Miami University Opera Theatre’s “Hydrogen Jukebox” awarded first place at the National Opera Association Convention
The film that received the award was created during the pandemic and provided a unique opportunity for the program to collaborate with local arts organizations and for the students to acquire new skills.
At the recent National Opera Association Convention held in Houston, MU Opera Theater was awarded first place for College-level production for the opera film Hydrogen Jukebox by Philip Glass. This is the fifth NOA award for Miami University, putting them in the company of some of the finest music programs in the country. The film that received the award was created during the pandemic and provided a unique opportunity for the program to collaborate with local arts organizations and for the students to acquire new skills.
“The cast and creative team were willing to go to great personal lengths to create this work during a pandemic and when all was said and done, we had created something very unique and full of heart,” said Director of MU Opera Benjamin Smolder. “The times we spent together on location filming, and in finding a creative way to sing together, became sacred events in my mind.”
The chamber opera, Hydrogen Jukebox, is the result of a collaboration between avant-garde composer Philip Glass and Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg after a chance meeting at St. Mark’s bookstore in New York in 1988.
Glass invited Ginsberg to join him in a performance to benefit veterans of the Vietnam war. At the performance, Ginsberg read his anti-war poem Wichita Vortex Sutra while Glass improvised at the piano. This began a collaboration that would result in the Chamber Opera Hydrogen Jukebox that premiered at the Spoleto Festival in 1990.
In the work, Glass and Ginsberg envisioned a theatrical portrait of America. Ginsberg selected poems for the work that address societal topics such as social protest, violence, environmental destruction, drugs, endless war, and sexual identity.
For the Miami production, the work was reordered, and a script created using the autobiographical material in Ginsberg’s poetry.
“This was possible as Ginsberg wrote poetry that was very personal to his experience, and in many ways, his poetry serves as a prophecy of the times we were experiencing,” Smolder explained. “I was influenced by the MTV music videos of my youth and was fortunate to have a collaborative partner, Tiffany Lusht, who has both a creative mind and an experience in film and video editing.”
To create this work, the orchestra members recorded their parts from home using a click track. The music was then assembled into a soundtrack for the vocal recording. Students rehearsed outdoors during the fall semester and returned to the university two weeks early to record the vocal tracks—masked and socially distanced.
The opera was filmed in front of a green screen and on location in Cincinnati and Hamilton. The opera showcases the work of internationally renowned lighting designer Thomas Hase, camera director Tiffany Lusht, sculpture Steinunn Thorarinsdottir, sound engineer Alex Lusht, and dancers Cody Szarko and John Litzler.
Hydrogen Jukebox was filmed in multiple locations including Gates-Abegglen Theater, Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, The American Sign Museum, Sugar & Spice Café, and Camp America in College Corner. Hydrogen Jukebox streamed during October and November of 2021 and had a viewing of over 10,000. The link was sponsored by the Allen Ginsberg Project and comments poured in from all around the world.
Cast member Madison Wells recalls her experience working on Hydrogen Jukebox. “Working on this show was such a wonderful experience-it felt like a dream. Our directors worked hard to ensure that we could have a show during the time of covid, and that the show would be filmed in a safe environment. We were able to perform this challenging contemporary score, record with professionals, and then work in a film set environment…To see this show receive accolades makes me so proud of the work and our ability to accomplish this despite the challenges.”
This spring, Miami University Opera Theater will present a Festival of Chamber Operas over seven evenings. The Festival will include three chamber operas representing 350 years of opera history including The Impresario by Mozart, Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, and a new work, Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears.
MU Opera Theater will be partnering with Student Health Services to provide a forum for the work and resources for the community. The MU Chamber Opera Festival will play from February 23—March 3. The operas of Spears and Purcell will be presented with chamber orchestra. Tickets must be reserved in advance.
“This festival promises to be quite special as there is nothing like experiencing the human voice and a powerful musical work in an intimate space,” states Smolder.For more information on Miami’s award-winning program and for tickets visit: muopera.com.