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Enrolling in Opera 101

Long Beach company offers audiences a crash course of sorts.


Long Beach Opera is widely hailed as one of the most innovative opera companies in the world. It's a nice distinction, but it can be tough on the audience. Fortunately, the company has also brought enterprising imagination to bear on that problem, through a supporting program called "Influences and Coincidences."

"Years ago, when we started doing difficult or rare repertory, we realized our audience needed special preparation," says Michael Milenski, general director of Long Beach Opera. "We started something called 'Opera Weekends' and over the years we developed that program to include many peripheral elements. For example, when we did John Cage's 'Europeras 3 & 4,' we presented lectures on mushrooms and chance theory [two of the late composer's preoccupations].

"Now, there are many different things in 'Influences and Coincidences'--things that get you thinking and get you feeling in ways that you might otherwise not arrive at."

Starting Saturday, Long Beach Opera presents two works in repertory at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach: the West Coast premiere of Leos Janacek's 1928 "From the House of the Dead," a complex opera of crime and forgiveness based on Dostoevsky's novel, and the world premiere of Stuart Wallace's "Hopper's Wife," a postmodern fantasy in which painter Edward Hopper's wife is transmogrified into gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

Obviously, this is not repertory that will find the audience humming along in familiar oblivion. Milenski is eager to provide intriguing and illuminating contexts for these works, particularly "From the House of the Dead," which, he insists, "happens to be a very lively, fun and rewarding opera," its title notwithstanding.

"It's about some very interesting, tremendously human murderers, who recount their crimes. There's only one death in there--and it's a very operatic death--and the whole second act is these hysterical plays that the prisoners put on. Yes, much of it is quite serious, but you will leave uplifted."

The series of congruent events that Milenski hopes will provide context, tweak imaginations and hone sensibilities includes music in a wide variety of styles and spoken word, from the texts that underlay both operas, to new work related to the productions' themes. Everything takes place at Cal State Long Beach venues before or after an opera performance. If you have a ticket to the opera in question, the events are free; otherwise, they are $5 each.

"Hopper's Wife" will be performed Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and June 19, 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. in the Knoebel Theater at the Carpenter Center. "The House of the Dead" will be performed Sunday at 4 p.m. and June 21 at 8 p.m. in the Carpenter Theater.

The "Influences and Coincidences" schedule is as follows:


Saturday: First up is a concert of conceptual work, organized by composer Mark McGurty and pianist Gaylord Mowrey, that touches both operas in oblique ways. The program, on the afternoon of the opening of "Hopper's Wife," includes Hans Werner Henze's "The Prisoner" (on texts by Che Guevara), Michael Dougherty's "Dead Elvis" and a new piano piece by McGurty. 2 p.m. Daniels Recital Hall.

Sunday: As a prelude to the opening of "From the House of the Dead," the series presents an all-Janacek concert featuring the Violin Sonata performed by Long Beach Opera concertmaster John Wittenberg and pianist Neal Stulberg, the conductor for the opera. It also includes a generous survey of the composer's piano music, played by Ellen Milenski, wife of Michael Milenski. 2 p.m. Daniels Recital Hall.

Sunday and June 21: The core stories of "From the House of the Dead" are told in the opera through four big monologues. Dove Shack, a group of young Long Beach rap artists, explores the same Dostoevskyan themes in their own idiom. 6 p.m Sunday and 10 p.m. June 21, Carpenter Center courtyard.

Readings and Lectures

Saturday: Acclaimed performance artist Rachel Rosenthal reads from a "Best of Hedda Hopper" anthology compiled by "Hopper's Wife" librettist Michael Korie. 3:30 p.m. Choral Studio.

Sunday: Janacek created his own libretto from Dostoevsky's novel, parts of it in Czech and leaving other parts, including the four great monologues, in the original Russian. Cal State Long Beach professor Harold Schefski reads the monologues in Russian and discusses them. 1 p.m. Choral Studio.

Wednesday: French symbolist poetry was all the rage in the New York art world of Edward Hopper that anchors one pole of "Hopper's Wife." Poets Jack Grapes, Gerald Lockin and Elliot Fried read Baudelaire, Mallarme and Rimbaud. 4 p.m. Choral Studio.

June 21, 22: "Cell E-304: Prison Manuscript 1971-1977," a performance-art piece by Manazar Gamboa combining poetry, dancing and drumming. Now the artistic director of the Homeland Cultural Center in Long Beach's MacArthur Park, Gamboa was an inmate in Soledad Penitentiary and he reflects on spiritual as well as corporal imprisonment in this theatrical work. June 21: 1 p.m. June 22: 5 p.m. Choral Studio.

June 22: More from the Hedda Hopper archives, this time with gossip maven Joan Agajanian Quinn. Noon. Choral Studio.

You could call all these "Influences and Coincidences" outreach or you could call them entertainment, but don't call them educational, Milenski says.

"We're not attempting to teach anybody anything," he says. "We want to awaken sensitivities and thoughts, and just amuse people. It's meant to be fun."

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