"Leave Me Alone!" Jazz Opera at Oberlin

Matt Marshall BY

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Music by Dan Plonsey
Libretto by Harvey Pekar
Additional Music by Josh Smith
Additional Words by Mantra Ben-ya'akova Plonsey and Joyce Brabner
Music Directors: Daniel Michalak and Josh Smith
Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Finney Chapel)
Presented in cooperation with Real Time Opera
Oberlin, OH
January 31, 2009

Harvey Pekar has the unique and enviable ability to entertain and enlighten simply by being himself. This isn't news to readers of his iconic comic book series American Splendor (or to those who have seen the like-named 2003 movie based on Pekar's life and work), in which Pekar writes of the eternal minutiae, stress and simple joys of everyday life with a comically depressive pen. He is also a hard-core jazz fan and respected music critic. So while news of him writing a jazz opera with saxophonist-composer Dan Plonsey may have raised some eyebrows, jazz and comic book fans felt assured of two things: that the work would be steeped in a lifelong knowledge of music and that it would be uniquely Harvey.

Harvey delivers his opening monologue on stage.

As Pekar told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the opera is "a polemic, it's a lecture, it's an attack on philistinism." Admitting he had no idea how to write a libretto, Pekar fell back on familiar material—himself. The plot, if such it can be called, revolves around the attempts by Pekar and Plonsey to create the opera amidst the quotidian demands and disturbances of life. The two spent much of the show seated on opposite sides of the stage—Pekar on a living room couch, Plonsey at his keyboard—with large chalkboards looming behind each, haunting them with unfinished scratchings of text and musical notation. Their real-life wives, Joyce Brabner and Mantra Ben-ya'akova Plonsey, appeared on stage to disrupt their work with general pestering and supply the kick of reality both artists were loath to acknowledge. It was an appropriately modernist construct for a work whose stated aim (pronounced by Pekar from center stage at the opening) was to wave a red flag of warning for the ever-limping avant-garde, which Pekar sees both as necessary for the advancement of art and, in a characteristically pessimistic swing, as impossible to shove down the throats of a disinterested public.

Harvey is surrounded by adoring fans.

After Pekar's initial rant (in which he directly attacked middle-of-the-road jazz idol Wynton Marsalis for looking backwards instead of ahead), the wild-haired Plonsey strode on stage, wailing a decidedly avant-garde sax solo, its stirring blast and squawk drawing a line in the sand both for the music and its progenitor: this is what I am, what ja gonna do about it?! "If I played for five seconds," Plonsey asked, "would I be a jazz musician?" Soon, Pekar was on the phone (via taped conversation) discussing the opera with famed comic book illustrator R. Crumb. In an evening full of laughs, the back and forth between these two old friends provided the deepest side-splitters—the kind that follow you home and cut back into you later at night: Crumb on Pekar's idea for the opera: "That sounds like a travesty!"; Pekar responding, in all seriousness, to Crumb's joke about the attractive, doting women, male travelers find in Japan: "Yeah, but I don't think they're sincere."

Plonsey and his wife, Mantra, were fabulous as their (no doubt, exaggerated) selves. Mantra was especially sharp, displaying expert comedic timing in both her schizophrenic movement and clear but stressed singing. The frenzied Plonseys were the perfect yang to Pekar and Brabner's slow, what-does-it-matter, read-it-from-the-script yin. Enough also cannot be said about Stage Director Jonathan Field and his chorus of Oberlin students, Patty Stubel, Kate Rosen, Joanna Lemle, Christopher Rice and Gerard Michael D'Emilio. Their interludes of music and dance took hilarious shots at popular culture, its entertainment and lemming-like stupidity (to say nothing of the salvos lobbed at the protagonists themselves). Their best scene found them locked in a slow-motion wrestle over a coveted copy of a Lionel Richie record.

Music director Josh Smith (l) and composer Dan Plonsey (r) perform together.

Throughout, experimental saxophonist Josh Smith and his band of Oberlin musicians pumped out the heated blasts of Plonsey's modern jazz. Shaquille Harry-Tisdell's electric bass drove a serious funk groove, unleashing the wild, inevitable blowing of sax, trumpets and trombones. Smith stepped into Pekar's living room at one point and, after a comical Harvey-being-Harvey moment of mechanical fumbling with a cassette player, proceeded to shriek a jarring sax solo as rejoinder to Plonsey's opening statement. Plonsey then brought his horn to center stage and with the younger Smith fashioned an intergenerational avant blowout that was the musical highlight of the evening.

As might be imagined from reading the above, nothing much was resolved by the show's close. (Which is as it should be with any self-respecting modernist work.) Ben-ya'akova Plonsey tugged at her hair in a fit of rage and cried out to "die painlessly," just before collapsing off the front of the stage. Not an especially optimistic finish. But a nice, tongue-in-cheek "la commedia e finita!" parting from an opera far funnier than Pagliacci. With their sardonic, self-effacing humor, the mad clowns of Leave Me Alone! painted the avant-garde with the kind of invitingly fresh strokes the mainstream long ago lost to its machine. "Was that jazz?" Plonsey asked with a laugh after the performance. It hardly mattered—it was spectacularly inventive and entertaining art.

Cast: Dan Plonsey, Harvey Pekar, Mantra Ben-ya'akova Plonsey, Joyce Brabner, Josh Smith, Gerard Michael D'Emilio, Joanna Lemle, Christopher Rice, Kate Rosen, David Schwartz, Patty Stubel, Telephone appearance by Robert Crumb.

Dancers: Cree Carrico, Mark Muthersbaugh, Elizabeth Zharoff, Orville Zharoff

Band: Josh Smith: saxophone; Gregory Zilboorg: trumpet; Joe Karten: trumpet; Aaron Salituro: trombone; John Schott: guitar; Shaquille Harry-Tisdell: bass; Noah Hecht: drums; Daniel Michalak: piano.

Photo Credit

John Seyfried

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