Long Beach Opera’s comic book ‘King Arthur’ fights off alien invaders
From left, Marc Molomot, Darryl Taylor, Jamie Chamberlin, Cedric Berry / Nathan Granner

LONG BEACH, Calif.—Long Beach Opera is one of the most adventuresome cultural institutions in Southern California, never afraid to take artistic risks presenting unfamiliar older repertoire as well as newer works and premieres. Music lovers, especially opera fans, are profoundly grateful for its vision of producing operatic stagings that no one else would take the esthetic or frankly the financial liability to do.

In reimagining English composer Henry Purcell’s (1659-95) semi-operatic stage work King Arthur for a contemporary superhero-worshiping audience, LBO has completely revamped the conceit of the 1691 original and given us something virtually new. The company has no self-consciousness at all about calling this the “world premiere,” well, at least of its reinvention.

Seventeenth-century English opera was not what we could necessarily call “opera” today. More common were stage plays, dominated by spoken dialogue, with an interpolation of instrumental musical numbers, choruses and songs. The terms “semi-opera,” “dramatic[k] opera” and “English opera” were all applied to Restoration entertainments of Purcell’s time. Indeed, so strong were the dramatic aspects, in the original King Arthur, for example, that the music was performed not by the leading characters at all but by subsidiary entities such as gods, muses, fairies and spirits who commented like a Greek chorus upon the stage action. Such masques were grand spectacles involving clever onstage machinery, sets, props, choreography, special effects and exquisite harmonies.

In fact, Purcell wrote only one work that we would fully call an opera, the short, tragic Dido and Aeneas, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, which has never left the operatic repertoire, usually paired with another one-act to make an evening. Arias from it, especially Dido’s final lament, have become cherished recital pieces.

The surviving music and text for King Arthur, if presented unedited, would make for a rather dreary affair valuable primarily as a historical recreation. Written to a text by the poet John Dryden, King Arthur includes fascinating music for a chorus of cold people, frozen by the Cold Genius but eventually thawed by the power of Love. For its music to be heard and mean anything to anyone today, the whole work must be recast, or shape-shifted, if you will, into another form.

In Andreas Mitisek’s final season after 17 years as head of LBO, he has thrown himself utterly into this project. He conducts the L.A. area’s 10-piece Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, he is the stage director, the co-adaptor of the script with the well-known provocative Latino satirical comic and theatrical group Culture Clash, and the video and production designer.

His approximately 90-minute, intermissionless version of King Arthur (seen Jan. 12) uses “satire to comment on the political climate around us, the longing for heroes to protect us from invaders.” Mitisek, an immigrant from Austria, recalls that “the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers premiered in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism and tensions around immigration policy.” Subsequent remakes also came at times of immigration anxiety. He cites a New York Times article:

“Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh. After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. That’s not allowed either, they told him.”

“These comments,” Mitisek observes, “sound like they are out of a biting satire about a xenophobic leader, but they are the real scary thoughts, voiced by a president of the USA.”

So how does this scenario fit into the King Arthur story? Perhaps it’s a fairer question to ask how the storied King Arthur fits into this scenario. The new reimagination does feel rather “shape-shifted” to tell the story Mitisek and Culture Clash are intent on relating.

In this version, there are no Knights of the Round Table, no magician Merlin, no beloved princess Emmeline, no Camelot. Instead, King Arthur returns as Arthur King (Marc Molomot), whom we find in the confines of a mental hospital imagining himself a comic book superhero who fights a mysterious, strange and unnatural force in the form of Doc Oswald (Cedric Berry), a Saxon invader attacking Britain, threatening life as we know it, and seducing the avatar of British womanhood, Nurse Gwen E. Veer (Jamie Chamberlin). His fellow inmate Lance E. Lott (Darryl Taylor) joins Arthur in their mutual fantasy to save humanity and stand up against a race of alien shape shifters who aim to conquer the galaxy.

The delusional Arthur in this phantasmagoria stands in for the Commander-in-Chief whose obsession it is to rid his fair land of just about anyone who doesn’t look like himself. Curiously, speaking of shape-shifting, it’s the formerly named Drumpf family from Saxony (Germany) that’s now defending the precious homeland and trying to secure a historic place of honor as the defender against the barbarians. As LBO says, “These tales have been expressed in songs, literature, art and dance for thousands of years, and are still being reinterpreted today in books, comic strips, interactive games and adventure films.”

In other words, take some key themes and characters from the legend, throw them in the mixer and see what comes out. Just make sure to retain most of the songs (formerly sung by sprites and spirits), assign them hopefully not in just random order to the four characters, turn a few into duets and ensemble numbers, add orchestra, spice it up with a splash of Culture Clash naughtiness, and there’s your semi-demi English opera.

Is it fun and delicious and clever? Yes. It also feels driven and overstretched to make a point. The work put into this production is obviously prodigious, but in the end we have an elaborate agitprop sketch that I can’t see lasting over time, it being so Trump-specific. The mental clinic’s personnel recite their diagnoses of the patient’s condition over and over again. We already know them: delusions of grandeur, narcissistic personality disorder, xenophobia, lack of empathy, White Knight Syndrome, etc.

From left, Jamie Chamberlin, Darryl Taylor, Marc Molomot, Cedric Berry / Nathan Granner

It reminds me of the work of the Weimar-era composers and writers, for example Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, whose Dreigroschenoper, or Threepenny Opera, was similarly derived from an older English source, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and turned into what they called a Zeitoper, a satirical opera for our time, not conceived to be an enduring work for the ages. They were wrong about that, of course, because so many of the themes they developed are themselves iconic for almost any age, not to mention the  expressionist lyrics, the book, and Weill’s enchantingly jaunty music.

Certain esthetic choices were made for the singers’ rendition of Purcell’s touching songs. The purity of sound and delivery we are accustomed to hearing in this 17th-century music has been cast aside for a rough-and-ready off-key vocalism more suited to the comic-book age. Actually, it reminded me of the kind of vocal production Brecht endorsed for the songs in his plays. He called it Misuk, a backwards Musik, stressing the importance of text over finesse. He did not want his audience leaving the theatre admiring the conservatory-trained expertise of the singers: The music was always at the service of the words.

Several of the four singers in King Arthur are familiar to LBO audiences, and it was good to see them on board again. One of the best scenes had all four singing together, “How happy the lover, how easy the chain,” as Nurse Gwen leads the patients in a zumba routine to Purcell’s baroque harmonies.

The physical sets are minimal, but the projections reach toward fabulousness. As in reality shows, the evening features cutaway “interviews” with each of the characters as the opera self-referentially progresses. Cedric Berry as Doc Oswald tells us, “I’m a good guy, but I portray a bad guy because I’m a baritone and this is opera.”

Virtual reality headgear comes into play, and there is a certain amount of audience interaction, again underlining the sense that we are participating in a consciously constructed social act that is, in the end, politically fearless.

King Arthur receives two more performances, Sat., Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m., and Sun., Jan. 19 at 2:30 pm, at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach 90802. One hour before each performance, there will be a pre-opera talk which all ticket holders are welcome to attend. Tickets can be purchased either by calling the LBO Box Office at 562.470.SING (7464) or by going online to Long Beach Opera.


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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