SAN FRANCISCO — "This is the story of Gaius Julius Caesar," a narrator tells us at the start of Lou Harrison's opera "Young Caesar," which premiered in a revised version Friday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, four years after the composer's death.
But the story, the narrator is quick to note, is not of the Caesar we are likely to know -- the general who conquered Gaul, the great orator, the lover of Cleopatra, the Roman statesman, the flawed Shakespearean ruler stabbed on the steps of the Forum. This is a teenager newly joined in a political marriage, an awkward father of a newborn son and an aide to a navy general.
Sixteen-year-old Gaius is sent to Bithynia to obtain ships from its king. In his few months in the Asia Minor province, Gaius was said to have become known, disparagingly, as "Queen of Bithynia." But in this beautiful, beguiling, sensual, stately, one-of-a-kind opera with a troubled 35-year history, King Nicomedes IV prepares Gaius to become Caesar.
"Young Caesar" is outsider opera, not so much for its subject matter -- which may have been controversial at its premiere at Caltech (of all places) in 1971 but which, in present-day San Francisco, has become a marketing ploy -- as for everything else about it. Originally written as a puppet opera on a commission from Encounters, a then-new-music series sponsored by the Pasadena Art Museum, it was conceived as an entertainment that would marry Indonesian puppet theater, Chinese opera and some aspects of Western Renaissance musical theater.
The composer later filled out his percussion-heavy instrumental ensemble to make it something lusher and more string-based and tried presenting the work with live singers onstage with the puppets for Portland Opera. Much later, he turned "Young Caesar" into a full-fledged opera for the Lincoln Center Festival. First Mark Morris was to direct, then Bill T. Jones. Neither did. Lincoln Center, when administrations changed, lost interest. Harrison died without ever seeing "Young Caesar" produced.
The Yerba Buena effort was an act of love, of salvage and, to some extent, of desperation by Harrison acolytes in the Bay Area, where the composer spent most of his life. The production, undertaken by Nicole Paiement and her Ensemble Parallele, drew support, performers and its crew from UC Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, institutions to which Harrison had ties. Students, emerging artists and veteran professionals participated.
The staging by Brian Staufenbiel had some cringe-making camp moments along with a few pleasantly graceful ones. Paiement conducted with the necessary rhythmic authority, but she found little opportunity to apply nuance. The singing was uneven. The costumes were a historical jumble. Caesar had a tunic and one ankle bracelet. His aunt, Julia, was treated like a Victorian Auntie Mame. A pink warrior, Nicomedes cross-dressed. The chorus wore masks and wandered around like Asian opera wannabes. Hanging curtains classed up the stage, as did the excellent dancing and choreography of Lawrence Pech.
But the point was not so much the erratic production or underprepared performance as the music. Someone had to put this opera on. It is a crowning glory of a great figure in Californian (and American) music. If it is peculiar and will need far more inventive solutions to fully succeed, so be it. Berlioz once had the same problem.
Harrison does not present a traditional dramatic arc. Rather, he allows an ambiguous love story to unfold ambiguously. The narrator speaks and sings and hangs around onstage and sets the tone. John Duykers did that so well that what followed couldn't completely fail, as it sometimes might have.
The narrator supplies historical context in prose. The characters respond in poetry. Robert Gordon's much worked-over libretto has been criticized for its talky narration, naive lyrics and clunky structure, and he was busy revising even for this performance. I, however, thought the language elegant and appropriate for Harrison's long-lined melodies and recitatives.
There are few dramatic outbursts and no displays of erotic intensity. Harrison writes in a state of flow that moves in and out of song. The love music offers sublime lyricism. The dance music is lithe and sinuous.
Indonesian gamelan influenced Harrison's sound world. Percussion dominates the small chamber orchestra. But for all its jingle and jangle, this is an opera to be listened to in a calm state of mind, one where drama is not to be fretted over and the senses are to be slowly opened to magical sensations. There are also many lovely solos for string instruments and harp.
A 20-year-old Mexican tenor and protege of Placido Domingo, Eleazar Rodriquez proved an authentically boyish yet stage-commanding Caesar. A big-toned young Romanian baritone, Eugene Brancoveanu, was a sprightly, lascivious Nicomedes. Sheila Willey was a captivatingly chirpy Cornelia, Wendy Hillhouse a campy Aunt Julia.
The production will be given again at UC Santa Cruz on April 3 as part of a university symposium on contemporary opera. Attendance should be mandatory for artistic deciders at California's (and America's) opera companies. What can they possibly be waiting for?