Sunday, February 01, 2009

Harvey Pekar’s Streaming Jazz Opera

There are only twelve operas regularly performed in the United States, Harvey Pekar’s new libretto informs us. Leave Me Alone, the jazz-opera those words grace, is not likely to become the thirteenth, considering it combines perhaps the two least commercial genres of music, namely jazz and opera. Pekar, the self-described “dyspeptic” graphic novelist is in fact, the project’s celebrity drawing card. Collaborating with composer Dan Plonsey, Pekar’s Leave Me Alone (produced by Real Time Opera) premiered for free last night, both for an audience at Oberlin College and those watching the live feed over the internet.

First off, tremendous credit should be given to the Oberlin music students who backed Plonsey and Pekar. Plonsey’s music is intriguing, but challenging, so the apparent ease with which they handled his charts was quite impressive. Drummer Noah Hecht '10, trombonist Aaron Salituro '11, trumpeter Gregory Zilboorg '13, bassist Shaquille Harry Tisdell '12 (with professionals John Schott on guitar and Oberlin grad Joe Karten also on trumpet) were outstanding representatives of the Oberlin Conservatory and should have very productive musical careers if that is indeed the path they follow. Co-musical director Josh Smith also had a nice solo spotlight for his own composition, which segued into a friendly saxophone duel with Plonsey, while his co-director Daniel Michalak held everything together from the piano chair (with conducting duties evenly divided between the two).

Nearly everything Harvey Pekar writes is about himself, and Leave is no exception. (Macedonia is a bit of a ringer, but still features an unnecessary cameo appearance.) Using a self-referential conceit, his opera essentially tells the story of the long-distance collaboration between Pekar in Cleveland and Plonsey (a transplanted Clevelander) in the Bay Area, as they create the work the audience is watching, with both men’s wives also appearing as themselves on commenting on their efforts.

After an introductory solo from Plonsey, we get the abbreviated story of Pekar’s life, which was radically transformed by American Splendor, the film based on his graphic novels based on his life as a G-nothing file clerk in the Federal bureaucracy. No mention is made of his uncomfortably tense appearances on the Letterman Show, which provided Pekar’s first taste of fame before his falling out with the talk show host, but we do hear a recorded phone call between Pekar and his mentor R. Crumb, who jokingly predicts the opera will be a “travesty.”

Much of Pekar’s libretto testifies on behalf of the avant-garde, especially in jazz. He argues that it is the avant-garde extremes that keep an art-form vital, but in contemporary culture, the popular and the vanguard are almost completely segregated. He also readily admits to having no answers. As a result, Leave is almost certainly the only opera to mention Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadda Leo Smith, and George Lewis in its lyrics, suggesting it probably will not be the work to dramatically close that gap. This also hints at the real weakness of Leave. Pekar might be a comic auteur and a singular personality, but his libretto is often awkward and frequently didactic (on matters of aesthetics). Again, give the students of Oberlin, Joanna Lemle '10, Christopher Rice '10, Kate Rosen '11, Patty Stubel '09, and Gerard Michael d'Emilio '11, tremendous credit for their deft handling of his thorny words.

Ironically, Plonsey and his wife, Mantra Ben-ya'akova Plonsey, get credit for the opera’s best lines. During one fight she tells him: “you’re no Charlie Brown,” to which he replies: “no, but you’re sort of like Lucy though.” In addition to the snappiest quips, their bickering banter also rings the truest to actual real life.

Pekar is an earnest advocate for the avant-garde, but that cause is better served by the music itself than through his libretto. It is an interesting experiment and an effective showcase for Oberlin, but ultimately, Leave leaves one wanting to hear more of Plonsey’s music and less of Pekar’s words.