By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – Even for a space that has hosted more than its share of outsized spectacles lately, the sight that greeted concertgoers upon entering Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 11 was one for the books. It was a 36-foot-diameter globe that virtually blocked out the rear of the hall, serving as a spherical screen for projections and, through open portals, an elevated stage.
Such are dreams fulfilled – for director Yuval Sharon, who has longed to put on a production of Meredith Monk’s travel opera Atlas ever since he heard it as a student, and for fans of avant-garde theater who despaired of ever seeing a production of the piece again. The Los Angeles Philharmonic tacked this Green Umbrella production onto the end of its blowout centennial season at Disney Hall as a can-you-top-this epilogue to a season full of progressive programming, touting it repeatedly on social media and in their program books. “Staggeringly ambitious,” they modestly called it. Thankfully, the production lived up to the hype and then some.
Atlas is clearly Monk’s magnum opus, following in the footsteps of Philip Glass, Harry Partch, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and other pioneers in upsetting traditional conceptions of what opera is, ultimately opening the gates for the flood of music-theater pieces that have been coming at us in the 21st century. Houston Grand Opera commissioned it and gave the world premiere in 1991, followed by performances at the Walker Center in Minneapolis, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a handful of other spaces.
ECM made a recording of Atlas in 1992, but three sections were deleted from the score, including – crucially – the entire final scene. Monk and producer Manfred Eicher gave aesthetic reasons for the cuts, but I think the deciding factor was that the complete score could not fit comfortably on two CDs.
Yet while Atlas made a splash in new-music circles and the national press, it has been consigned to the drawer since 1992. Even the recording is no longer in print, though it survives on the stream via Apple Music, Amazon, etc. One reason for the lack of revivals is that Monk assumed the roles of composer, director, and performer, working with a handpicked cast in the oral tradition without a fully-written-out score. (I would liken Monk to Duke Ellington, who wrote for the specific personalities in his big band and whose music has been difficult to replicate in all its idiosyncratic color since his passing.) That, plus the reluctance of major organizations to undertake risky avant-garde projects, meant that she couldn’t really pass Atlas on to anyone else. That is, until Sharon’s enthusiasm convinced Monk to put her work in the hands of an outside director for the first time and produce a complete score for this and future productions to use.
Based on the stories of explorer Alexandra David-Néel, Atlas follows the saga of Alexandra as a 13-year-old girl who yearns for travel and leaves her suburban cocoon at 25; picks up travel companions from Norway, China, Italy, and Monserrat; endures adventures and hardships; and finally returns home at age 60, older and spiritually wiser. There are no specific places that Alexandra visits – just general geographical zones like an agricultural community, the Arctic, the forest, the desert, and even outer space. The piece has no text per se except for a handful of sentences here and there. Everything is conveyed through mime, dance, and vocal inflections.
Monk might object to the term “minimalist” to describe her score, but if one has to, that’s the best way to label the processes she puts the music through. A better, if more nebulous, word to summarize much of her music here would be “beautiful.” More than anything, Monk’s music to me is about the sheer joy of singing, of exploiting the voice in a sensual, as well as expressive, way through various pitch-bending and timbre-altering techniques. The joy comes through in this score – in the magical opening scene where Alexandra is drawing maps of the world in chalk on the floor of her room, in the agricultural scene which becomes a celebratory ritual, in the outbreaks of gently amplified contrapuntal singing. Harsher sounds are part of Monk’s sound world as well; in the Hungry Ghost scene, we hear caterwauling that stems from Yoko Ono’s lacerating vocals some 50 years ago.
Monk’s orchestrations are richer and more interesting now; for this version she expanded the instrumentation from 11 to 15 players, adding a double bass, harp, and extra violin and percussion players. Wayne Hankin, Atlas’ original co-orchestrator, conductor, and member of the pit band, returned to sit in with the LA Phil New Music Group on exotic winds like the recorder, the Chinese sheng, and the Middle Eastern double-reed shawm under the smooth direction of LA Phil assistant conductor Paolo Bortolameolli.
From here, Sharon and designer Es Devlin altered Monk’s vision and actually improved upon the original, making it deeper, more absorbing, and more universal in meaning. He fleshed out the story line, amplifying the dehumanizing chaos of your average airport, the value of community in the service of preserving the land, the specter of unchained capitalism contaminating the planet. Partially carrying out architect Frank Gehry’s original wishes, Sharon gave Disney Hall a real “pit” by taking out all of the Orchestra Level 1 seats, leaving enough room to accommodate 15 players who were able to take full advantage of the room’s razor-sharp, resonant acoustics. John Torres’ lighting was appropriately color-coded for each geographic zone, as were the costumes on the various dancers and mimes.
Of the cast of 19 singers – all trained in the specialized Monk manner, all with attractive voices – the obvious focus was on Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, who gorgeously sang the role of Alexandra at ages 25 through 45. Milena Manocchia, who played the 13-year-old Alexandra in her suburban bedroom (a square on the floor whose dimensions were marked out by white light sabers), sang impressively, too.
Most of all, there was that hulking globe that dominated everything and supplied the “Wow!” factor for the whole experience. Attached to its right was a stairway leading Alexandra and her four “explorers” into its interior as a symbol of going out into the world itself. Upon it were stunning projections of the surface of the earth, ocean beds, airplanes streaking around, the moon, and for some unknown reason, a map of Oregon’s Crater Lake.
The most moving image of all came near the end in a long passage during the “Earth as Seen from Above” chorus in Part III where the continents and oceans, now in full color, turned on the earth’s axis ever so slowly. If Sharon’s goal in his final project as LA Phil artist-collaborator was to have his audience contemplate a beautiful planet desperately in need of preservation no matter the cost, that scene made the point without any need for words. And Monk, 76, was on hand to lend her approval during the curtain call.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.