“Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create.” — Lou Harrison’s Music Primer (1966)
Cherish: Maybe it’s a coincidence that Lou Harrison met his life companion, Bill Colvig, at the same time the gay rights movement established itself in this country. But it’s no coincidence that the merging of the personal and the political led to the conception of Young Caesar in the years that followed. The 1971 premiere of his “opera for X-rated puppets” proved a tender provocation – erotic and explicit, yet so loving, light-hearted, and warm that it dared its audience to find anything objectionable to gay sex and love. As he continued working on the piece in the decades that followed, the open sexuality remained a constant, while the tenderness bloomed in deeply felt and emotional arias. It’s as if he knew that no matter how much progress is made for the LGBTQ community, a loving vision of two men who could cherish each other in body and spirit would always be an urgent necessity for society.
Conserve: Among the Harrison archives in Santa Cruz is the manuscript for the original 1971 production, scored for five percussionists playing his “American gamelan” instruments as well as traditional Chinese and Korean instruments. Harrison’s process was additive: he introduced Western instruments and a male chorus for a 1988 version in Portland, and finally wrote rapturous arias for the main characters for a New York production that failed to materialize. But even as Harrison’s vision for the opera grew and the forces expanded, the original percussive sound world, with its exotic tunings and surprising sounds, never lost its dominance as the heart of the piece. This production gives us a rare opportunity to present scenes with their original orchestration and preserve that original spirit that first gave birth to the work.
Consider: As a composer who loved hybrid forms and saw them as the only authentic expression, making a performance edition that could be termed a “hybrid” culled from the full spectrum of Harrison’s ideas feels completely natural. If we think of the word “consider” to mean “weighing possibilities,” then the pulling together of this new performance edition could be thought of as an act of deep and heartfelt consideration. The Industry’s Music Director Marc Lowenstein and I spent two years creating the 90-minute version that is premiering tonight, making decisions that anchor the musical set-pieces and distill the drama to its essence. I approached the librettist Bob Gordon with a proposition: if the Caesar- Nicomedes love affair is the heart of the opera, can you imagine a performance edition of the score that takes place in one act, eliminating some of the repetitions in the recitatives to move more swiftly to the arias, dances, and choruses? I am so grateful that Bob was open and willing to explore, yet again, a version of this piece with me. Marc and I are also grateful to Eva Soltes, Bob Hughes, and Charles Hanson for revealing the full breadth of the material for the opera and for guiding us towards the most informed considerations.
Create: Puppet theater, a lifelong fascination of Harrison, has its own sense of dramatic coherence quite distant from traditional expectations of theater. Puppetry has a dramaturgy of montage, where image takes prominence over conventional theater’s wave of rising and falling action or psychological believability. Characters are archetypal and elemental rather than realistic. Although rod puppets were used for the 1971 premiere, I feel the simplicity and mystery of shadow puppets – which has a rich history in both the Rome of Caesar’s time and in the East Asian performance tradition Harrison loved so much – to be the most fitting storytelling device for this drama. My collaborators and I have created a production that never strays far from the aesthetic of shadow puppetry, even if we realize those images through high-tech sleight-of-hand.
If I were to add one “C” to Harrison’s credo, it would be Celebrate – and not only because 2017 marks Lou Harrison’s centennial. The great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote, “Real celebration is a lyrical dance of joy at the center of the human heart. And when you celebrate in that way, then you really are adding to the magical light of the universe.” I can’t imagine a better way to describe the essence of Lou Harrison’s musical vision.
Prologue and Overture: The Narrator sets the scene for the story of Gaius Julius Caesar growing up and his love affair with King Nicomedes of Bithynia.
Scene 1: Caesar is nervous about undertaking his family’s ritual of crossing the threshold into adulthood, and equally dreading his arranged marriage to the wealthy but weighty Cossutia. (Aria: “What is so fine about becoming a man?”)
