The ever-controversial Caesar comes out in Lou Harrison opera
Adam Fisher as Caesar and Hadleigh Adams as Nicomedes / Craig T. Mathew/ Mathew Imaging

LOS ANGELES—Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) invented the Julian calendar of 365.25 days, the one we still use today, and was the pivotal figure in the devolution of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. His assassination still evokes the warning, Beware the Ides of March!

The calendar is not controversial, and the facts surrounding his death are well documented, though with some disputes among historians.

But the representation of Caesar stays in the news as the subject for much debate and acrimony. Was he straight, gay or bi (terms that none in his era would have recognized)? Composer Lou Harrison, whose centennial is being honored this year, decided back in the late 1960s and early 1970s—the early wave of Gay Lib, when homosexuality was still illegal—that yes, Caesar did have at least one important homosexual liaison. With librettist Robert Gordon (no relation), he wrote Young Caesar, an opera considered scandalous at the time with such a plot line.

Other controversies are making the news these days. Here in L.A. recently a reworking of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar appeared as the Tragedy of JFK. But that was not the first time the semblance of a public figure had been “relevantly” inserted into the role. In 2012, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis cast Caesar as a tall, spindly black man that inevitably suggested President Barack Obama. Before that, productions of the work had Caesar resembling Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Orson Welles put on a “fascist” Julius Caesar with his Mercury Theatre back in the 1930s, restoring the Roman setting and its leather-clad citizens à la Mussolini.

Currently an angry storm is circling around the New York Public Theater production of the play, which began previews on May 23 and officially opened two weeks later. Caesar is represented by blond-haired Gregg Henry, who appears in a modern business suit and long tie, possessed of a gold-plated bathtub and what one critic described as a “pouty Slavic wife.”

How anyone could have seen Donald Trump in this representation is anyone’s guess, but Breitbart News and then Fox News went ballistic. In response, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America promptly withdrew their support, no doubt fearful of a massive right-wing consumer boycott. What they spinelessly seemed to be missing is Shakespeare’s point: The play continues for two-plus acts after the Act III, scene 1 killing, to deplore what happens to the remaining characters as a result of this impulsive act, and indeed what happens to democracy itself. The play is no endorsement for assassination.

Commentators are piling on, many pointing out the inherent dangers of corporate sponsorship. Will CEOs now start deciding that nothing more controversial or “relevant” than Anne of Green Gables will now be staged, or published, or seen in museums? Of course we know there are dangers, too, in government support of the arts. He who pays the piper…. It’s an old debate which must be renegotiated in every time and place. When was art ever completely autonomous from public life?

When Caesar was young

Let’s go back to a time maybe 35 years or so before he was murdered at age 55, when Caesar was coming into his manhood, a bright, athletic fellow just married to Cornelia and father of a daughter, ambitious and in the service of General Marcus Minucius Thermus. In that capacity he was dispatched to Bithynia, a kingdom on the Black Sea coast of northwest Asia Minor, or what is now Turkey, today an hour’s flight from Rome, but then a sea voyage of some duration. His mission was to get King Nicomedes to hurry up and return some ships loaned by Rome.

That summarizes Act I of the newly revised Young Caesar, performed for one sold-out night only, June 13, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and directed by the young hotshot of contemporary opera, Yuval Sharon, with his experimental company, The Industry. The LA Phil New Music Group under conductor Marc Lowenstein comprised a modest-sized Western orchestra with five players of ancient Asian instruments and the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. In Lou Harrison’s conception, Bithynia was an Eastern land and the incorporation of an Asian gamelan-type ensemble suitably represented the abyss between West and East.

Retained from the original iteration of the opera when it was first, and somewhat disastrously produced in 1971 at Cal Arts in Pasadena, was the conceit of Indonesian shadow puppetry acting out the plot. Robert Gordon, who worked intimately with Harrison on the opera, was on hand to tighten the libretto down to an announced 90 minutes—by my watch it ran closer to 110—while preserving virtually all of Harrison’s music.

Speaking of that original production, with its flying shadow phalli, certain Pasadena patronesses of the arts quickly reneged on their funding for Harrison’s opera, leaving company members stranded in Southern California, foreshadowing the current debacle in New York. Gordon observed that one of those ladies was in fact in the audience tonight. It must have been one of the high points of Gordon’s life to see this opera produced in such a lovingly prepared edition, almost half a century after its uncertain premiere.

In Act II, following an orchestral interlude but without intermission, we find Caesar at the court of Nicomedes. The king is pleasantly shocked to find the Roman emissary is a muscled blond hunk, barely more than a teenager, of considerable charm and erudition. He proceeds to seduce him with banquets and wine, exotic dancing, sex orgies, opulent Oriental luxuries (among them the royal bed), sumptuous gifts, hunting trips and excursions on horseback to interesting historic sites in Bithynia, including the tomb of Hannibal. Nicomedes is in no rush to prepare the Roman ships as he wishes to continue enjoying this mutually agreeable meeting of souls.

In short, they fall in love, ignoring the grumbling among their entourage on both sides. Caesar took a chance on this last phase of his education as a man, ignoring what would become the taunt in his future: “Look at the queen of Bithynia.” Eventually they must part, but not before Nicomedes has shared with Caesar his wisdom about life: “One year we lose a battle, the next we get a throne, / but Time’s the real master and keeps his victories for his own.” If Caesar had stayed, the entire course of history may well have veered off in another direction.

The closing credits on the shadow screen ended, like all Hollywood movies, “Copyright MMXVII.”

The opera has seen other productions, including one in 1988 by the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus that featured mostly choral singing, but never at the level of professionalism as this, resplendently costumed, movingly choreographed, the shadow puppets cleverly interacting with the live performers, and a cast of internationally renowned singers. Caesar was sung by tenor Adam Fisher, Nicomedes by baritone Hadleigh Adams, Caesar’s aunt and consigliere Julia by Nancy Maultsby, Cornelia by Delaram Kamareh, and the role of Dionysus, Caesar’s thrill-seeking gay friend, by Timur, a most promising high tenor of part Kazakh background. Men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale sang, and six dancers with strong acrobatic skills delighted the eye with their revealing demi-togas, flowing veils and leather straps. As our guide though the narrative, veteran jack of all Hollywood trades Bruce Vilanch gave a queer’s eye overview of the proceedings (some of whose commentary was unfortunately lost, however, in the general noise).

Lou Harrison died in 2003, an out and proud gay man with a longtime partner Bill Colvig, who helped him build some of the instruments Harrison composed for. His work in many genres is still awaiting a major revival of interest. This masterful opera, now not quite so outrageous as it once appeared, and in a form that might be considered finally and successfully “realized,” with Handelian recitatives, full-blown arias and choral pieces, may well be the piece that restores his name to music lovers’ minds when they think of important 20th-century American composers.

The performance was filmed, I am guessing not only for archival purposes, but for editing into something showable. It would truly be a shame if only one audience in L.A., still on a high from the GLBT Resist March that took place only two days before (now estimated at 100,000 participants), were to experience this seminal work, pathbreaking both in subject and in its intriguing, visionary score.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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