Long Hair?
Can "the American tribal love-rock musical" be the opera of tomorrow?
by John Rockwell
Opera News - December 20, 1969

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Hair has been the most successful music drama of the decade, if not of the entire postwar era.  According to it's publicists, there is by now no hour of the day or night when somewhere in the world the Ragni-Rado-MacDermot assault on the Establishment is not playing to some Establishment audience.  Time magazine has dubbed it "the My Fair Lady of the Now generation"; Leonard Bernstein has walked out on it as a bore; High Fidelity's Gene Lees has mocked it as "Lawrence Welk for hippies"; it has been exalted as a paean to the health and vitality of today's youth, denounced as an open slander of time-tested ideals, dismissed as a commercial exploitation.  Whatever one's opinions as to it's worth, nobody can deny it's success.

As the Time quotation indicates, Hair has been widely hailed as the salvation of the Broadway musical, which has been dying an inexorable death from massive public indifference to arm-cranking chorines purveying plastic joy.  But if this is so, then Hair and the phenomenon it represents must also be of great interest to opera-lovers, particularly those concerned with the unpleasant fact that a genuinely popular grand opera hasn't been written in forty-five years - not since Turandot.  Somehow, somewhere back there along the line, audiences and composers parted ways; and ever since, people have been trying to rediscover the old ideal of the theater as the direct expression of it community, at the same time popular and profound.  Bernstein's and Gian Carlo Menotti's hopes some years ago for a rejuvenation of opera from Broadway itself are only two more recent examples of such a search.  And such hopes are some indication of why a work like Hair must be of direct concern to opera professionals and audiences.

In fact, of course, the whole history of the musical theater has been a continuous alternation between sophisticated refinement and surges of popular vitality - on the one side the Florentine Camerata itself, Gluck, Wagner and (in it's most abstruse form) much of the century's avant-garde; on the other, popular Italian and English ballads, madrigals and masques, Singspeil, nineteenth-century folk operas, twentieth-century American musicals.  The same popularity can be found, I suppose, in all the arts - certainly in music, where in our own century continual efforts have been made to graft popular styles onto "classical" idioms.  Kurt Weill, Ernst Krenek, Les Six, Gunther Schuller and his "Third Dream" have been examples of such a tendency among composers, and the critics have followed suit with a variety of analyses and pleas for a return to popularity;  Henry Pleasants is only the most recent and prominent representative of this school.

In the field of opera of late, everyone seems to be trying to be more "with it".  maybe opera houses are fit only for dynamiting, as Pierre Boulez would have it, but it is certainly not for any want of the desire to experiment.  Composers are not languishing (at least as far as we know), their masterpieces, as the helpless victims of defiant conservatism among opera house directors.  Especially in Europe, where state subsidies and the safe progressivism of modern social democracy have encouraged experimentation in the Establishment arts, opera house intendants have gone so far to foster new works that they have become virtual co-creators.  And their efforts have by no means been limited to the products of avant-garde coteries.  There is nothing that men like Rolf Liebermann (Hamburg), Gunter Rennert (Munich), Walter Erich Schaefer (Stuttgart), or Gustav Rudolf Sellner (Berlin) want more than a genuine popular hit.  Likewise in America, the more adventuresome houses, such as Santa Fe, Boston, and Seattle, are eagerly looking about for works of quality that can both make these companies more integral parts of their community and build a new, young audience.  Opera house directors as a breed may be timid and pathetically "straight", but they want to be with it.

hence Hair, and the whole genre of rock opera which it can be said to represent, has aroused extraordinary interest in a wide variety of circles.  We are now at the onset of a veritable inundation of such rock musicals.  many of the already established rock bands have been reaching out toward larger forms: The Who's Tommy is the best known example.  Most of the new rock musicals will be backed by the same sort of producer who has supported Broadway for decades.  It's the new psychedelic bandwagon, and everyone is hustling to get aboard.

