Spaced-Out Opera Lifts Off With Martian Help

Narrator Sigourney Weaver (left) and soprano Hila Plitmann (right) as a Martian visitor flank Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, making a surprise appearance as the Mayor, in ‘War of the Worlds.’ (Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)
By Rick Schultz

LOS ANGELES — By turns silly, sophisticated, and just plain fun, Yuval Sharon’s sci-fi opera War of the Worlds premiered Nov. 12 with Christopher Rountree leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group before an enthusiastic audience in a sold-out Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Fast becoming one of the hottest tickets in town, War of the Worlds features the combined attractions of Annie Gosfield’s riveting score, coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s tour-de-force portrayal of a Martian, and actress Sigourney Weaver of the Alien film franchise as narrator. Two additional performances kicking off the Philharmonic’s marathon “Noon to Midnight” new music festival on Nov. 18 are nearly sold out.

Too late to build that wall. Aliens control the streets. (Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging)

Sharon, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow who is artistic director of The Industry, an experimental L.A. opera company, based his libretto on Howard Koch’s 1938 adaptation for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio series of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion of Earth.

Gosfield devised an intriguing score for the radio program that audiences watch in Disney Hall, but the LA Phil New Music Group doesn’t get much continuity trying to perform her original centenary tribute to Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The work’s pulsating rhythms and overall strangeness make us want to hear more. Alas, news flashes of odd happenings reported from three “siren sites” outside Disney Hall continually interrupt the music as Weaver becomes an increasingly unnerved host.

Like Sharon’s 2015 opera Hopscotch, which  kept passengers in a fleet of limousines in thrall to multiple storylines while traveling in and around Los Angeles, War of the Worlds must have created another nightmare scenario in terms of its logistics and tech requirements. There’s a small audience seated at each of the “siren sites” (curious bystanders were also welcome to stand), along with singers, a few instrumentalists, and “alien dancers.” The music and increasingly dire reports of the Martian invasion, spoken and sung, are transmitted into Disney Hall, while the audience at the sites could likewise hear, but not see, the show there.

Hila Plitmann as the Martian, with percussionist Matthew Howard. (Craig T. Mathew)

As Professor Pierson (actor Hugh Armstrong) reports space debris crashing onto the streets of Los Angeles, Weaver tells us to remain calm. We’re safe in the hall; there’s no need to consult our cell phones. And so it goes. We return to the metallic sheen of Gosfield’s score, only to hear from Mrs. Martinez (mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán, full-voiced even when heard remotely) and baritone Hadleigh Adams (clearly having a good time as General Lansing). Adams got a big laugh from the audience as he became hysterical. At one point, the panic in his voice almost sounded like yodeling.

Throughout, Sharon’s libretto (he also directs) is mostly goofy fun, studded with a few surprises along the way. But there’s also a serious side to the production. After all, the day after Welles’ Mercury broadcast, the headline in the New York Daily News read, “FAKE RADIO `WAR’ STIRS TERROR THROUGH U.S.” No wonder Sharon thought Welles’ controversial radio show might still speak to our era of social media and “fake news.”

Death and destruction reign outside Disney Hall. (Greg Grudt)

Though the 65-minute production becomes a bit talky and arch towards the end (mild spoiler alert: the power of music and Disney Hall’s tough exterior ultimately repel the aliens’ heat ray and save humankind), it’s never heavy going. Sharon wisely cut the Mercury Theatre radio broadcast’s long coda where Welles’ character recounts his wanderings amid the wreckage left by the Martians.

But Sharon’s War of the Worlds ultimately soars on the wings of Gosfield’s score and Plitmann’s stunning coloratura.

“The air was full of sound, a deafening and confusing conflict of noises,” Wells wrote in his novel. But except for the arrival of the aliens, a great rumbling that shook Disney Hall, Gosfield’s score is surprisingly eloquent, especially as rendered by Rountree and the LA Phil New Music Group, demonstrating a singular alchemy — her ability to transform noise into something not only highly rhythmic but also, in its way, refined.

To be sure, she uses an arsenal of percussion and a sometimes threatening brass section, anchored by David Rejano’s trombone. For “Earth,” she gave the Disney Hall organ a visceral workout. Static radio noise, which is important to her work generally, acts as sonic transition from concert hall to siren site, where Gosfield deploys 1938-era jammed radio signals. As she notes in the program, these shifting signals and timbres are “like a radio drifting between stations, evoking terrestrial broadcasts mixed with a faraway Martian atmosphere.”

Christopher Rountree conducted. (Craig T. Mathew)

Plitmann, who sings a wordless vocalise as the Martian, appears behind a glass enclosure above the Disney Hall stage with the “La Sirena” Ensemble: Joanne Pearce Martin on theremin, celesta, and sampler, and Matthew Howard on a variety of percussion instruments. Plitmann’s melismas maintained an attractive (she is a siren, after all) and otherworldly melodic contour. At times, using subtle motions of her neck and shoulders, Plitmann’s alien being seemed to be attempting some kind of gestural communication.

Indeed, from my Orchestra East seat in Disney Hall, Plitmann, with her sinister-looking red Mohawk haircut, looked like an alien Travis Bickle. Ornate tattoos also decorated thick grey skin, her body draped in a tight off-the-shoulder red dress. But when she took her bows to roars from the audience, I realized that she was actually wearing a narrow military-like red cap on her bald head. It took a while to get her unnerving appearance and the eerily appealing sound of her disembodied voice out of my mind.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

Outside Disney Hall, Gen. Lansing (Hadleigh Adams), Mrs. Martinez (Suzanna Guzmán), and a lab assistant (Clayton Farris) monitor alarming events. (Greg Grudt)