Founded in 1979, the Long Beach Opera (LBO) has become known for pushing the boundaries of opera productions. During the pandemic, for example, in March of 2021 the company premiered the dark opera Les Enfants Terribles with music by Philip Glass on the 3rd level of a Long Beach shopping mall parking structure. In the past, LBO has staged King Roger by Karol Szymanowski, Mozart’s Lucio Silla, Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter, and issued a recording of John Cage’s Europeras 3&4.

James Darrah - Photo courtesy of the artist.

James Darrah – Photo courtesy of the artist.

On May 20 and 21, 2023, inside the Noguchi Garden (“California Scenario”) and the nearby Samueli Theater at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, in collaboration with The Martha Graham Dance Company the Long Beach Opera will present the world premiere of The Feast, a reimaging of a baroque banquet inspired by G. F. Handel’s opera Alessandro . Described as “a glorious, decadent, immersive experience,” the production features a “wide-ranging operatic and orchestral works from Handel’s repertoire in an evening-length experience that merges opera, dance, theater, and cuisine.” Under the direction of LBO’s Artistic Director & Chief Creative Officer, James Darrah, The Feast is the beginning of a three-year collaboration between Martha Graham Dance Company and Long Beach Opera.

The co-creator and choreographer for The Feast, Janet Eilber is also the artistic director of the Martha Graham Company. Fortunately for LADC, Eilber agreed to an interview. She first explained how the four Graham Company dancers have been rehearsing in New York and the Polish countertenor Jakob Jósef Orliński was there about a month ago to begin learning movement, but that the entire case of The Feast will not be together until Tuesday, May 16th.

One of my first questions to Eilber was how the collaboration between LBO and the Graham Company came to be.

Samantha Mohr, Anna Schubert, Shauna Davis, Joe Davis, Edward Nelson, and Maleek Washington in "Les Enfants Terribles" - Long Beach Opera - Photo by James Darrah

Samantha Mohr, Anna Schubert, Shauna Davis, Joe Davis, Edward Nelson, and Maleek Washington in “Les Enfants Terribles” – Long Beach Opera – Photo by James Darrah

Through Chris Roundtree who we worked with at Northridge with Wild Up, that musical ensemble” She said. Roundtree conducted the orchestra for the Graham Company’s performance at The Soraya back in November of 2021. “Chris is the music director of the Long Beach Opera and he introduced us to James Darrah, the artistic director. James saw us in Northridge.”

We have been looking for productions that would use the Graham esthetics in support of another artistic endeavor, like an opera,” Eilber added. “About a decade ago we were woven into the Greek chorus of Prometheus Bound and The Bacchae at the Siracusa Festival in Italy. It was very exciting. We took sections of Martha’s work and there were ten of our dancers woven into the speaking chorus. During the speaking parts, they would emerge forward and in the Graham style, decorate the work.”

This was in June of 2012 at the XVIII Festival Internazionale del Teatro Classico dei Giovani in Siracusa, Italy and Eilber and the company then realized just how “fertile and flexible” the Graham vocabulary is and have been seeking out other such collaborations that would help audiences see the company in a different way and Graham’s work in another context.

Long Beach Opera - “Pierrot Lunaire” - Photo by Jordan Geiger

Long Beach Opera – members of Ate9 in “Pierrot Lunaire” – Photo by Jordan Geiger

I asked Eilber which of Graham’s works she will be pulling movement from.

A huge variety” she said with a smile, “because we are mixing and matching. Our Cassandra, for example, dances a little of Mather’s Cassandra material but she is also doing a section of the solo Deep Song, sections from The Night Journey Chorus, and from our old/new solo Immediate Tragedy.”  Immediate Tragedy also appeared on program at The Soraya in 2021.

Martha’s design of her choreography” Eilber continued, “of her movement can be motivated to mean almost anything. It is like an actor who takes the phrase ‘I love you’. You can mean it. You can be sarcastic. It’s very similar. The simplicity of the Graham design can be infused with almost any meaning. And, incredibly, works well with almost any music. I think audiences will be amazed to see how well it all fits together.”

Anne Souder in Martha Graham’s Immediate Tragedy - Photo by Melissa Sherwood

Anne Souder in Martha Graham’s “Immediate Tragedy” – Photo by Melissa Sherwood

The press release description of The Feast states that it “brings together seven of Greek mythology’s most storied and volatile characters for a hedonistic banquet that reimagines some of antiquity’s most enduring stories. As the master of ceremonies, King Agamemnon will bring together Alexander the Great with Clytemnestra, Cassandra of Troy, Theseus, the sorceress Medea, and Cleopatra as guests — all with very personal agendas.

Prior to this, she was not aware of this opera, The Feast, but Eilber and I agreed that after hearing the opera’s storyline, that Graham’s work is a great match because over the years that she choreographed for her company Martha Graham created several works that drew from various mythological characters. There was her 1946 Cave of the Heart that was inspired by the story of Medea, Clytemnestra (1958) based on the tragedy of the Trojan War, Deo (2019) based on the myth of Persephone, Errand into the Maze (1947) that was loosely derived from the myth of Theseus, and Night Journey (1947) a chilling reinvention of the tragedy of Oedipus.

The music for The Feast is all Handel and it is a selection from different Handel Operas. Eilber explained how the director Darrah chose the outline and the flow from aria to aria. “Of course to feature Jakob Jósef Orliński, the great countertenor and Anna Schubert who is the soprano” she explained. “He has also inserted speeches of Aeschylus from the character of Agamemnon. So, it is really a new combination of Handel music.”

