In 1938, the Atlantic Ocean was active and angry. It churned up nine major storms that year, hurtling them toward North America with relentless, deadly force. Hurricane season 1938 climaxed on Sept. 21 when the Great New England Hurricane made landfall in Long Island as a Category 3 storm, killing more than 680 people and obliterating some 57,000 homes.
That same year, on the other side of the globe, Japan and China were entangled in an accelerating war. In Germany, Hitler named himself Supreme Commander of his country’s armed forces and set in motion a foreign policy aimed at attack and domination. Across the world, fascism was rearing its ugly, threatening head.
In America, all of this grim news was delivered in real time via news bulletins on the radio. Still a relatively new form of media, radios were popular as a source of both news and entertainment. People tuned in for concerts and their favorite serial dramas or comedy shows. And when those shows were interrupted by breaking news, the entire country experienced those events together. No more reading about yesterday’s news in today’s paper on your own time. On the radio, the news was immediate, dramatic and part of a collective, simultaneous experience.
On Oct. 30, 1938, 23-year-old actor-writer-producer Orson Welles took advantage of this new medium to dramatic effect. For a special Halloween episode of his weekly radio drama The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Welles and his fellow castmates put on a dramatic fictional newscast set on Oct. 30, 1939, in which they reported, “live,” on an invasion of Earth by Martian aliens.
The War of the Worlds, Welles’ retelling of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, was convincing. Too convincing. People who tuned in late or missed the intro explanation were terrified. A strange bullet-shaped object had landed in a field in New Jersey. Cow-sized alien beings were crawling out of it. A cloud of black smoke was choking and killing thousands. America was under attack. And just like that, fake news was born.
Welles did such a good job of re-creating the sound of a live news broadcast that he inadvertently caused a panic. Even people who didn’t believe that there was an alien invasion thought that something was wrong, that the country was under an attack of some sort.
“It was very similar to today in that people were getting crazy weird news bulletins every day,” composer Annie Gosfield says. “There had just been that awful hurricane, and the threat of World War II beginning, people were on edge.”
Gosfield is the composer of War of the Worlds, a new opera adapted from Welles’ radio broadcast. Her piece will receive its world premiere at Disney Concert Hall and various sites around downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 12. The outdoor sites are positioned near Cold War–era air raid sirens that have been retrofitted to transmit live from Disney Hall (music performed on the street also will be transmitted back into the hall). Audiences can get tickets to watch the performance from inside the hall, or reserve a spot at one of the siren sites. Or, if they happen to be walking down the street, they can encounter this musical alien invasion fortuitously.
“We definitely don’t want to cause an actual panic,” says director Yuval Sharon. “But we do want there to be an element of surprise. I’m OK with mild consternation. I actually really want to try and pull the rug out from under the audience with this piece.”
Over lunch a few weeks before the premiere, Gosfield and Sharon are brimming with excitement. They are keeping a lot of the details of the project under wraps until the premiere, but their shared enthusiasm for what is about to take place isn’t containable.
The details they are willing to share are enticing: Sigourney Weaver is narrating the show from inside Disney Hall. Her voice will be heard reporting on the alien invasion over the siren speakers downtown. A small ensemble will evoke the unearthly sounds of Martian invaders (which also will be transmitted live into the streets), and a vocal ensemble will re-create the sounds of air raid sirens, although not too closely. “We got a directive to not use an actual siren sound,” Gosfield explains, “because that could actually panic people.”
It’s hard to think of a better pair to produce a modern-day War of the Worlds than Gosfield and Sharon.
A 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and current artist in residence at the L.A. Phil, Sharon is the founder and artistic director of the Industry, an experimental opera company known for its innovative productions outside traditional concert hall settings. At the Industry, Sharon has put on an opera at L.A.’s historic Union Station (transmitted live to audiences wandering freely around the station with headphones) and produced the world’s first mobile opera, Hopscotch, which took place in limousines and on motorcycles and rooftops around L.A. He is a quick-talking idea machine whose energy and enthusiasm seem boundless. His creative, prolific brain is in high demand. And he is generous with it.
Sharon got the idea for War of the Worlds a couple years ago when Tanner Blackman, then the planning director for District 14 Councilmember José Huizar, told him about the city’s defunct Cold War–era air raid sirens. There are some 200 of them scattered around the city. “Once you learn about this project, you start to see them everywhere,” Sharon notes.
Always looking for a way to bring opera out into the streets, Sharon latched on to the idea of transmitting music from Disney Hall via the sirens. Thinking about the speakers led him to consider podcast and radio dramas, which inevitably led him to Orson Welles.
When it came to choosing a composer for the piece, Sharon says Gosfield was an obvious choice. A seasoned, acclaimed composer of music that fuses acoustic and electronic sounds, Gosfield’s compositions often incorporate her research into jammed radio signals and industrial noises. When she lived in L.A. in the 1980s (she used to play keyboard in a band that had regular gigs at the Hong Kong Cafe in Chinatown), she was fascinated by the old air raid sirens she saw around town. She reveled in the opportunity this project provided to learn more about them.
Gosfield, who has lived in the same apartment in New York since the 1990s, has a dry sense of humor and a no-nonsense demeanor, but she lights up when she talks about the technology involved in this project: “The air raid siren isn’t a speaker at all. It’s electric. But it’s only electric to make it spin. There are reeds inside that spin at different speeds, which is why you hear the pitch go up and then go down. One of the trips I made here we got to go to where they were refurbishing them and see the inside of the speakers. The spinning mechanism was removed, and replaced with these incredibly high-quality speakers.”
War of the Worlds is Gosfield’s first opera. “And what a place to start,” she says with a calm smile.
“I think this project is really special,” she continues. “There was so much freedom and incredible artistic collaboration. Basically I did not leave my apartment once I got the libretto. There was no writer’s block with this piece. It was like going feral. Thankfully I have an incredibly supportive partner who made sure I got fed.”
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Sharon points out that all the long hours of composing and the work that went into tackling the technological puzzles of this piece won’t be visible during the performance. In the end the focus won’t be on the innovative, amorphous, unusual form of this opera but on its story and the timeliness of its themes.
Here we are again, months after catastrophic hurricanes and bogged down by a daily onslaught of stressful news from around the world. There are days when it all seems ready to boil over, when we don’t feel safe and when we are on edge. What will it feel like to hear Sigourney Weaver’s voice reporting “live” on a modern-day alien invasion? Will we panic? Have we learned to be more critical of the news we consume, whether it comes through radio waves or across social media platforms?
We’ll find all that out on Nov. 12 (and again on Nov. 18, when there will be a pair of repeat performances). Unless, that is, the aliens really do come this time.
War of the Worlds, Walt Disney Concert Hall (and other undisclosed locations in downtown L.A.),111 S. Grand Ave., downtown; Sun., Nov. 12, 2 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 18, noon & 2 p.m.; free-$58. (323) 850-2000, laphil.com.