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Harrison tried hard to settle this score

Performances of `Young Caesar' in San Francisco are the culmination of decades of rewrites.

February 11, 2007|Chloe Veltman | Special to The Times

COMPOSERS quite often pull frayed scores out of their desk drawers, but for Lou Harrison, tinkering with his opera "Young Caesar" was a four-decade journey that continued even after he died.

With his unique skill for combining culturally diverse musical forms such as Cantonese opera and Native American song, the composer helped alter the course of 20th century American classical music, earning the admiration of the likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Keith Jarrett and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas along the way.

But few works in Harrison's canon symbolize metamorphosis more radically than "Young Caesar." It's not just that themes of chance, homosexuality and unpredictability flow swiftly throughout this opera about the tumultuous early career of Julius Caesar. The opera's development, like many Harrison compositions, is itself a story of complex and erratic transformation.

This week's performances of "Young Caesar" in San Francisco mark the end of a long, turbulent journey for a work whose roots date to the late 1960s. The composer revised "Young Caesar" three times before his death as a result of heart failure in 2003 at 85. Collaborators and creative concepts came and went. Reviews were mixed and producers fickle. Yet Harrison wouldn't let the opera go. It was the one project he was determined to complete. "I'm going to get that work right before I die," he vowed to Leta Miller, a flutist, musicologist and co-author, with Fred Lieberman, of two books about Harrison.

Harrison first conceived of the idea of using Caesar's early political ambitions, military campaign to Asia and love affair with Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, as a way to unite his deep-seated beliefs in East-West accord and homosexual love with his fascination for hybrid musical ensembles, puppet-theater and homemade instruments. Commissioned in 1969 by Encounters, a Pasadena-based concert presenting organization, the first version of "Young Caesar" received its premiere Nov. 5, 1971, at Caltech.

Driven by a desire to create an intimate chamber work as well as by budgetary restraints, Harrison composed "Young Caesar" as a puppet opera for five vocalists, an unseen narrator and five instrumentalists. Each musician played a range of Western and Asian instruments, many of which had been elaborately constructed for the production by Harrison and his partner William Colvig out of items including tin cans, aluminum slabs, steel conduit tubing and cut-off oxygen tanks.

"Young Caesar" broke with tradition musically and thematically. Composed in the wake of the Stonewall riots and during the early years of Harrison's own joyous relationship with Colvig, it may be the first overtly gay opera ever written (Benjamin Britten's "Death in Venice" wouldn't appear until 1973). The opera espoused the unity of East and West through the widely believed love affair of the Rome-based Westerner Caesar and Nicomedes, whose kingdom lay to the East. In the opera, the worlds of Rome and Bithynia offset each other musically, with Caesar's songs accompanied by Occidental instruments and tuning and Nicomedes' by Asian ones. Harrison also experimented with a new type of recitative, influenced by Chinese opera, in which the pitches but not the rhythms are notated.

Despite these innovations, Harrison's work garnered a mixed reception from critics and from its backers.

"The puppet opera was initially financed by two wealthy Pasadena ladies," librettist Robert Gordon recalled. "But they were so shocked by the 'Dance of the Penises' scene in Act 2 that they withdrew their support." Other financers stepped in to make ends meet.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, reviewer John Rockwell expressed admiration for the music, which he called "simple, colorful, tuneful, in every way a reaffirmation of Harrison's preeminent status among American composers." But he criticized the "precious, self-indulgent" libretto and "pompously orated" narration, finally condemning "Young Caesar" for its "pervasive, embarrassing ennui."

The creators themselves saw that there might be room for improvement. The rod and shadow puppets used to personify Caesar, Nicomedes and other characters in the story presented a particular problem for their lack of erotic appeal.

"We were forced to concede that puppets simply aren't all that sexy," Gordon said. "And their sheer tunics weren't helping one bit."

In July 1986, while listening to the Portland Gay Men's Chorus perform "Three Songs," a work Harrison had written for the group the previous year, the composer decided to rescore "Young Caesar" for conventional orchestra and male choir. In collaboration with conductor and orchestrator Robert Hughes, Harrison added dramatic choruses and expanded and altered the scoring. Despite a lavish budget and colorful staging, the Portland production, which opened in April 1988, was not a success. " 'Young Caesar' may have worked with puppets, but it definitely does not with people," wrote the Oregonian's critic, David Stabler.

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