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Clubby Mozart needs a tune-up

Long Beach Opera's tribute at Vault 350 is nearly undone thanks to the sound system.

October 02, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Long Beach Opera has long been prized for not dotting its i's or crossing its t's. You can't, after all, remain America's hippest opera company year after year by following the rules.

So for its tribute to Mozart in the Mozart year (celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth), Long Beach Opera went one step further Friday night and simply removed the "t" altogether. "Not Mozart" became "No Mozart."

"Not Mozart" was a series of short films made to tart up the Mozart glut of 1992 (the 200th anniversary of the composer's death). Six composers -- classical and jazz -- were asked to find stimulating filmmakers with whom they could collaborate on something Mozartean but not necessarily nice. Long Beach Opera took two of the resulting films and put them on a stage in a local rock club, the Vault 350, which advertises three levels and state-of-the-art video, lighting and sound -- "over 111,000 watts of wall-to-wall energy!!!"

"M is for Man, Music and Mozart" is a peculiar, elegant, visually complex, nude-body-obsessed, here-and-there-yucky film by Peter Greenaway. Having made man and given him movement, God must then give him reason to move, which is where music comes in. That leaves no choice but then to create Mozart.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
No Mozart: A review of Long Beach Opera's "No Mozart" program in Monday's Calendar section referred to 1992 as the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death. The composer died in 1791, so 1991 would have been the 200th anniversary.

The hard-hitting score for brass and jazz singer by Louis Andriessen has gone on to have a life of its own, recorded by Nonesuch. From time to time, new music ensembles have attempted to play it live with the film. And that is how "No Mozart" ended in something a whole lot less than state-of-the-art video or sound.

But first came Michael Nyman's "Letters, Riddles and Writs," newly staged for the double bill by the company's artistic and general director, and the evening's conductor and pianist, Andreas Mitisek. In the original film by Jeremy Newson and Pat Gavin, a delirious and dying Mozart (impersonated by the German chanteuse Ute Lemper) oversleeps and misses the premiere of "The Magic Flute." Busts of Beethoven and Haydn in his room come to life and bemoan the state of Mozart and of music. Mozart's stern father, Leopold, returns from the beyond to torment his genius son.

The music is, at least, interesting. Throughout his career, Nyman has turned his Minimalism machine on Mozart. "In Re Don Giovanni," an infectiously bopping version of a few bars from Mozart's opera, is probably Nyman's most popular piece and serves here as overture. The music for Mozart's solo arias and duets with his father is all Mozart-derived as well but given a radically new and beat-driven repetitive sound and substance.

Mitisek has mitigated the worst aspects of the film. Beethoven and Haydn (which are spoken roles) have become characters, not statues. Everyone wears a T-shirt with his name stenciled on. Beethoven (Mark Bringelson), in torn jeans and a sideways baseball cap, might be a sincere skateboarder. Haydn (Michael Bonnabel), wearing a funky wig and a greatcoat over casual clothes, is a wise-cracking twit. Mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen sang Mozart with convincing conviction. Leopold Mozart was assigned to the quavering baritone Rod Nelman.

The texts for the songs and duets came from Mozart's father's letters, and they are heartbreaking. The old man piles on the guilt and it tears his son apart emotionally. Moving, too, was Bringelson's Beethoven, trying to comprehend the depths of this composer. But though Mitisek has fashioned effective music theater from the film, he, unfortunately, was unable to realize it Friday. The performance was more disaster than not. Either the company had no idea how to work the sound system or the club has been sold 110,000 watts worth of electronic garbage. The distortion and, worse, the feedback were appalling.

With Mozart on the floor, distraught or, maybe, dead, Mitisek moved to the piano and, with the help of violinist Robert F. Peterson and cellist John Acosta, began the solemn, serene short trio, "Mozart-Adagio," for violin, cello and piano, that was Arvo Part's contribution in 1992. An industrial rumble, annoying all evening, became a full-fledged fourth member of the ensemble. The instruments might have been toys tuned by Martians.

Andriessen's score sounded better, adequately amplified. The unsentimental jazz singer Chris Bennett suited Andriessen. But the tricky coordination with the film was not consistent.

One would never want this feisty company to become slick or lose its edge. But scrappiness and lousy technology do have their limits.


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