Young Caesar

R and I took a couple of days to go and hear a rarely performed opera in L.A. Having never visited previously, the hour spent in traffic to get the Dixie Motel in West Hollywood (complete with an enormous painting of Lucille Ball on my door) made it feel like a “real” trip to Los Angeles. But the trip was a really lovely occasion, as director Yuval Sharon directed a performance of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar which sold well over 2000 seats in Walt Disney Hall.

If you don’t know Lou Harrison or his music, a good starting place to trust your initial observation that it’s bananas and you should just roll with it. A west coast composer who was self-immersed in non-Western music, Harrison has come to occupy an uncomfortable territory of integrative genius on one hand and cultural appropriation on the other. Harrison is perhaps known for his works for Javanese Gamelan and South-Asian instruments, including a Suite for Violin and American Gamelan.

Young Caesar is no different in this respect. In Disney Hall, the orchestra pit was crammed with Japanese traditional instruments, a Gamelan, percussion, strings, a harp, a harmonium and a prepared piano. But while Harrison remained true to form in musical content, the dramatic content is what really sets the opera apart: the presentation of Julius Caesar as “gay.” Recently, sites like Opera Wire and others have heralded the dawn of gay operas in the last ten years, celebrating a performance of Timo Andres’ Angels in America at Lincoln Center and applauding the announcement that New York City Opera will be staging Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain next season. And yet prior to the performance of Young Caesar in L.A., there seems to have been little direct recognition of an opera about two men in love that wasn’t composed anytime recently, but in 1971.

In Harrison’s opera, Caesar is in late adolescence/early adulthood, starting his initial ascent into the imperial Roman hierarchy. Being sent to the kingdom of Bythinia to fetch ships and military supplies for the Roman Army, he starts an affair with the King, tragically cut off by Caesar’s sense of duty to the Empire and to greatness (and his mother?). The story is not totally ahistorical – sexual fluidity was more common among Roman men than it is among American politicians (unless, of course, it’s in airport bathrooms), but the story doesn’t conform to the norms of what we think of in history. In a way, what makes Young Caesar interesting is the fact that an opera about same-sex relationship is still marketed as a “gay” opera. Harrison himself was openly gay and a pretty vocal proponent of gay rights for sure, but the opera doesn’t really differ too greatly in dramatic content from many other historical dramas discussing love and duty.

In essence, there’s no “gay cause,” no instance of gay-bashing, a struggle with homophobia, etc. Similarly, there’s no real conjecture about the sexuality of Caesar and the King or an insertion of sexuality into an event that might not have such an element to it at all (the historian Suetonius makes the nature of the relationship very clear). It differs, say, from Max Klinger’s interpretation of Caesar’s assassination, which I saw in Leipzig just a few weeks back. On one level the painting is historical and academic (“realist” some might argue), showing the toga-clad politicians with Roman noses posing over Caesar’s cadaver. But the presentation in someways is phenomenally symbolist and even homoerotic, equating presentations of beauty with those of rightful vengeance. The assassins aren’t young in their faces, but the muscularity and definition of their bodies tell otherwise. On the other hand, Caesar, though freshly murdered, appears to be months into his decomposition. It’s not just just a triumph justice or will, but the supremacy of youth and beauty over age, a familiar theme in gay art.

Klinger, Death of Caesar, 1890

The opera is beautiful, and Yuval’s production was truly exquisite. What I ponder is whether the appeal of such on opera would stick. As many gay films and books focus on very real issues of disease, social alienation and violence, it was strange to see an opera where none of those elements were directly related to the presentation of sexuality on stage – I wasn’t sure I was consciously witnessing a “gay” opera, despite the manner in which was advertised and billed.

Does the opera occupy one edge of the spectrum for “gay” opera? Is it tame? Is it realstic? Was it even sanitized? Was the age discrepancy between Caesar (supposedly 16 or so) and the King (presumably middle-aged) down-played? Were it more explicit, would it engender negative attitudes towards the frequency of inter-generational gay relationships? Whence the time honored pathology of the worship of youth in gay life and homoerotic art for thousands of years? Is it more similar to Klinger than I thought? Or was this just a stab at one a more normative representation of gay life (be it with not-so-normal characters) on an opera stage?  I think only time will tell, but I hope to see another production of Young Caesar very soon.

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