John Adams Explains Why His Northridge Earthquake Opera Took 19 Years to Reach L.A.
The cast: Zeffin Quinn Hollis, left, Zipporah Peddle, Lindsay Patterson, Bernard Holcomb, Holly Sedillos, Cedric Berry, Andrew Nguyen
Keith Ian Polakoff
It’s not a musical — there’s no dialogue between the songs.
It’s not a traditional opera — there are no musical transitions from one emotional moment to the next.
Composer John Adams calls I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky a “songplay.” Librettist June Jordan calls it an “earthquake romance.” However their collaboration is pigeonholed, it hasn’t been heard in California since its world premiere in 1995 in Berkeley; the only professional American performance after its original run in Montreal, New York and Europe was in Cleveland 12 years ago.
Ceiling/Sky, as the composer refers to it, follows a diverse array of characters: an African-American womanizing preacher; an African-American sex clinic counselor trying to curb the preacher's playing around; a Salvadoran illegal immigrant; an African-American gangster trying to reform; a Vietnamese-American lawyer who represents the gangster; a white policeman who is disturbed by his erotic feelings for the gangster; and a white woman who's a crime-news reporter and is smitten with the policeman but oblivious to his homosexuality. Their lives intersect, until the Northridge earthquake strikes.
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Considering its subject matter of race relations, immigration and sexual identity, it’s surprising that the work hasn’t been revisited sooner in the United States. The original production was dismissed by American critics; it wasn’t operatic enough for classical critics, while theater critics found it too long and too poetic, and were wary of Adams’ lack of a pop pedigree. Those reviews may have scared away American producers.
“In Europe, people weren’t burdened by those prejudices," Adams says. "They were engaged by the stories about L.A. life, this amazing mix of young people — Asians, Latino, black people — and their struggles within a white-controlled society and police.” Ceiling/Sky has had a healthy life in Europe, with a recent Parisian production scheduled for a revival in Rome.
“Some Americans felt it was preachy and politically correct," Adams adds. "Those matters are still with us, even more now.” On Aug. 9, an unarmed black teenager was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white policeman, resulting in protests and riots. The lead female role in Ceiling/Sky is Consuelo, an illegal refugee from a war-torn Latin American country — another situation seemingly stolen from today’s headlines.
Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic director and the conductor of the production, thinks Ceiling/Sky’s hybrid nature caught people off-guard. He feels the lack of spoken dialogue “zooms in on the emotions, this life-changing event that the earthquake was for these Angelenos. ... It’s amazing that it never has been done here."
The semi-staged production (no sets, but the singers have their parts memorized so they can act) will be at the open-air Ford Amphitheatre. “The backdrop there is a beautiful hill," Mitisek says. Ceiling/Sky "needs that. It’s about this force of nature. And the title, ‘Looking at the sky.' [The Ford] provides an amazing setting for the piece.”
Adams believes the difficulty of his music has discouraged productions. Plenty of actors turned up to the auditions for the premiere, “but when they saw the music, a lot of people just walked out of the room. The music is tricky. There are meter changes, and the harmony is unconventional.”
An important precedent for Adams was Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story. Adams finds it a “fantastic musical amalgamation of Copland, Stravinsky, Puerto Rican mambo, cool jazz, and modern jazz. It all comes together in a wonderful way.”
Adams points out that most standards came from Broadway shows. He had always listened to and loved those songs, and was looking for an opportunity to work in that idiom. Like the music that Kurt Weill composed for Bertolt Brecht’s musical dramas, which put a unique twist on German cabaret music, Adams’ songs for Ceiling/Sky wear the clothes of Broadway’s vernacular, woven from blues, rock, gospel and Latin, but sized to fit Adams’ slower harmonic motion and repetitive melodic style. It’s not likely to be mistaken for Jonathan Larson or Stephen Schwartz, but it’s far more direct and musically accessible than his operatic style.
The texts that Adams set to music in operas such as The Death of Klinghoffer are celebrated for their poetry, but the lyrics June Jordan wrote for Ceiling/Sky are straightforward, capturing informal speech. “I think it’s a quintessentially American form to have [colloquial] music, whether it’s influenced by jazz, rock or pop,” Adams says. “Music with accessible lyrics that are key to contemporary life.”
While Adams has incorporated popular music into his concert works (often controversially), he found writing the 22 songs in Ceiling/Sky hard work. “It called on a different part of my skills," he says. "It took me a year to write that many songs. ... I understand why great pop artists don’t produce an album more than once every two or three years.”
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and I Saw the Sky, with music by John Adams and libretto by June Jordan, will be presented by Long Beach Opera, on Saturday, Aug 23, at 8 p.m., at the Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd. (323) 461-3673, FordTheatres.org.
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