Mitisek and Co. expand boundaries of opera with puppets, poetry and ‘Frankenstein!!’


Critics have called the Long Beach Opera (LBO) “daring,” “unconventional” and “innovative.” While all those are accurate, another word that perhaps better describes the company is “playful.”

Still, one wonders how the seasoned, classically trained LBO musicians reacted when their artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, unveiled a box of plastic toy instruments. The toy saxophones and tiny flutes will be played by band members as part of contemporary composer H. K. Gruber’s bravura work for orchestra and singing narrator, “Frankenstein!!” Set to witty and often wacky poems by H.C. Artmann, the piece will be presented at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center March 14-16.

“It’s really funny to get a box of toy instruments,” Mitisek said. “But our orchestra really appreciates what we do, because they get to play what they don’t get to play anywhere else. They know they will have some challenges and new music.”

Described as “a ‘pan-demonium’ for chansonnier and orchestra,” “Frankenstein!!” makes up the second half of a concert that also features Richard Strauss’ 1897 melodrama for voice and piano, “Enoch Arden,” based on a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Actor Michael York performs the demanding vocal parts in both works. Luckily, he clearly has a fine sense of humor — he played Basil Exposition in all three “Austin Powers” movies and worked with Richard Lester in the 1970s.

According to Mitisek, who is Viennese, the musicians will perform “Frankenstein!!” on multiple instruments in Gruber’s 12-piece ensemble version — scored for strings, piano, brass and woodwind players. Simon Rattle and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave his original version for large orchestra a whirl in 1978, with, according to music critic Paul Griffiths, Gruber as soloist in a “vampirical vocalizing of horror-comic ditties.”

If all this sounds a bit “out there,” even by LBO standards, last month the company staged Ricky Ian Gordon’s song cycle “Orpheus and Euridice” at the Belmont Plaza Olympic pool in Long Beach, with the pool setting re-imagined as the River Styx �”entrance to the underworld. And last year’s haunting, claustrophobic production of Grigori Frid’s monodrama for soprano, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” took place in parking garages at Sinai Temple and in Lincoln Park.

So given this history, maybe staging Gruber’s eerie comic-book world is a return to earth for Mitisek and the LBO. At least the work is being presented in a theater with properly cushioned seats, not on metal bleachers.

But did we mention the puppets? Strange and unique as Gruber’s work was conceived to be, leave it to Mitisek to kick it up another notch by adding the Long Beach-based Rogue Artists, a group specializing in masks and puppetry.

Gruber’s piece is not normally performed with puppets, but that didn’t restrain Mitisek’s own wacky imagination.

“Gruber calls it ‘instrumental theatre,'” Mitisek said. “I think it’s an open art form, and it’s also something very Long Beach Opera-like, expanding the boundaries of whatever we do.”

So the conductor turned to the Rogue Artists Ensemble. In 2005, the group collaborated with Opera Pacific on a story about puppets that interact with human stagehands while performing Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle. The title: “Das Püppet.” One of their more recent projects is an original adaptation of “Mr. Punch,” a dark graphic novel. “They have a vein for the macabre,” Mitisek said. “They are not regular puppeteers — their aim is not little-kid shows.”

Tyler Stamets, the 27-year-old associate artistic director of Rogue Artists, agrees. While his favorite parts of the show are “the toy instruments that have a crazy, whimsical feel that lends itself to the type of work we do,” he says “Frankenstein!!” is not for kids.

“It’s great for teenagers of the ‘Simpsons’ generation,” he said. “But it’s not sweet and sunshiny.”

Readers can sample some of Artmann’s deceptively simple poems “after children’s rhymes” online.

Mitisek also sees the work as appealing to adults.

“Being childlike is something to keep in our lives,” the 43-year-old conductor said. “[Gruber’s] piece appeals to the sophisticated adult in us and also to the fun part that we, hopefully, still keep from our childhood.”

For Mitisek, staying “young at heart and mind” is crucial. As for Rogue Artists, they don’t have to “stay” young; they still are. And it was Artmann’s comic-book references to Batman, Dracula and Superman, among others, that resonated most with them. Founded in 2003 at UC Irvine, the company came together when Stamets met Patrick Rubio, one of the two lead designers for the “Frankenstein!!” project; the other is veteran puppeteer, Joyce Hutter.

“We’ve been heavily influenced by that [comic-book] style,” Stamets said, “and this is a great chance for us to put some of that work on stage. Andreas has given us free rein to build on these ideas to make it all come to life.” Indeed, to create this Frankenstein, the Rogue Artists, like the LBO, are “pushing it to the extreme.” They will be using everything from shadow puppetry projected onto large screens to 10-feet tall puppets. Spoiler alert: one of the culminating theatrical moments in “Frankenstein!!” shows how the monster comes together out of objects scattered about the stage.

Of the several different styles of puppetry the Ensemble will present, one is Bunraku, an early 19th century Japanese art in which a puppet is so large it requires three people to manipulate it.

“It’s not just one person with his hand in a sock,” Stamets said. “We work with puppets on the scale of Walt Disney and Cirque du Soleil, but without the budget.”

According to Mitisek, the composer’s title, “Frankenstein!!” may be a bit misleading, since only one of the poems is set to music about that fabled 19th century monster. “But they all have that flavor,” Mitisek said, “a poem about Little Miss Dracula and comic-strip heroes. It’s all a little nightmarish and scary.”

