The Intersection of Poetry and Opera

This past weekend I had to pleasure of experiencing Brown Opera Productions’ first showing of Hydrogen Jukebox. This opera is based off the beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s works, and the title Hydrogen Jukebox is taken from Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl”. All the songs in the opera are just Ginsberg’s poems set to music, yet Ginsberg did not write these poems together in the hopes that they would become an opera. Instead, the composer, Philip Glass, witnessed a reading by Ginsberg and was so inspired by the poet’s work that he felt the need to take some of his favorite Ginsberg’s poems and set them to an opera style of music. This creates for a show that has no distinct narrative, as Ginsberg did not mean to have these poems performed together. Hydrogen Jukebox is instead meant to convey the anxieties of the sixties in America.


Perhaps the idea of combining poetry and opera should not sound that strange. Aren’t lyrics just another form of poetry? Don’t lyrics and poetry both convey universal human emotions? However, poetry and lyrics do differ in structure. Poetry usually has no reoccurring chorus, and a poem’s individual lines differ in length.  Poetry also contains its own rhythm in which some areas are fast and some are slow, a rhythm and pace that is dictated by sentence length and punctuation. While lyrics typically have a more uniform structure that is balanced throughout in order to correspond easily to music, poetry, especially the poetry of the beat generation, does not follow such a limited structure. Due to this key difference between poetry and lyrics, converting poems into opera songs is not an easy feat and can never result in a product that resembles a typical song. Instead, Hydrogen Jukebox contains songs that are more like spoken word set to a strong, repetitive beat.


This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a different structure can sometimes be more effective in conveying a message, as it confuses the audience and demands their attention. However, the power of poetry normally lies in the poet’s choice of words, and the music added to the background of the sung poetry blocked out the majority of Ginsberg’s words. His distinctive phrases and sixties culture references were hidden behind the strong beat and the odd phrasing of the singers. While musical intonation often conveys a mood to the audience, without discernable words the audience still remains separated from the production on stage.  Musical intonation can only go so far in drawing the audience into the emotions the actors are trying to portray.


The most effective poem in this opera was actually the spoken word piece. There was no music that went along with this poem; rather, the actor was left with just his voice to articulate and demonstrate the power of Ginsberg’s poetry. The actor’s clear articulation allowed the audience to understand the meaning behind the poem’s words and to be reminded of what the opera was supposed to be demonstrating: the anxiety of the sixties. This message was often lost behind the stiff choreographed routines, the loud music, and the awkwardly phrased poems turned into songs. It was not in the moments where the music and singers were loudest that the cultural anxiety was best portrayed. This opera was most effective in the quiet moments, in the stripped down performances that allowed the audience to join the actors in entering the world of Ginsberg.