In the final Act of Yuval Sharon’s sensitive, breathtakingly beautiful new production of Meredith Monk’s ATLAS – presented three times by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, June 11-14 at Walt Disney Concert Hall – audience members were given the unique opportunity to view planet Earth from outer space.
The entire hall was plunged into darkness, and the vibrant blues, greens, browns, and whites of our planet’s topography were projected onto an imposing sphere. Seemingly suspended mid-air at the center of the hall, the object appeared to rotate on an invisible axis.
Dazzling set design, projections, and lighting only partially transported. The real journey into outer space was a musical one. For two hours we in the audience had been collectively immersed in Monk’s harmonic universe, a hypnotic landscape where empathy, compassion, and kindness radiate like light beams from the sun. Suddenly shrouded in darkness, the 19-voice ensemble that had escorted us on our journey became invisible, its tight, evocative wordless harmonies apparently emanating from the dark expanse of space.
It was a memorable, heartbreaking moment. Given time to contemplate its beauty, age, and precarious state, I felt emotionally pulled toward our planet in a new way.
I’m concerned about the state of our environment. I vote for politicians who support green energy policies. I recycle. But in that moment, my ecological concerns shifted from intellectual to emotional. I was inside a concert hall, but I felt like I was on the precipice of a grand canyon or the shore of a vast sea, moved by nature itself. Such is the power of Monk’s aural panoramas.
Meredith Monk created ATLAS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She conceived, gestated, and birthed an entirely unique, nearly wordless masterpiece of an opera over five years by methodically employing her signature vocal and movement-driven compositional approach at scale. She fashioned vocal lines meditatively, crafting them to match individual voices of members of the original cast, who learned their parts directly from her by rote. In place of a traditional libretto, she communicated plot and emotion through linked physical and vocal gestures.
ATLAS premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1991, with Monk creating and performing the lead role of Alexandra Daniels, a female explorer inspired in part by the life, writings and journeys of Alexandra David-Néel. That production and cast performed in several other cities, but since the early 1990s the work has not been revived.
It was Sharon’s idea to remove ATLAS from the shelf, dust it off, and bring it back to powerful life. He first encountered the opera in a college classroom, and had long dreamed of staging it. This production marks the culmination of years of devoted, loving effort on behalf of the MacArthur “Genius” Award-winning director. That effort included gaining Monk’s personal trust – this would be the first time the work was staged without her directing or performing in it – and generating a workable vocal score from scattered notes left behind from the early ’90s production.
Sharon’s new ATLAS also marks the culmination of his productive three-year tenure as artist in residence at the LA Phil. A fitting grand finale, it proves he is now a master manipulator of the Phil’s many resources, including its warm, flexible hall.
The LA Phil often injects dance, staged drama, sculptural sets, and projections into concerts, sometimes more successfully than others. In this instance, the result was spectacularly effective. Designer Es Devlin’s malleable 36-square-foot sphere looked cool in promo images and rehearsal shots, but in person it inspired awe, dominating Disney Hall’s vineyard-style space and bringing pieces of the opera’s action to eye level for many in the audience. With black curtains draping much of the choral terrace and the floor of the stage also covered in black, the sphere popped visually. LA Phil musicians occupied a makeshift “pit” in front of the stage, created by removing the first several rows of seats from the hall.
Throughout the production, Luke Halls’s endlessly inventive projections enlivened the sphere. Animated “chalk drawings” morphed into a commercial airplane, a hand-sketched globe, and a galloping Pegasus. Covered in realistic gray craters, the object transformed into the pockmarked surface of the moon; glowing hot orange hues, it evoked the sun. Blinking, trippy pixilation gave visual life to frenetic music designed to portray a doomed digital landscape.
A wide center swath of Devlin’s sphere opened and closed throughout the evening. Like a fat equator, this (and a few other smaller asymmetrical “windows”) served as mini-stages, revealing the interior cabin of an airplane or more abstract, metaphysical worlds. A clamshell-style door on the side of the sphere opened to reveal airstairs, allowing the cast to embark and disembark as if the sphere were Air Force One.
