By: Greggory Moore
Long Beach Opera
A lot of people go to the opera for vocal acrobatics. Those people would have hated Long Beach Opera's performance of King Gesar. There's note a single sung note for 15 minutes, and the little singing that sporadically follows alternates between near-monotonal melodies and “om”-like passages of literally one note. Peter Lieberson's rendering of the Tibetan legend of the shape-shifting Gesar, born to this world to rule the kingdom of Ling, cut through falsehood, and free humankind from the demons that enslave us, is told by way of staccato recitation backed with chromatic flights of fancy that often have no chord to call home.
But those people simply have different tastes, because King Gesar succeeds on Lieberson's own terms–which are (according to the program notes) to frame the epic “as a kind of campfire drama […] a situation akin to Tibetan performances: the campfire in a pitch-black night under the dome of an immense starry sky […]–familiar situation in which people eat, drink, and tell stories.”
While you're not going to find an especially starry sky in Long Beach, LBO did what they could, staging King Gesar on a little patch of grass by the Queen Mary called Harry Bridges Memorial Park. Sitting there taking in this unusual artwork, the downtown skyline in clear view across the water, you couldn't help feeling that the LBC actually has some shit going on.
King Gesar, of course, is not everyone's idea of cool shit. Aside from sounding decidedly un-operatic, it was performed with not an ounce of spectacle. The stage was bare, save for a few metallic steps that led up to a small platform. The total catalog of props consisted of a sheet and five cutouts on sticks (four faces and a bird). The entire cast is four persons, with only half of which ever vocalizes. The lighting design is so minimal that it can barely be labeled “lighting design.” King Gesar is an opera that wins you over only if the combination of narrative exposition and the score behind it pulls you into the world of myth.
Almost surprisingly, it does. Is the story of Gesar's supernatural birth, his coming of age and trickery, the grand horse race that wins him the throne of Ling, and his single-handed triumph over the Tirthikas especially compelling? Nah. But you nonetheless find yourself immersed in an ancient time, a culture and world of creation myth and wonderment, that bygone phantasmagoria that was intermixed with history in the attempt to grasp the past and take from it values for the future. King Gesar makes you feel like you are indeed looking through a glass into such a time, eavesdropping in real-time on an oral tradition unfolding back when there was no light pollution to hide our edge-on view of the Milky Way.
Roberto Perlas Gomez and Danielle Marcella Bond do yeoman's work as the two narrators, alternating the tongue-twistingly difficult passages of Douglas Penick's wordy libretto in monotones they manage to make effectively expressive. The little singing they do is effective, particularly during a patch of simultaneous octaves that serves as a meditative drone. Bond is particularly charming when performing the role of a simpleminded would-be king of Ling who is cozened by the bird-shape-shifted Gesar, transforming her pretty face into something comically moronic.
Good operas never stay long in Long Beach, running for no more than three performances. You missed this one, kids. But let this be a lesson to you. Keep abreast of Long Beach Opera's offerings (longbeachopera.org)–which next year include works by John Adams, Wynton Marsalis, Igor Stravinsky, David Lang, and Duke Ellington–and you'll see that Long Beach is more than just a city with a big ship and no surf.