King Gesar: Opera Review

Keith Ian Polakoff
The Tibetan epic saga, conceived as a “campfire opera” and felicitously realized here in a waterfront setting, melds an ethos of Buddhist practice to modern compositional forms to fashion a satisfying classically styled entertainment with readily accessible spiritual illuminations.

An epic Tibetan saga is staged on the Long Beach waterfront.

Unlike Homer, Beowulf, Gilgamesh or the Mahabharata, the oral tradition of relating the adventures of King Gesar of Ling, while dating back at least to the 11th century, persists into the present day, with a multitudinous variety of performed recitals scattered across a wide area of central Asia. The late Peter Lieberson himself became an adept trainer of Vajrayana Buddhism before beginning his full-time devotion to composition not long before starting this 1991 work, which although recorded shortly afterward with an all-star ensemble, has been slow to receive many live performances. With its magpie foraging through myth and fable, comic-book superheroism, Sprechstimme, Navajo chant, summer camp ghost tales, serialism, minimalism and neo-romanticism, the unpretentious and surprisingly cohesive storytelling in this impeccable Long Beach Opera production boasts all the trappings of an evergreen musical offering.

In this rendition, Gesar is miraculously born when his mother partakes of a golden nectar provided for the purposes of siring a future savior of his people. In a conscious parallel to the flight of Jesus and Mary into Egypt, the two must exile themselves to the remote desert to be free of the depredations of the dread Uncle Todong, who wants to thwart the prophecy of the child’s ascension. When of age, Gesar returns in rags atop his magical horse, Kyang Go Karkar, itself disguised as a broken nag, to win the race that empowers him to claim leadership. Counseled by Manene, the feminine personification of warriorship, Gesar is exhorted to victory over the savage Tirthikas, aptly by generating “emanations” that turn their opponents’ own anger and lust against them. After his campaigns, Gesar retreats to meditate and leaves an invocation extolling dignity and mindfulness.

Unlike previous incarnations, the single narrator has here been convincingly split into four voices: two male and two female, two singers and two dancers. This relieves the original monodrama of its incessant solo address and gives director Andreas Mitisek the flexibility to orchestrate the staging to more congenial effect and in greater empathy to the varieties of the chamber score for eight players, incisively conducted by Kristof Van Grysperre. Sitting by water’s edge just west of the Queen Mary, facing the mainland coastline with its lighthouse and Ferris wheel across the harbor sound, the audience experiences the action that is simply rendered, sometimes in shadow play, on a stage mostly adorned by its central image of an unendingly burning fire.

Lieberson -- perhaps best remembered for his magnum opus Neruda Songs (2005), created for his then-dying wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson -- here displayed perhaps more impressive facility than pure invention in his pastiche of musical materials. Despite its apparent underlying commitment to serial techniques and earnest devotion to the integrity of the spiritual themes, the score is not above occasional excursions into anachronistic orientalisms. One is often reminded of comparable classical music yarn-spinning, from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to Poulenc’s The Story of Babar and, of course, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, as well as of Star Wars or The Avengers. King Gesar can occupy its own pride of place in its universe not so very far away.

Librettist Douglas Penick has found a rhetoric and cadence that convincingly sounds as though translated from an ancient text yet has a fluidity of expression that could persuasively communicate its points to a youthful audience with immediacy and clarity. The narrators, all of whom rang with stentorian diction despite an apparent lack of any acoustic, easily master the declamatory style of speech never quite sung nor spoken, yet quite musical in its effect, most centrally those Long Beach Opera reliables, Roberto Perlas Gomez and Danielle Marcelle Bond.  

Venue: Long Beach Opera at Harry Bridges Memorial Park, Long Beach (truns hrough Sept. 14)

Cast: Roberto Perlas Gomez, Danielle Marcelle Bond, Kelly Ray, Javier Gonzalez

Composer: Peter Lieberson

Librettist: Douglas Penick

Conductor: Kristof Van Grysperred

Stage director & production designer: Andreas Mitisek

Sound designer: Bob Christian