Sharon handled this reinvention of ATLAS with great care. Much the way a good Hollywood remake of a classic film does, the production updated the work’s technology, politics, and look, but kept the bones of the original intact.
The opening Act of ATLAS is a simple domestic scene. In the original production it unfolded in a long, sparsely furnished space. Here, a few simple LED light strips laid out in a square on the black floor suggested the outline of a home. (Those same LED strips were later employed as the outline of tubs of imaginary ice water in an Arctic landscape and as visual effect when the ensemble scattered around the hall.)
In Act I, within that simple glowing square, the action, singing and interaction of the characters felt strikingly similar to the original. Milena Manocchia, the young woman who played “Young Alexandra,” infused her character with dreamy, energetic optimism, her unbridled enthusiasm for travel and adventure palpable. Israeli choreographer Danielle Agami provided ensemble members with physical movements that felt like an organic extension of Monk’s original gestures. This small family’s conversations might have been wordless, but through Monk’s expressive melodic statements and Agami’s fluidly linked choreography, we understood both the gist of what they were saying and the why behind it.
The formal outline of ATLAS is that of a traditional hero’s journey—albeit a female hero, focused more on internal, metaphysical battles and community than on external conquest and individuality.
Throughout Alexandra’s journey, and especially in the dramatic second act, Agami’s instinct-driven choreography and Emma Kingsbury’s visually rich costumes brought distant lands to vivid life. Kingsbury’s white-clad ice demons mesmerized, and her Spirit Guides enchanted in black and white kimono-inspired pantsuits. Subtle nods to the original production and its creator appeared in the simple street clothes worn by Alexandra (performed by mezzo-soprano Joanna Lynn-Jacobs) and her fellow travelers, and in Lynn-Jacobs’s long braid.
LA Phil musicians, led by Paolo Bartolameolli and adept in this style, played Monk’s score with buoyancy and sensitivity. Musically, though, the key to this production’s success was its unified, committed cast.
Monk, acting as “artistic advisor,” was heavily involved in the casting process for this production. The ensemble she and Sharon pulled together here achieved the same kind of unified artistic voice of the original, a result of weeks of rehearsals led in part by members of that 1991 cast (“Music Coach” Katie Geissinger and “Music Advisor” Wayne Hankin). Kamala Sankaram sang beautifully, and also added depth to the role of Gwen St. Clair, who in this iteration shared a spark of romantic chemistry with Alexandra. This queering of the story added to its emotional depth, and Lynn-Jacobs and Sankaram acted and sang in beautiful harmony with one another.
It feels awkward to point out one or two cast members from this production, as Monk’s vision is clear: the ensemble is the star. In general, it is easier for one or two people to shine in a performance. It’s harder to rehearse a cast of 19 until they perform as one. Every wild caw, yip, wail, and stutter that Monk demands from this cast was here fully embodied. Because this was achieved, because the cast moved as a unified, cohesive organism, the opera soared.
Sharon’s argument for reviving ATLAS is that it as essential a 20th-century American opera as John Adams’s Nixon in China or Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, works that have reached wide audiences through numerous reincarnations since their premieres.
With this production, he proved his point. Sharon found the elements of this piece that ring particularly true today – the focus on the fragility of our earth and the destructive forces of unbridled capitalism and consumerism – and brought them to the forefront. And he let the opera’s timeless, universal themes rise to the surface as they always have, through the human voice.
Today it sometimes feels like the ’90s are back. In the news: salacious details about a white male president’s sex life and infidelities, a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual harassment, school shootings. And, yes, we are still treating our planet, and often times each other, terribly.
And so it makes sense right now to also bring back a beacon of light and goodness from the ’90s. This is a work of art that feels strikingly of-the-moment, as if it were written as the 21st-century salve instead of 20th-century one. Powerfully feminist and political without making any overt statements, it feels like opera that was written ahead of its time.
In ATLAS and so many of her other staged works, Monk models a society based on sharing, listening, giving, caring, and feeling one’s way towards inner and outer peace and truth. In this real world, choked by pollution and rife with political tension, Monk’s perspective offers hope that a kinder alternative can still prevail.
Catherine Womack is an L.A.-based arts and culture journalist who regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter: @cewomackwrites
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.