Scene 2: Caesar is listless, even as he dreams of greatness. His Aunt Julia implores Caesar’s father to give the boy some direction, but the father suddenly dies before he can speak to his son. Caesar mourns his death in a procession to the funeral pyre. (Aria: “Yesterday his eyes were bright”)
Scene 3: With Caesar’s father dead, Aunt Julia seizes the opportunity to guide her young nephew to glory. (Aria: “The living must live”) She calls off the wedding to Cossutia and arranges a marriage to the beautiful and witty (but also wealthy) Cornelia. She also nominates Caesar to the office of Priesthood of Jupiter, a severe and demanding position, which will serve as a stepping-stone to future greatness.
Scene 4: Cossutia dances in despair upon learning of her engagement being broken.
Scene 5: Cornelia gives birth to Caesar’s first child. Cornelia instructs him in the warmth and patience needed to be a father. (Aria and Duet: “Now grasp your daughter”)
Scene 6: Caesar is stricken with malaria, which coincides with political upheaval in Rome. The authoritarian Sulla becomes dictator, and Caesar’s family flees into exile. Caesar stands up to Sulla and is declared an enemy of Rome. Caesar narrowly escapes the city and Sulla’s bounty hunter, Phagita. The Narrator informs us that Caesar is nevertheless granted a pardon and enlisted to serve General Thermus.
Scene 7: To Caesar’s disappointment, Thermus doesn’t send him into battle. Instead, he is sent on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia to collect ships the King Nicomedes has failed to return. Caesar’s saucy slave boy, Dionysus, describes Nicomedes’ reputation for wealth and extravagant debaucheries. Caesar starts to see this appointment as an opportunity to make his mark as a statesman.
Scene 8: In Bithynia, King Nicomedes receives the ambassador of Rome – but because he was expecting someone more experienced he mistakenly welcomes Caesar’s physician. Nicomedes is at first offended that Rome would send a young boy to meet a king, but Caesar impresses him with his wit and beauty. Nicomedes offers him an unusually passionate kiss as a welcome, which so disorients Caesar that he fails to deliver General Thermus’ message about the ships. Nicomedes orders a royal banquet in Caesar’s honor.
Scene 9: Alone in the royal bedchamber, Caesar beats himself up for failing to deliver the message, but his mind dwells on the power of the king’s kiss. He imagines the pleasures of being with the king. (Aria: “And that crown of his”)
Scene 10: Nicomedes brushes off ardent loyalists who counsel him against giving the ships back to Rome. Nicomedes is more interested in the banquet, where the food and wine make Caesar’s head spin. Nicomedes suggestively asks that Caesar assume the role of the king’s cupbearer, an office reserved for beautiful boys that pleasure the king. Caesar agrees to the role, as the king calls for the entertainment to begin. (“Whirling Dance” and “Eroticon”)
Scene 11: The next morning, Caesar awakes in Nicomedes’ arms. Caesar is anxious to accomplish his mission by delivering his message about the ships and return to Rome. Nicomedes implores him to linger and enjoy their spontaneous connection. (Aria: “Take your chances, Gaius”)
Scene 12: Caesar’s fellow Romans are furious with his prolonged and illicit dallying with the king. They attempt to address the king directly, but he brushes them off. The Romans threaten to report Caesar’s scandalous behavior.
Scene 13: Nicomedes takes Caesar on a tour of Bithynia, and with each stop, the king reveals more of himself. They first stop at the tomb of Hannibal, where Caesar impresses the king with his knowledge of history, and Nicomedes reveals a still lingering resentment against Rome. Next they visit the temple of Zeus, where Nicomedes’ father took the crown through patricide. Finally they stop at a plain where Nicomedes was defeated in battle eight years earlier. The site awakens a melancholy cry about the fleeting futility of life. (Aria: “One year we lose a battle”) Nicomedes’ cry, however, awakens the voice in Caesar that urges him on to fame and glory: he realizes he must return to Rome, at the expense of the beautiful bond that has grown between him and Nicomedes.
Scene 14: The Romans prepare to return home. (Chorus: “Good Priapus of the harbor”) At the dock, Nicomedes meets Caesar with the ships, making his diplomatic mission a success. Nicomedes pleads one more time for his beloved to stay, but Caesar, hearing the call of his destiny, departs. Nicomedes stands on the shore and watches Caesar sail away. (Barcarolle: “Hail Gaius and pity Nicomedes”)