Most of these efforts, one can rather confidently predict, will be cheap fiascoes.  And the main reason is that Hair has many more characteristics than the simple throwing together of rock music with the old, tired theatrical presuppositions.  hair is unlike the average musical or opera not only because of it's music, which alternates more acceptable soft ballads with raucous rock, but because of it's rudimentary plot - the saga of a hippie "tribe" whose leader, Claude, is eventually drafted into the army - it's overtly revolutionary and exuberantly defiant tone, it's nudity, it's (rather tentative) efforts to direct audience involvement and the quasi-communal nature of it's performance.  Most of these features have appeared elsewhere, singly or in combination, and often in more radical form.  hair is a good show, but it is just a part of something bigger than itself, and it is this "something bigger" that the vast majority of imitations will fail to capture.

One shouldn't confuse true popularity with greedy attempts to exploit a debased and dwindling mass taste.  Broadway musicals are no longer popular art; they are sterile posturings.  And in so-called "high art", over the past few decades a gulf has opened up between the artist and public.  But the bridge linking the two is at any time a tenuous and mysterious one.  The damage of decades can't be repaired with a few well-meaning but inevitably artificial attempts at stylistic cross-breeding.  If there is to be a new, hip opera, then it must arise naturally from a new, hip audience.

hair has been attacked as itself a calculated dilution of hipdom for the straight.  And certainly a large portion of any Hair audience consists of slightly nervous and curious parent-age people who finally feel they have found something "safe" that can tell them why their kids smoke pot and revile them.  But Hair is by no means a total shuck.  It came, after all, to Broadway by way of the Cheetah discotheque and the East Village.  The Hair audiences that I have been part of have included a fair proportion of young people - not hippies, I guess, but hip-oriented, peripheral types who obviously love the show and feel that it says something real to them.  Tom O'Horgan has gone to great lengths in the productions he has directed (Broadway, Los Angeles, London, San Francisco, Chicago) to create a unique local flavor in each cities version.  The casts of Hair are "tribes", and they seem to have been chosen as much for personality as for theatrical credits, or even skills.  "We're very close" says San Francisco cast member Gayle Hayden.  "We're like brothers and sisters, and we help each other out.  It's like a family - it really is.  The whole thing makes you more warm and open to people. We're not pretending."  hair casts tend to blend from life onto the stage and back into life again: there isn't much in the way of make-up or costumes to take on and off.  The quality, style and details of the performance vary from city to city and night to night.  The degree of direct audience participation - actors into the crowd, audience members onstage - similarly differs.

In this sense, hair is a genuine part of the new theater, both musical and nonmusical, that has emerged of late.  The more sensationalistic aspects of this theater - nudity, deliberate pornography and outrageousness of one sort or another - are just a part of a larger phenomenon that has it's most immediate roots in the "happenings" of the early sixties, in the Becks' Living Theatre, in modern "dance" events like Ann Halprin's, in radical political theater like San Francisco's Mime Troupe.

This is theater for a new community, and the trouble is that it is very hard, if not impossible, to translate that theater outside it's own community into the straight world.  The attempts to capitalize on hair, and most of the well-meaning commercialized products of the new nonverbal, ritualistic "body theater" don't make it, except possibly as pedagogy.  The most rudimentary hints at a different degree of  personal freedom (e.g., the nudity in Hair) may fascinate and even have a beneficent effect on some innocent "straight".  But this same kind of hint will bore or even offend (as a timid cop-out) a hippie. Conversely, something meaningful to a hippie may seem incomprehensible, offensive, or pretentious to a square.  There is still a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between audience and artist; but now the hip community has joined the artist on his side of the gulf.

In San Francisco the hip community has for years had it's own theaters.  The so-called "Straight Theater" is now as dead as the Haight-Ashbury community that was it's home, but Chet Helm's Family Dog, a kind of hip booking agency and artistic promoter, has moved from the old Avalon Ballroom out to an amusement park on the Pacific Ocean beach and transformed what had been just another rock palace into a center for the new arts, with music, theater, dance, religion, rap sessions and free feasts.  But the notion of inserting even the most formally organized of such hippie celebrations into the repertory of the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial (!) Opera House is simply ludicrous.

