Opera Review: Plonsey hits a high note, while Pekar drones on

Harvey Pekar and Dan Plonsey wrote a jazz opera, “Leave Me Alone!”, which premiered in Cleveland on the 31st of January. I was fortunate to have been included in the premiere as the production was simulcast on the web by Real Time Opera and Oberlin College of Arts and Sciences. As an ex-Netscape engineer, I am always thrilled to find new groups pushing the scope of the internet and although streaming video isn’t necessarily new, providing the world the opportunity to see the premiere of a new opera is a very worthy project.

That said, perhaps the first thing I should say about the production is that this review was greatly hindered by the technology. Streaming video has come a long way what with high speed routers and fast connection speeds. I am a huge fan of BBC’s iPlayer and the content that is as good as watching the programs on television. However, Real Time Opera’s production of “Leave Me Alone!” probably would have been better served to have been time delayed to allow for caching the video which would have provided smoother viewing. Easily half of the production I can't review simply because it was too spotty, too jerky to give any impression of either the music or the lyrics. Even the scenes I did get a good sense of, music and words were lost and that provided a real challenge in really understanding the flow of the piece. This is very unfortunate because it means my review is limited to what I could hear.

What I did hear: The piece begins with a loud screeching sax, in very avant-garde style jazz. From what I could understand later of the libretto, avant-garde jazz is a focus of this opera, so the start was fitting and yet off setting. It felt as if I had no idea what to expect and that was exactly what the music needed to say. Harvey says in his artist statement this opera is “about the problems faced by turn of the 21st century artists in general.” So, 'unsettling' music set the mood perfectly.

The opening scene is a monologue by Harvey Pekar reading from a page while free jazz floats in the background. Is this opera? Well, it’s avant-garde certainly. The music is interesting flowing naturally behind the monologue even though Harvey’s monologue was delivered haltingly (intentionally).

I found it odd the vocal quartet used hand held microphones since Dan Plonsey, who also appeared on stage, used a hands free microphone. If they spent enough money making this production web cast, they should have spent the money to have wireless hands free microphones. If they were worried about sound quality, the net took care of that (high fidelity over the internet just isn't quite there yet, particularly in live feeds).

The first vocalist was the tenor (There is no web program, and the Credits page is incomplete so forgive me where I don’t have names), who displayed excellent skill with some really difficult vocal work. The music was fast and all over the place, verging on acid jazz. While it made the words difficult to understand (part of that owing to the technical difficulties too), it was thrilling to listen to. However, occasionally the tenor went into the stratosphere and the vocal quality completely gave out. The lyrics didn’t seem to need the pyrotechnics so I question the use of the extreme registers. It didn’t work for me.

The next number was actually a duet between Dan and his wife Mantra Ben-ya'akova Plonsey, “God Damn it. I can’t find anything.” This number had great character, but not particularly good vocal quality. It felt as if the characters were playing themselves (which they were); the music and lyrics worked well together to bring the characters to life. The bebop jazz style gave the scene a fun, frolicking lilt to a really rather edgy scene, basically an argument between a husband and wife as they prepare their house for guests.

The opera then progressed into a painful song with large leaps in register. At first I felt it was an interesting technique of the vocalist being slightly out of tune, as some jazz styles use this with great effect. It’s not your typical bel canto opera style, but then “Leave Me Alone!” is not your typical opera. However, as the opera progressed I came to realize some of the vocalists were just out of tune, ever so slightly. Not always, but not consistent with the style of music either. To their credit, they are students. Still, it is disappointing, particularly when some songs, like “employing systematic elements” are really wonderful numbers.

“Employing systematic elements” incorporates some really nice counterpoint, and the female vocals were lovely. At one point, the bass was pressed to go a bit low and, like the tenor earlier, felt a bit strained (and out of tune). Overall a really nice song. This was followed by a lovely duet. Musically it was wonderful, but it didn’t seem to add meaning to the words; too often the words and music seemed at war with each other, neither being memorable. “Nice Reviews” is another stunning female duet which moved into “No one would notice” which gave us a chance to hear some really fine vocal quartet work. The vocal quartet music was perhaps Dan’s best work in the opera, strong, lyrical, understandable and very interesting. The only problem with “No one would notice” was during the verses when there was so much text it was impossible to follow (even when there weren’t technical glitches).

While some music didn't fit the words well, this was not true of the entire show. “I started to write” presented unison singing which matched the words beautifully. As the piece developed (and Dan obviously was interested in writing something more) the music devolved into more counterpoint quartet singing, again, a real highlight of the show. Other numbers which really hit the mark were “Stolen Time” and “I can’t get to sleep.” In the later number, the bass and mezzo really shine. Then the tenor comes in for a tight trio that didn’t last near long enough. The music really captured the sense of the thoughts in an overactive mind. “What is it?” was another number performed by Dan’s wife. While she wasn’t quite in tune, the piece was really fun.

Overall the music was really interesting. While it didn't always match the lyrics, it was all really good jazz. About half way through there seemed to be a lack of ebb and flow to the opera. So much of the music was at a set pace. There were different styles of jazz, but no real shift in the pace of the music or the mood. But, just as I felt this the opera started to flow. Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner gave a monologue about how intrusive fans are and yet wanting recognition for their work. Hmmmm, sounding a bit schizophrenic. The music underneath was perfectly understated.

As the opera comes to an end, we are presented with a dialog between Dan and his wife. There is music in the background, but the words are not sung. No, I don’t believe all words have to be sung to constitute an opera. However, if you start and end the production with spoken words, and have large sections of spoken words throughout the piece I think calling it an opera is probably not correct. It wasn’t really a musical either (as that tends to inspire images of Rogers and Hammerstein or Sondheim). Perhaps it is best described as an art piece, with music and words.

At one point the opera speaks about the avant-garde artist having a hard time. But, isn’t that the point of being an avant-garde artist, off the beaten path? If these artists are not pushing the bounds of society, then they’re not really avant-garde. It’s only years later when the good stuff remains that it becomes mainstream and those who follow are the ones who make the money. Harvey complains “you gotta eat, man” speaking about the need for artists to be paid for their work and yet speaks disparagingly of mainstream artists. You can’t have it both ways, Harvey.

Like “An American Splendor” (2003), the movie about Harvey Pekar, “Leave Me Alone!” is in some respects auto-biographical. There are numerous references to Harvey’s life, making the movie, after the movie, writing the opera and other random thoughts. But then, this is Harvey’s writing style. His comic books, which is what originally brought Harvey fame, with the occasional “Nice Review”, are focused around Harvey’s life, so the plot (what I could follow) was somewhat expected. Yet, he makes a comment during a taped telephone conversation with Robert Crumb, “A buck is a buck.” It feels like Harvey is complaining about being bothered by all the attention his film got him and yet, he is more than willing to grab a buck (and more fame) with an opera about himself. If you don’t like the fame, don’t write about yourself. And if you think what you’re saying is “honest” then why all the complaining? This didn’t feel like an opera about art, about ordinary people getting involved and taking art back from the academic community. This felt like Harvey screaming “Look at me” with Dan writing some wonderful music for it.

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