Saturday, Sept. 7 marked the first performance of Long Beach Opera’s 2013 “Outer Limits Series.” This year Long Beach Opera (henceforth LBO) chose the late Peter Lieberson’s King Gesar as their way of presenting opera “outside of the box,” and it was indeed a pleasant and unique operatic experience.
I was unfamiliar with King Gesar, and I’ve found that my enjoyment of a performance is always greatly increased if I’ve done a little research. I learned that King Gesar is the central character of a Mongolian epic saga that dates to about the 12th century. The tale has been passed down orally for almost 1,000 years now and has never stopped being performed since its inception! There are hundreds of different versions of the tale, though most contain certain key plot developments that are found in LBO’s operatic version.
My wife Stephanie and I were anxious to learn more about this epic, so we planned to arrive 30 minutes early to hear the pre-opera talk given by the opera’s director, Andreas Mitisek. A stroke of luck led to our babysitter being able to arrive a full hour earlier than expected, so we decided to arrive early and have a drink aboard the majestic Queen Mary, which is adjacent to the opera’s location.
We hadn’t been to the Observation Bar for almost a year, and we absolutely love its authentic Art Deco décor, so we walked over to the boat’s entrance, but we were told we must pay $15 each to board. “The fee will be deducted from your dinner or drink bill,” the bellhop added, apologetically. I glanced at my watch; at this point, we had 45 minutes until Andreas would give his pre-opera talk… barely enough time for one drink each. At $30 (not to mention the $15 we were already paying for parking), those drinks sounded pretty steep, so we decided to pass. Over the past few years, I’ve repeatedly heard that the Queen Mary’s finances are in dire straits. I’m no financial guru, but it seems that charging $15 to park and another $15 per person to board might be part of the problem. Just five years back, when my son was younger, he and I would visit the liner at least once a week, walking its historic decks and enjoying French fries or shakes from its vendors. Of course this was when the parking rates were reasonable and there was no “boarding fee.” I wonder how the vendors aboard the ship are faring with these new fees?
Slightly disappointed, my wife and I headed back to Harry Bridges Memorial Park to sample the gourmet “City Dogs” food truck, which is present for all performances. Though they had a delightful selection of dogs and sides, they informed us that because the performance was in a city park, no alcohol was being served. Now it’s a rare occasion that my wife and I enjoy an evening out without the kids, and we were seriously on a wine hunt at this point. A couple we bumped into in line gave us the lowdown– head over to the Reef! A mere 100 yards past the stage, the Reef restaurant did indeed have a full bar (and, as it turns out, valet parking that is much cheaper– even with a generous tip– than the Queen Mary’s self-service parking.).
Two Chablis later (which were, incidentally, much less than the $30 they would have been aboard a certain 1930s steam liner, which shall remain nameless) and we were happily seated, awaiting our pre-opera lecture! (Note to self: Next time, park and enjoy dinner at the Reef before the show.)
The pre-opera talk was interesting and informative. Andreas goes beyond the scope of any Wikipedia article, sharing fascinating trivia about the epic and, more importantly, the challenges of adapting it for a modern, Western audience. Andreas deservedly gives much credit to the opera’s creator, the late Dr. Peter Lieberson, a Harvard professor who both studied Buddhism and was an accomplished and renowned composer. Lieberson’s own words best sum up the plot: “King Gesar tells the story of a legendary Tibetan warrior king who rose from obscurity to battle the demons that enslave humankind. The story begins with his early years, his struggle as an indecisive youth, and a significant horse race during which Gesar, with the help of his magical horse, Kyang Go Karkar, emerges as a warrior of the human heart. His final victory ushers in the era of enlightened society and peace.”
Lieberson envisioned King Gesar, “…as a kind of campfire opera. I visualized a situation akin to Tibetan ‘performances’: the campfire in a pitch-black night under the dome of an immense starry sky, or, a daytime community gathering in a very large tent or small town square– familiar situations in which people eat, drink, and tell stories. In these kinds of settings the many exploits of the great warrior Gesar are told.… These stories instruct in every way, as well as entertain.”
By the time the performance began at 8pm, the sun had completely set. The lights of the Long Beach cityscape reflected across the bay, and the stars were starting to show. The stage was flanked with illuminated Tibetan prayer flags, and a small “campfire” was lit; the scene was serene and magical. Act I began with an invocation to King Gesar: the performers, ringing Tibetan bells, slowly marched through the audience and took their places on stage. The story of Gesar was then told by a pair of narrators (Danielle Marcelle Bond and Roberto Perlas Gomez), while two other performers (Kelly Ray and Javier Gonzalez) acted out the scenes described. The narrator’s task is Herculean: the word-per-minute rate is dizzying at times, and hardly gives the performers time to breathe. (The pre-opera talk had prepared us for the fact that much of the narration may be more akin to 1,000-year-old “Tibetan rap.”) Nonetheless, Bond and Gomez somehow manage to deliver the lines clearly, and at times even soothingly. My only complaint about Bond and Gomez is that they were not able to sing more often; in the lines which they did, Gomez delivered a rich baritone and Bond emitted a melodious mezzo-soprano. For half of the acts, Ray and Gonzalez performed behind a white sheet, creating a live shadow-puppet theatre that greatly added to the magical atmosphere. I was reminded of a classic Greek play, as the narrators seemed to fulfill the function of the chorus, yet this performance was more mystical and otherworldly.
No one could view the performance without commenting on the remarkable music. The score was paradoxically both avante garde and accessible. Flavored with Tibetan and Oriental tropes, the composition provides a backdrop that is exotic without being cliché. At times serene and at other times bordering on beautiful chaos, the score accentuates key moments in Gesar’s life and helps unify this epic saga. Kudos to conductor Kristof Van Grysperre and the talented musicians of LBO!
The only complaints I have about King Gesar were the following. First, I really liked the idea of a “campfire opera.” I envisioned being part of an ancient lineage of spectators viewing this epic as it was intended– under the stars. However, the stars in Tibet and the stars in Long Beach are not one and the same. My stars had to compete with the chirping of an emcee for “Lobsterfest” across the bay and the occasional helicopter; though the performance was easily audible, the ambience was somewhat compromised. As “Lobsterfest” was a one-night affair, I’m sure that your night at the park will be much quieter.
One more minor gripe: the seats were unpadded. The opera is a mere 55 minutes, so you may not mind, but if you choose to combine it with the pre-opera talk (another 30 minutes), you might want to bring your own cushion.
King Gesar will play at the Harry Bridges Memorial Park through Saturday, Sept. 14. The venue is located at 1126 Queens Highway (between the Queen Mary and The Reef Restaurant). All performances are at 8pm, but a pre-opera talk (highly recommended by this reviewer) begins at 7:30pm. Tickets are $29 to $69. For tickets and more information, visit longbeachopera.org .