial. I’m just trying to understand your point. I’m not a trained poet in terms of my academic background, so I’m trying to learn here, too.

      Reply
  • October 20, 2015 at 11:54 am
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    Sir,
    I just wanted to correct you on Medrano’s performance. It was actually the piece of poetry written by A. Ginsberg. The music was inspired and created for that exact piece by Glass.
    Thank you,
    AideedMedina

    Reply
    • October 20, 2015 at 1:50 pm
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      Thank you for the clarification. Without a detailed program or introductions, it’s hard for an audience to know what is going on. Again, I’m just giving my own opinion, and I offer an honest reaction. I’m curious: Was this a part of “Hydrogen Jukebox” designed for spoken-word accompaniment? Or was the text originally meant to be sung? Whatever the intent, I don’t think it was effective with Medrano’s delivery.

      Reply
      • October 20, 2015 at 7:34 pm
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        Donald,
        The piece done by Mike Medrano was written, and originally performed by Ginsberg for Hydrogen Jukebox. It is the only spoken word in the chamber opera. We all felt that Mike literally channeled Ginsberg in his delivery –if you’ve ever heard ginsberg read, you’d understand what I’m saying.

        Reply
  • October 20, 2015 at 9:02 pm
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    To the author of the review,

    The piece of poetry recited by Medrano, was called Witchita Vortex Sutra. As explained very clearly from the microphone by either the conductor, or the general director (I forget which) that poem, written by Ginsberg, spoken over Philip Glass’ music was the genesis of the entire opera. I heard that said from the stage, as did my wife. It is a movement from the opera, wholly unto itself. The poem is to be spoken over the music that you heard. It is wildly problematic to me that you think it acceptable to write a review of a work that you have not thoroughly researched, or even attempted to graze the surface of. A retraction, and clarification is in order. Furthermore it is not for commenters to answer your questions about works of art that you have reviewed. This smacks of laziness.

    Reply
    • October 20, 2015 at 10:19 pm
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      I don’t usually engage in this kind of back and forth with readers, because it usually deteriorates into personal attacks (laziness, anyone?) but I feel it’s important for me in this case to respond. I did not hear the explanation of the piece from the stage, perhaps because I was writing in my notebook at the time, or was distracted, or any number of reasons — I can’t explain that. (You yourself can’t recall whether it was the conductor or general director speaking at the time.) I am well versed in many artistic genres, and with 25 years of experience and thousands of reviews I know a lot, but I cannot be an expert in everything. I am an arts generalist. (And if you think the Fresno Bee can afford to hire a dozen critics in everything from opera, classical music, theater and dance to visual art, architecture, poetry, etc., and give them oodles of hours to completely immerse themselves in whatever it is they’re reviewing, then you’re sadly wrong.) I try to cram as much in as I can while previewing and covering a vast number of events, but sometimes things fall through the cracks, such as my knowledge of this particular part of the performance history of “Hydrogen Jukebox.” For me, the most important thing when I write a review is to give an honest response, and in this case the Medrano segment did not work for me. Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked for me — gasp — if I’d heard Ginsberg himself performing it. But, ultimately, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s a conversation between the artist and the viewer, and for this particular event, I tried to advance that conversation. I do appreciate you taking the time to write and let me know what you think.

      Reply
  • October 21, 2015 at 2:08 pm
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    Hello all,
    Just a couple of quick thoughts from my perspective:
    1. I appreciate the passion that all parties have shown about their experience at the Opera Remix event. I also love that an opera event is driving this kind of discussion – it’s been a long time since opera was important enough to anyone to garner any kind of attention.
    2. While I enjoy the conversation and passion, I would encourage everyone to be kind and respectful in their discourse. Art is subjective, and we should be able to discuss it respectfully.
    3. Lastly, I want to thank Mr. Munro (and I think we all should) for his commitment to covering the arts in Fresno. Yes, it’s his job and he is compensated to do so, but since beginning my tenure with Fresno Grand Opera in December 2014, I have been continually astounded by the sheer volume of his output. He attends more arts events than any arts writer I’ve ever known, and our community is the better for it. I can say this as someone who works in another community where the arts are not covered nearly as thoroughly. Agree or disagree with his opinions, Mr. Munro does an exceptional job covering ALL of the arts in Fresno, our community is better for it, and he should be commended for his commitment.

    Matthew Buckman
    General Director
    Fresno Grand Opera

    Reply

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