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Chautauqua Opera invites audiences to get to know ‘Hydrogen Jukebox’

Until Steve Osgood handed Cara Consilvio Hydrogen Jukebox, she had never heard of the opera.

“It is such a complex piece that is virtually unknown to virtually everybody,” said Osgood, Chautauqua Opera Company’s general and artistic director.

But as Consilvio spent time with the piece, a collaboration between American composer Philip Glass and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, she discovered a work that is as relatable as it is deep.

“I’ve found the more I listen to it, the more I study the poems, the more layers of complexity I see and the more it unpacks itself, the more it reveals itself to me,” said Consilvio, stage director for Chautauqua Opera’s production of the chamber opera.

At 2:30 p.m. Monday in McKnight Hall, Chautauqua Opera will hold its second open rehearsal for Hydrogen Jukebox. Community members will have the chance to establish a relationship with the piece that, according to Consilvio, will enhance their experience of the full production on July 27 or Aug. 1.

“I think people need a stake in it,” Consilvio said.

Glass and Ginsberg created Hydrogen Jukebox in 1988 after they crossed paths in an East Village bookstore in New York City. Glass was working to compose a piece for the Vietnam Veterans Theatre Ensemble when he ran into the poet. He invited Ginsberg to join him in the performance, and what started as a one-off turned into a full-fledged production, premiering at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1990.

The two created a piece that challenges the very definition of opera. In fact, the production (20 songs spanning two hours) is just as often referred to as a song series.

According to Consilvio, that combination of Glass and Ginsberg is the only way Hydrogen Jukebox could have become that utterly original piece that it is.

“If Glass did this without Allen Ginsberg, it would be a completely different show,” Consilvio said. “If Allen Ginsberg did this without Philip Glass, it would be so different.”

Osgood is confident that this production, with its nontraditional, non-narrative structure, will intrigue the Chautauqua community in new ways, leaving them anxious for more.

Osgood is always excited to pull back the curtain on opera, to show audiences how the company works, day in and day out, on the productions that audiences commonly only see on stage as finished pieces. With the addition of open rehearsals this season, Osgood has found a special way to invite audiences into the world of Chautauqua Opera.

And both he and Consilvio recognize how exciting and important that can be.

“I feel like this kind of piece, the more you put into it … the more you get out of it,” Consilvio said.

Osgood echoed that sentiment. If audiences invest in Hydrogen Jukebox, “it will give you back exponentially more,” he said. “And if we don’t give (Chautauquans) that opportunity, we have short-changed their chances.”

Tags : Allen GinsbergCara ConsilvioChautauqua Opera CompanyHydrogen JukeboxoperaPhilip GlassSteve Osgood
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The author Nathan Healy

Nathan Healy is a second-year graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He is pursuing his M.A. in professional writing. Following his undergraduate studies, he spent eight-plus years teaching at an all-boys private school for court-adjudicated youth. In addition to writing and reading, Nathan enjoys traveling, eating at new restaurants, spending time with his niece and nephews, and being physically active.

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