Classical Music: Papering over the cracks

After Nixon and Klinghoffer, it was 'inevitable' that Adams and Sellars should set their latest work during the Los Angeles earthquake. They are still reeling from the after-shock. By David Patrick Stearns
If insanity is defined by denying something that seems to be indisputably before one's face, then the composer John Adams, the director Peter Sellars and the poet June Jordan might be ready for some Thorazine. In creating a hybrid pop/post-minimalist theatre piece about racism and romance amid the 1993 Los Angeles earthquake, they received some of the worst press of their lives. Yet, as they approach their Edinburgh opening and subsequent European tour of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, all three insist they have a hit that will eclipse Adams's highly successful Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

"I've learnt to trust my eyes, ears and own bodily experiences over anything anybody tells me," says the California-based June Jordan. "It's too bad about the reviews, but..."

Such confidence doesn't come from ignoring critics, many of whom found the new piece pretentious, contrived, too politically correct or too self- consciously multicultural. The New York Daily News ran the headline "Our critic was looking at the stage and then he saw dreck".

Adams is at the point where he can almost predict what the reviews will be. "When it gets to the Continent, it'll do very well," he says. "But for the wrong reasons. The imagery of oppression and racism will satisfy a need among European intellectuals to feel superior. It'll get a very rough ride in Great Britain because the critical establishment is very distinctly divided between what they consider to be high-brow and low- brow."

Sellars, too, is also braced for the worst, especially since his Merchant of Venice production was condemned by British critics on its visit to the Barbican's "Everybody's Shakespeare" festival last year. "But when you go somewhere and get responses that extreme," he says, "why not come back and work there some more?"

The collaborators' explanation for the critical flak is simply that the wrong people are writing about Ceiling/Sky. Even those who loved Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer might not like the new piece. For while those earlier works both suggest that the opera house has a future without resorting to Stockhausenesque avant-garde contortions, Ceiling/Sky turns its back on traditional performing resources and isn't nice about it. Disillusioned by the disappearance of his popular stage works after their initial productions, Adams set out to write something so small and lean, it could be performed in a night-club - it even has scenery by graffiti artists.

The cast consists of seven actors who sing (not operatically) with an electrified, keyboard-dominated ensemble that owes more to Philip Glass than to Wagner. There's an illegal emigrant from Central America, a black reformed gangleader victimised by police brutality, an abortion clinic counsellor, a cop who may be a closet homosexual, a Vietnamese attorney, a TV newscaster and a Baptist minister.

At times, Ceiling/Sky could virtually pass for a rock concert. Its clearest antecedent is probably Glass's collaboration with Allen Ginsberg, Hydrogen Jukebox, which is a sort of staged song-cycle - although Adams's music leans more radically in the direction of pop, its usual gentle melodic ostinatos replaced by edgy rhythmic ones. Some of its 25 songs are in fact almost pure pop, with influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Cab Calloway. But most of it falls into something less definable and less structured, accommodating the work's cross-section of humanity in a manner more reminiscent of the Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes collaboration, Street Scene.

The Los Angeles setting was inevitable, says Sellars. "It's the most extreme case. It has that end-of-the-line quality, with floods and fires of Biblical proportions."

None of the situations or characters are as easily typed as they initially appear, however. The ex-gangleader who may be jailed for stealing two beers isn't the usual depressive, angry ghetto creature, but is often ecstatic over life and love. His girlfriend returns to El Salvador in order to take her place in the political process. However brutal the policeman, he's also active in community service in poor neighbourhoods.

"You haven't seen these people before,'' says Jordan. "I teach this kind of literature [at the University of California at Berkeley], so I know it's brand-new.'' So is her highly presentational style - something like a doctor giving a patient a medical report - which not only deals with emotional truths but gives them the context of time and place.

Most misunderstood, though, has been the fact that Ceiling/Sky is primarily a love story. "That's a difficult thing to do these days," says Adams; "people are always expecting something dark and violent. I was surprised at how many reviews glossed over it and focused on its 'political correctness'. That term is a terrible weapon: you dismiss something as 'PC' and that's the end of it."

At the premiere in Berkeley, California, this spring, the younger the audience, the more exuberant the reception. Some even responded to it almost like a sporting event, cheering each plot twist and theatrical flourish. At first, the creators doubted that any revisions were necessary. When they finally accepted that the work wasn't as good as it could be, they confronted the delicate problem of trying to analyse where they'd gone wrong without destroying the piece in the process of improving it.

"Everybody is moving into territory that's unfamiliar," says Sellars - "deliberately. So many dimensions are genuinely experimental. It's very much its own creature and we're just getting to know it. I've never worked harder on anything in my life."

Their two weeks of revisions were, in Adams's words, "not always convivial". Music was shuffled around, new music was written and Jordan wrote some connective words between songs to strengthen the narrative. Sellars re- directed large parts and brought in the choreographer Donald Byrd. All of this happened only a matter of days before the New York opening at Lincoln Center's "Serious Fun" festival, but the 20-something cast didn't complain. "Somebody said that if the cast were more experienced, they'd know how hard it was and refuse to do it," Adams recalls.

The piece still hasn't settled down. Jordan wants to see the cast relax into it and find the humour (of which there is lots). Typically, Sellars won't consider it finished until the end of the world tour in November, and even then doubts if the piece can easily be understood by Americans while their country is going through so much soul-searching about race- related issues such as Affirmative Action.

Either way, Ceiling/Sky will be taped for TV and most likely recorded by Nonesuch near the end of the year. That's when Adams feels the critics might eat crow. For him, the artistic transformation he experienced was a dramatic and almost effortless one that had to do with tapping into all the pop music rattling around in his head. That doesn't mean he's going to start writing songs for Madonna. "Fundamentally, I suppose I'm still a classical composer," he says, "but that term is going to be less and less helpful in the 1990s."

n 'I Was Looking at the Ceiling...' is at the Edinburgh Festival, Mon-Sat 7.30pm Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street. Booking: 0131-225 5756