University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Harrison: Young Caesar

06/23/2019 1:00 pm
06/23/2019 4:30 pm

 

Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

It's Stonewall Sunday across the nation and much of the world. The lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community in the United States and worldwide is now celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the historic gay rebellion in New York City's Greenwich Village. Year by year on the fourth Sunday in June, I mark Stonewall Sunday with the presentation of an opera by an openly gay male or lesbian composer, or some recorded lyric theaterwork on a gay-related theme. This year the gay composer is Lou Harrison (1917-2003). For years he was named grand marshal of San Francisco's gay pride parade.

We know that before the Roman Empire was Christianized attitudes toward homosexuality were different--more flexible in Roman society. The Roman historian Suetonius records that Rome's famous general Julius Caesar as a young man had a homosexual dalliance with Nicomedes, the king of Bithynia in Asia Minor. It was Lou's longtime male lover Bill Colvig who suggested this as the subject of a gay opera.

In 1970 Harrison composed his second opera Young Caesar, which he scored for his American gamelan orchestra, augmented by some typical Western instruments. Also included in his conception were Indonesian-style shadow puppets, an onstage orgy and flying penises. The premiere 1972 staging at Caltech Pasadena was a flop. Young Caesar confused its audience. Frankly, the show was regarded as pornographic. Young Caesar thereafter went through a series of remakes, each one bringing Harrison's original conception a little closer to our conventional occidental concept of opera.

On the centenary of Harrison's birth the opera was produced by The Industry in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was performed and recorded live at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles during Gay Pride Month of 2017. Marc Lowenstein was director of music. (The puppets were still part of the show.) The Industry released Young Caesar through its own record label later that year on two compact discs. What you will hear certainly couldn't be visually pornographic, but it is surely a hoot to listen to! It's the highest of high camp!