Martha Graham Dance Company - Appalachian Spring - Photo credit Melissa Sherwood

Martha Graham Dance Company – “Appalachian Spring:- Photo credit Melissa Sherwood

One of the reasons that the Graham company became involved with this project was because the LBO director, Darrah, wanted to activate the Noguchi Garden in Costa Mesa.  Those who know dance history are aware of the close working relationship between Marth Graham and the great American artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi who designed several sets for some of Graham’s most famous works. They included Appalachian Spring, Cave of the Heart, Chronicle, Clytemnestra, El Penitente, Embattled Garden, Errand into the Maze, Frontier, Herodiade, and Night Journey.

Isamu Noguchi set for Martha Graham's Clytemnestra

Isamu Noguchi set for Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra – Photo from the web

Eilber said that she met Noguchi several times during her tenure with the Graham Company and shared how Graham would sometimes reuse Noguchi’s sets in other works by shifting them around to appear different. One example was that Graham would sometimes turn a sculpture on its side, giving it a totally different shape and meaning.

The Noguchi Garden (California Scenario) - Photo from the web.

The Noguchi Garden (California Scenario) – Photo from the web.

The Noguchi Garden was commissioned by the Segerstrom family in 1979 and completed in 1982 and is considered as one of the country’s most prestigious sculpture gardens. The Noguchi Garden was designed to include elements of California’s scenery and the different areas are known as the Forest Walk, Land Use, Desert Land, Water Source, Water Use and Energy Fountain. The centerpiece of the garden is called the Lima Bean composed of 15 rust-colored granite rocks cut to fit together.

The Feast will begin inside the Noguchi Garden and then the four Graham dancers will lead the audience into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ black box theater known as the Samueli Theater. The dancers who are performing with the LBO are Lloyd Knight, Anne Souder, Leslie Andrea Williams, and Xin Ying.

Lloyd Mayor and Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham’s "Errand into the Maze" - Photo by Melissa Sherwood.

Lloyd Mayor and Charlotte Landreau in Martha Graham’s “Errand into the Maze” – Photo by Melissa Sherwood.

Countertenor Orliński was not in New York very long as he is on an extensive tour through seven countries. Eilber said that he is also an amazing break dancer.  “You can see him on YouTube dancing on his hands, doing back flips and other such moves,“ Eilber said. “We gave him a menu of Graham moves to take away with him and taught him how to do the Graham cupped hand and gave him videos and sent him on his way.”

She explained how the soprano, Anna Schubert, was sent a video “of what we’re calling the Queen’s secret handshake,” Eilber said with a gleeful smile. “When Clytemnestra (Ying) and Cleopatra (Schubert) meet each other, they have a series of five movements. They recognize each other as queens and go through this series of movements,” Eilber added while beautifully demonstrating the arm and hand gestures.

Pas de Quatre (Perrot) - Photo from the web.

Pas de Quatre (Perrot) – Photo from the web.

Listening to Eilber and reading the press release about this opera, I was reminded of the famous ballet titled Pas de Quatre choreographed by Jules Perrot in 1845 to music composed by Cesare Pugni. The ballet was created for the four greatest ballerinas of the time Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Marie Taglioni. According to Wikipedia, The fifth great Romantic ballerina of the time, Fanny Elssler, had been invited to take part but declined to do so; she was replaced by the young Lucile Grahn who accepted without hesitation.

The cast of characters in The Feast include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Alexander the Great, Sparano Anna Schubert as Cleopatra, Los Angeles based actor Carlis Shane Clark as Agamemnon, and Graham Company dancers Xin Ying as Clytemnestra, Lloyd Knight as Medea, Leslie Andrea Williams as Theseus, and Anne Souder as Cassandra of Troy.

Eilber wants the readers to know that Graham speaks today’s language, it is flexible and reflects the era in which it is seen. “It absorbs and reflects contemporary issues which are often issues of the past as well” she said. “The great flexibility of the Graham language to speak poetically in very different situations that she might have imagined them to be.”

Long Beach Opera - "Pierrot Lunaire" - Photo by Jordan Geiger

Long Beach Opera – “Pierrot Lunaire” – Photo by Jordan Geiger

She also reminded me that The Feast is an interactive experience with the audience. Although they are not expected to take part in the production, in the Noguchi Garden audience members are free to wander to different areas where they will discover members of the cast such as Clytemnestra at the source of the stream or Cassandra in the redwoods. “That’s our moment to establish thematically the movement of these characters,” Eilber explained. “At one point they will come down to the stream and we’ll see the relationship between Medea and Theseus.”

From the Noguchi Garden, the dancers will lead the audience across the area and into the Samueli Theater. There is a small stage inside the theater but Eilber described how the characters will be seated at the banquet. This is not a proscenium driven production. Darrah has directed all the characters to move about the banquet table, through the aisles and up onto the stage, and the dancers also utilize their acting abilities interacting with the other characters.

The Creative team of The Feast includes: Co-Creator & Director: James Darrah; Co-Creator & Choreographer: Janet Eilber; Music Director: Andrew McIntosh; Costume Designer: Molly Irelan; Lighting Designer: Pablo Santiago; Producer: Chris Minev; Associate Director: McCall Cadenas; Instrumental Ensemble: Tesserae Baroque; and Artistic Partner: Martha Graham Dance Company

Noguchi Garden (“California Scenario”)
611 Anton Blvd, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Samueli Theater at Segerstrom Center for the Arts
615 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Tickets are currently sold out. To be added to the waiting list or for more information, please visit the Long Beach Opera website.

For more information about The Martha Graham Dance Company, please visit their website.

For more information about The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, please visit their website.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Janet Eilber – Photo: © Hibbard Nash Photography