Storytelling and Design
Hydrogen Jukebox by Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg
Two Buddhists Walk into a Bookstore
by Benjamin Smolder
A week after the close of our 2020 production of Le Nozze di Figaro, we received word that the University was shutting down due to COVID-19. As we realized the significance of this pandemic, we began planning for a project that continue to facilitate the training of singers in a non-conventional format. Over the next few months, a careful plan for a film project was developed that would require the acquisition of new skills, flexibility, patience, and unrelenting persistence.
In March, I began the process of searching for a work that would lend itself to experiment, that could be recorded remotely, and that would speak to this unusual time in our history. Hydrogen Jukebox by Philip Glass provided the perfect vehicle. This work was the result of a fascinating collaboration between avant-garde composer Philip Glass and Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg after a chance meeting at St. Mark’s bookstore in New York in 1988. Glass invited Ginsberg to join him in a performance to benefit veterans of the Vietnam war. At the performance, Ginsberg read his anti-war poem Wichita Vortex Sutra while Glass improvised at the piano. This began the collaboration that would result in Hydrogen Jukebox. In the work, they envisioned a theatrical portrait of America. Ginsberg selected poems that range in content from highly personal poems to his reflection on social issues including social protest, violence, environmental destruction, drugs, endless war, and sexual identity.
Concept and Soundtrack
The poetry that comprises the libretto of the work, is episodic with little narrative line. When the work premiered at the Spoleto Festival in 1990, the ensemble of six singers portrayed American archetypes including waitress, police, businessman, priest, mechanic, and cheerleader. For this production, I was drawn to the autobiographical nature of Ginsberg’s poetry and the specific lens with which he viewed the world, warts and all. In this interpretation of Glass’ work, Ginsberg is visited by Dickensian ghosts of the Beat Generation and relives important events that helped shape his life. The work culminates in his death, reincarnation, and entrance into the Buddha field. In this production the physical world and the visionary world of his memory are distinguished by spoken and sung dialogue. The ensemble has been expanded to eighteen and serve as both characters of the Beat Generation and as Greek chorus. To create this narrative, additional spoken poetry was added, and the work was reordered. Three selections were omitted due to limitations caused by the pandemic.
During the Fall semester, musicians recorded the soundtrack using a click track remotely from their homes. Christina Haan and I prepared singers in small groups in large indoor and outdoor spaces. In December, the orchestral tracks were mixed in a studio and vocals were added in January. For the vocal recording, students arrived a week before the Spring semester began, were tested, and established an artistic bubble so that the recording could be completed in safety. The ensemble was recorded in small groups wearing masks and socially distanced. The recordings were then edited together in post-production. The making of music during this time was a sacred event.
Filming on Location in the Buddha Field
During the Fall semester, we filmed outdoors at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park to capture the moment where Ginsberg enters the Buddha field. In this scene, he wakes from death in this beautiful and strange location and interacts with human-like sculptures created by artist Steinunn Thorarinsdottir. In the distance we see the human forms of individuals important in Ginsberg’s life. Finally, he reaches the Buddha fields where he is reunited with the entire cast in a celebration of life. They release prayers, symbolized by sky lanterns, into the air. Other onsight filming locations include The American Sign Museum, Sugar n’ Spice Café, and the Cincinnati Mural Project.
Working with the script, our Camera Director and Production Manager, Tiffany Lusht worked to conceptualize the set pieces in Vectorworks and we finalized the design for the theatrical element of the show. For this work we collaborated with internationally renowned lighting designer Thomas Hase who was made available after many of his projects were postponed due to the pandemic. As this work is episodic, we worked to create a different set configuration for each scene employing digital projections and greenscreen design. By January the conceptual design was complete, and the artistic team began producing set pieces and props using existing materials in our opera storage.
Rehearsing during a Pandemic
Perhaps the most challenging element of this production was rehearsing. We began rehearsing musically outside during the height of the Pandemic. Rarely was there a week that was not obstructed by quarantines in the dormitory or a spike in the virus. As we approached January, we realized that we would not be able to film the two weeks before school began due to a sudden nationwide spike in the virus. As the word shut down, we again adjusted our plan again to film after the Spring semester and into the summer hoping that we would be in a better place. In mid-February, a divine intervention made it possible for the entire cast to receive vaccinations and by mid-March we were back in rehearsal.
Production in Design
Nicholas Muni's grand set design for upcoming Spring production of The Light in the Piazza by Adam Guetell. The design features a rotating platform and projections to create the visual landscape of Florence, Italy.
Read more about the plot of our upcoming productions. This season we take you on a dreamlike journey of the poet Allen Ginberg with Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox and then travel to the beautiful city of Florence, where the birth of the Renaissance took place, in the poignant love story The Light in the Piazza.
109 Presser Hall
501 South Patterson Avenue
Oxford, OH 45056
Benjamin Smolder, Director
Tiffany Lusht, Production Manager
Nathaniel Wilkens, President
Cari Sulivan and Madison Wells, Content Managers
William E. Schmidt Foundation
The Jim and Recie Scott Opera Education Endowment Fund
Miami University Opera Theater is an important part of the rich and diverse musical experiences that Miami University has to offer. MU Opera is unique in its design because it operates with a professional production team committed to supporting student performers. Our goal is to give students a robust, hands-on experience that will teach them the importance of all roles in the theater as well as how to operate in a professional theater environment. Students have the opportunity to assume leadership positions in every part of production, and learn from professional lighting designers, choreographers, directors, stage managers, sound designers, and more. Miami Opera believes that the art form gains from diversity, inclusion, and equity and we are committed to those values.
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