One of the key elements in any production of “Frankenstein!!” is the “chansonnier,” in this case actor Michael York, who will also be intoning Strauss’s tragic story of “Enoch Arden” in the show’s curtain-raiser with pianist Lisa Sylvester.

Theater: ‘A’ is for ‘angst’ when you’re the creators of ‘Avenue Q’


Jeff Marx, co-creator of the hit puppet musical, “Avenue Q,” was fired from his internship at “Sesame Street” in 1998. Back then he was an attorney, but he had taken the position in order to segue way into songwriting for kids. “Instead, I was cleaning tables, taking out the garbage, Xeroxing and answering telephones,” Marx says. “When I faxed an executive a song I had written, he told me that I was being too aggressive, that my job was to observe and to distribute scripts, and who they hell did I think I was? He got me the f— out of there, and I felt totally pathetic.”

Marx channeled his pathos into “Avenue Q,” which he penned with Robert Lopez, another unemployed, frustrated 20-something. The subversive musical, which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sept. 7, wasn’t meant as revenge against “Sesame Street,” Marx says, but as a primer for youths who find the real world scarier than it appears on children’s TV.

The fictional Avenue Q is a dilapidated street in an outer borough of New York, where broke college graduates can afford the rent. The residents include puppets such as Princeton, a preppie searching for his “purpose” in life; Kate Monster, an assistant teacher who longs to found her own “Monstersori” school; Lucy T. Slut, a skanky chanteuse; and Trekkie Monster, the local pervert. Rod, a closeted homosexual, is in love with his slacker roommate, Nicky — a riff on all those homoerotic musings about “Sesame Street’s” Ernie and Bert.

Among the human residents is a character named Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, of the 1980s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes”) who “is like the patron saint of being great when you’re a kid, but sucking when you get older,” Marx says.

The musical is “how ‘Friends’ might be if it had Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy arguing about their one-night stand but with more angst, expletives and full-on puppet sex,” The Times of London said.

Marx seems light years from the fictional Avenue Q when he arrives at a La Brea cafe in his shiny black convertible. He recently moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, and he orders his lunch like a native, asking the waiter to substitute salad for fries. When the fries come anyway, he affably shrugs and eats them all. He says he has been taking Hollywood meetings and even had breakfast with Stephen Schwartz, the composer-lyricist of “Wicked,” which “Avenue Q” beat out for best musical at the 2004 Tony Awards. He says he now has a “Bel-Air shrink” — and that he has “plenty to be neurotic about” because he is Jewish.

Marx’s love of musicals comes from his Jewish mother, a dental hygienist who routinely schlepped her four children to shows such as “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I.” “My bar mitzvah theme was ‘Hooray for Jeffrey and Hooray for Hollywood musicals,” Marx says.

By that time, he was already a professional singer, crooning ballads to blushing girls with a local music teacher’s Number One Bar Mitzvah Band. After each gig, the girls would chase Marx and ask for his autograph.

“They treated me like Elvis,” he says.

He had a very different experience in the musical theater department at the University of Michigan, where he received “only one bit part in one show, which had one line,” he says. “I had professors tell me that I had no talent and that I would never make it in theater.”

So Marx attended Yeshiva University’s law school and passed the bar, but discovered he didn’t particularly like the profession. At age 28, he found himself adrift, living in an apartment owned by his parents and interning for various shows and producers in the hopes of switching careers. He also considered becoming an entertainment lawyer, and enrolled in a musical theater workshop just to meet potential clients. It was there he discovered he had talent for songwriting and teamed up with Lopez, a Yale graduate who was still living with his parents, to write a show.

“We decided we wanted to write a musical for people our age, that even straight guys would want to see,” says Marx, who is gay. “We decided to use puppets because they don’t look cheesy when they burst into song.”

Marx and Lopez came up with a musical titled “Kermit, Prince of Denmark,” which they submitted to the Jim Henson Company. When the company passed, Marx recalls, “Bobby and I beat our heads against the wall and said, ‘Why did we spend an entire year writing for someone else’s characters? F— the f—- — Muppets, let’s create our own Muppets…. And screw trying to come up with some crazy imaginary world; let’s make it about our world.’ Everyone we knew was interning and assisting and floundering and struggling. And we thought, this is awful, but it’s also kind of funny.”

“Avenue Q’s” first two songs sum up those sentiments: “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English” and “It Sucks to Be Me.”

Marx and Lopez penned their ditties in restaurants, Starbucks, on the subway — anywhere people and surroundings could inspire them. “We wrote ‘There’s Life Outside Your Apartment,’ literally, while walking down the street,” Marx says. “Of course, we didn’t write ‘The Internet Is for Porn,’ while watching porn,” he adds. “That was in a diner over fries.”

“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” was inspired, in part, by a relative of Marx’s who refers to African Americans as “shvartzes.” At the end of the scene, the characters argue over whether Jesus was black or white.

“But everyone laughs when they finally realize Jesus was Jewish,” Marx says.“Avenue Q” opens Sept. 7 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, visit http:/www.centertheatregroup.org


‘Avenue Q’ on British TV’s Newsnight Review

Making Light


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