In the Penal Colony combines social justice or injustice as the case may be with a score that is quintessentially Philip Glass in its swirling modulations that seem to move in symmetrical circles. The hard-hitting one act opera is based on a story by Kafka, the eccentric genius who also wrote Amerika and The Metamorphosis. Many bravos to Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek for continuing to promote works that delve into hot potato topics such as, in this case capital punishment, the prison system and the death penalty – all boldly expressed in a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer with additional text from Juliette Carrillo.
Her text features input from interviews with students who were formally incarcerated and are now involved in the Rising Scholars program offered by California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). In fact, the production was further enhanced by collaboration from the California Repertory Company (Cal Rep) of CSULB. The eight performance event will run at the school’s Studio Theater from April 25-May 5.
In the Penal Colony contains more than just singing and playing, although the sparse score calls for two singers, eight prisoners, a non-speaking guard (kudos to the talented theatre students of CSULB who participated in these roles) and a string quartet with added bass of which the group is conducted by Mitisek. Stage Director Jeff Janisheski (he is Chair of CSULB’S Theatre Arts) gave the whole production a feel of stark intimacy in conceptualizing Kafka’s bone-chilling account of life behind bars and how inmates are treated in the end game - which permeated the entire production from super titles to program notes. The opening night performance played to a nearly full house and upon entering the theater the subtitle screen flashed comments that included the fact we have more jails than colleges in the US.
The set, designed by Danila Korogodsky (he teaches at CSULB) was effectively conceived as an execution room with table, a five panel window and an upper terrace where musicians with conductor Mitisek played non-stop, alternating, rising and falling tremolos and repetitive patterns mostly in minor tonalities to match the dark intensity of a drama that was unfolding. Lighting (Martha Carter) and collage style video images (Lily Bartenstein) created atmospheric nuances to illuminate a stage that was devoid of comfort or warmth.
The gruesome story tells of a torture machine used by the penal colony’s Officer, sung with commanding presence and vocal resonance by baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis (his principal role in Long Beach Opera’s The Perfect American was also memorable) who tries to convince The Visitor (tenor Doug Jones) about the humane purpose of this apparatus. Jones got off to a shaky start but both pitch and timbre settled into an authoritative climax during the final scene of which The Officer is unable to gain The Visitor’s wholehearted approval about keeping the horrid device in business.
As such, The Officer places himself at the machine’s mercy as an act of loyalty to its creator – but the thing goes awry and carves him and his unyielding beliefs up in a most uncivilized manner. The scene creates a mesmerizing effect as does the chanting, cries and gestures of anguish from the prisoners and speechless Guard who wore rustic chic threads designed by Vee Delgado. These student performances were quite compelling, especially when reciting Carrillo’s words that included references to letting parents down, seeing snowflakes from a window and the idea that freedom is everything.
While In the Penal Colony might not be considered suitable or even enjoyable entertainment, the message it delivers is socially relevant and makes one think about the life of people on the inside looking out. In the program booklet, Janisheski writes, “The goal is to listen to the voices who are marginalized, stigmatized and silenced. That is the power of this performance and I am deeply proud to work with Long Beach Opera on presenting this timeless and gripping opera.”