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The Queen Gets a Makeover

Guillermo Gomez-Pen~a serves up an all-nuevo take on the 300-year-old 'Indian Queen' for Long Beach Opera.

June 14, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Sunday Calendar

A towering pyramid, outlined in neon, opens its doors to allow the entrance of a low-rider car shaped like a red stilletto high heel. Opera singers dressed as Mexican cabaret entertainers hold forth from raised platforms. A film sequence projects on a screen between the pyramid and a wrestling arena.

Warriors sport cholo Pendletons and bandannas and race to nowhere on stationary exercise bikes. A dance troupe of blue-skinned Carmen Mirandas is trapped in a bamboo cage. And an array of other characters sport garb ranging from Zapatista ski masks and exotic "native" headdresses to full-on 17th century British court regalia. They speak a dizzying mix of Spanish, English, Spanglish, Old English and an array of California dialects from surfer dude to Valley gal.

The look is part Acapulco tourist bar, part postmodern melange and all kitsch. But such is the weird world of Long Beach Opera's current production of Henry Purcell and John Dryden's "The Indian Queen," first performed in 1695.

Clearly, this is not a faithful re-creation of the Baroque original--right down to the title and the main credits: For Long Beach's purposes, "The Indian Queen" has become "La Indian Queen," and listed with English composer Purcell and Restoration dramatist Dryden is--hold on to your fanfares--Guillermo Gomez- Pen~a.

Influenced by both Mexico's Grupo movement of the 1970s and Chicano culture, the Mexican-born, CalArts-trained performance artist Gomez-Pen~a is a MacArthur genius grant recipient best known for his multimedia, multilingual critiques of the dominant culture. In 1995's "Borderama," for instance, Gomez-Pen~a appeared onstage in an outsized sombrero, boots and not much else while recounting sins committed during time spent north of the border. In 1992's "The Year of the White Bear," the artist and his collaborator Coco Fusco decked themselves out as ersatz natives and put themselves on display in a cage.

He is collaborating on this project with Elaine Katzenberger, with whom he co-adapted the Dryden text, and director David Schweizer. The piece is conducted by Andreas Mitisek, with choreography by Sara Shelton Mann and film by Gustavo Vasquez.

It may be his first foray into the world of opera, but Gomez-Pen~a is well aware that his approach is anything but business as usual. "This project is really dangerous, for many reasons," says the artist, seated in a rehearsal room with his collaborators on Memorial Day weekend. "I keep thinking of the image of walking on very thin ice."

Leave it to Long Beach Opera to come up with "La Indian Queen."

"It's typical of, and a tribute to, Long Beach," says Schweizer, who has worked with the company on two previous occasions. "There are very few theaters [and] no opera theaters in this country dedicated to pushing the boundaries of modern theater-making. [But] this organization has been sponsoring this [kind of] work for a decade now."

Yet "La Indian Queen" is gutsy even by Long Beach Opera standards. "It's certainly as extreme, if not the most extreme, approach that we've taken to any work--extreme in the sense that we credit Guillermo right up there with Purcell and Dryden," says Long Beach Opera general director Michael Milenski, who had been wanting to stage the Purcell piece for years before the idea for this particular version was hatched. "We realize that we're departing from many of the obvious intentions of the Dryden text."

More of a play with music than a fully integrated opera, Dryden's script for "The Indian Queen" is set in an imaginary version of pre-Columbian Latin America. It centers on a conflict between "Incas" and "Aztecs" and tells the story of a power-mad queen who usurps her brother's throne to pave the way for her own son to rule. She, however, is in turn deposed, which clears the way for the exiled rightful heir to return and rise to power.

It's not what you'd call an accurate portrait of early indigenous culture. "It's one of the most problematic texts I've ever read in my life," says Gomez-Pen~a. "It's filled with Europe's rejection [of] the Americas and with historical inaccuracies. The libretto doesn't have an internal logic and all the 'Indians' behave like British royalty. Everything is absolutely fictional."

The intended political lesson, however, is clear. "Dryden was a real monarchist," explains Katzenberger. "It really has nothing to do with what's happening in [the Americas] at that time. It's about the usurpation of the throne and the restoration of the true monarch."

But the piece was probably created for reasons more pragmatic than ideological. "Imagine the origins of the commission: These British travelers go to the Amazon in the 17th century and steal a bunch of headdresses from indigenous groups and shamans and bring them back to England," says Gomez-Pen~a. "Suddenly the British royalty decide that they want to show off a [new] actress wearing these costumes and they ask Dryden to write a text."

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