Berkeley's Floating Lotus magic Opera Company is about the most disciplined and coherent of the hip musical-theater groups I know of, although there are others - San Francisco's Golden Toad ( a kind of psychedelic vaudeville/musicale), Chicago's Liberation, some of what happens at new York's Electric Circus, and so forth.  The Lotus is currently performing it's third opera, Bliss Apocalypse, to hippie audiences all over northern California.  It's home house is an outdoor amphitheater in northern Berkeley, but the company has traveled to the Family Dog, to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, to Bay Area parks and to various communes in the countryside.  the performance lasts over an hour and and deliberately dissolves at the end into a communal bread-eating ritual (the Lotus bakes the bread and provides it free).  The sets, costumes, movement styles and music all betray an extraordinarily eclectic yet persuasive blend of the exotic, chiefly Tibetan but also Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian, and American Indian.  The vocal lines are chanted or declaimed ritualistically, with blocks of instrumental color punctuating them; the orchestra is a dazzling array of strange and colorful instruments, mostly wind and percussion.  The plot is the most directly symbolic kind of allegory, all shaped around the theme of each individual's magic enlightenment into higher levels of transcendental, mystical bliss. It is very moving.

To whom? To me, for I am peripherally a part of this community and susceptible to it's art.  But this is an art truly by and for "the people", in this case the people of a hippie community that has built up a whole ethos seemingly totally divorced from that of the country at large.  The performances of the Lotus are free, and the audience alone is colorful and family-like as a Hair cast.  Lotus "company members" live together, meditate together, and live the "plot" of Bliss Apocalypse in their daily lives.  For them the purpose of the opera is more than an artistic one; it is an integral part of an all-pervasive religious life.  It is, in short, art as art is supposed to be in the utopia that theater aestheticians since classical Athens have called for.  It is identical in theory to the  kind of volkisch social art-religion that Richard Wagner espoused.  The Family Dog is Bayreuth reborn.

One of the central tenets of the original volkisch theory, as propounded by Herder in the eighteenth century and as opposed to Nazi vulgarization of such theories, was an inevitable cosmopolitanism.  If each "folk", each community, would only be true to it's own self, then each would touch on some deeply buried universal core, which would be immediately comprehensible to all other communities.  Like the essentially cosmopolitan and humanistic presuppositions of much modern anthropology, volkisch aesthetic theory presumed a basic, shared universality beneath surface variables.

I'm afraid that within the subcultures of Western civilization today this theory may not be working out too well.  The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company could be fascinating and impressive to straight audiences, maybe even a wild commercial success, but it could never appeal in quite the same way it appeals to a hip audience.  Leaving aside the problem of a sellout (the strains put on innocent and corruptible hip artists, principally rock bands, by the tensions and riches of the outside world), the Lotus' art is part of an interaction with it's community.  No community, no art - or at least not the same art.

Predicting the future has always been an unrewarding business.  I am rather cynical about most of the attempts to capitalize on Hair's success.  Building bridges in art is just as difficult as building bridges in society.  hair's appeal to the straight world - for all the well-crafted mediocrity of much of it's music, for all the ultimately suspect quality of it's political and societal stance, for all it's inevitable entanglements with the old theatrical system - lies in it's freshness and seeming honesty.  Here at last, people must feel, is a show real and natural in a way that Broadway's manipulation-theater may once have been but can be no longer.  What is fascinating about Hair's appeal is it's very character of compromise, it's tenuous position between the hip and the commercial, between the popular and the sophisticated, between nature and artifice.

Most of Hair's imitators will fail because there simply aren't many geniuses in the world.  But what Hair and all the other products - pure and not so pure - of the new theater have done is immeasurably to enrich the range of the possible.

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