Story in songs

Edinburgh Festival: I WAS LOOKING AT THE CEILING AND THEN I SAW THE SKY Royal Lyceum Theatre
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The Independent Culture
John Adams is never a predictable composer. Just when one piece and its style have been digested and pigeon-holed, along comes something completely different, to defy classification. His two earlier stageworks, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, defined most powerfully a new form: "docu-opera". His latest offering, already known for short as Ceiling / Sky and given its European premiere at the Edinburgh Festival on Monday, was a complete surprise - something new again.

Described not as an opera, but as a "story in songs", it consists of 22 separate musical numbers, each with its own distinctive title (my favourite is "Song about arresting a Particular Individual"). The piece originated in a collaboration based at the University of California, Berkeley, between the composer John Adams, the poet/librettist June Jordan and the director Peter Sellars, who together set out to produce something for a "younger, broader audience".

The story, an "earthquake/romance", interweaves the lives and loves of the seven protagonists, all young and from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, against the backdrop of a contemporary, strife-torn California. The earthquake, when it hits, is an emotional/psychological as much as a physical upheaval, which leaves each of the characters seeing their life in a different perspective. Against a background of urban desolation and "a quasi-fascist ideology gaining power in the United States", June Jordan chooses to affirm: "First and last this is a work about love."

The initial set-up of the opera, with its seven "representative" characters, its "socio-political" plot and its avowedly popular references, is curiously reminiscent of Tippett's later operas. The big difference is in the music. Whereas Tippett refers to popular styles, with Adams we have a composer of great gifts who has grown up with this music on a daily basis. What he has set out to do in this work is to create a new, direct, accessible form of music-theatre, quoting Gershwin and Bernstein as his models (the American Kurt Weill seemed a closer parallel, to my mind).

The singers use a non-classical, open vocal style, aided by amplification; the accompaniment is by a small, "rock" ensemble (in this case the Finnish group, Avanti!, conducted by Grant Gershon). Songs vary in manner from the amazing gospel number for the young black preacher David (attracting spontaneous audience applause and shouts of "Hallelujah"), through his lover Leila's touching "Alone (Again or at Last)", to an extraordinary trio for the three women (close harmonies with folksy overtones and a touch of the Andrews Sisters) in which a hymn to the male anatomy climaxes in what must be an operatic first - a paean to the penis.

All this and more was performed with 100 per cent commitment by a really impressive line-up of young unknowns, all still in their twenties. The sparse Sellars production featured specially-commissioned artworks from Los Angeles street-artists, set against stark back projections on an otherwise empty stage.

The question is: did the music work in the way Adams intended? Given his quoted admirable contempt for the products of the Lloyd Webbers of this world, I for one very much wanted him to succeed. The problem is that, while being a past master at producing a fascinating kaleidoscope of shifting rhythms, he has not so far been known for producing memorable, rounded tunes - something that must obviously be of the essence in a "story in songs". At times Ceiling / Sky recalls the musicals of Sondheim, who can write a big melody when required; there were some good tunes here, but nothing that could quite count as a "hit". Whether Adams's more abstract approach, employing a sequence of songs without any spoken dialogue, and his rich, vividly scored musical textures, really made up for this, I am not quite sure.

The collaborators' aims are valiant - to make a socially engaged work of art for the theatre with a positive, even idealistic, message for frightening, cynical times. In the words of Whitman, quoted by June Jordan, "Has a work of art helped any human soul?" It's a good question - and one not invariably sensed behind the average contemporary opera premiere. In this case, at least the attempt has been made.

Whether in the end it is a musical that is almost an opera, or an opera that could have been a musical, Ceiling / Sky is vivid, affecting music- theatre that has something to say, and says it straight. The Edinburgh audience loved it, and rose to roar its approval at the final curtain. LH

The earthquake is a godsend for Californian artists, providing a metaphorical and literal image of classical proportions within a totally contemporary setting. June Jordan, Peter Sellars, John Adams and the graffiti artists Axis, Mear and Vyal have seized upon its cataclysmic implications but also its potential transforming powers. Like love, an earthquake brings desolation and regeneration almost simultaneously. The double entendre of the title - a survivor's description of her experience of the quake - evokes the breakthrough from despair to hope and brilliantly encapsulates this duality. Jordan and Sellars's complex, if oddly one-dimensional, tale unfolds along a single through-line narrative, with each new song moving along plot and characterisation almost too neatly. The graffiti- art panels announcing each song-title make Brechtian comparisons inevitable, and it is the work of the seven charismatic performers, more than the words of Jordan's libretto, which makes the characters live rather than just represent.

The emotional pitch is high, however, with many finely expressed moments of very modern tragedy. The Salvadorean illegal immigrant, Consuelo, for example, dreams of a long and happy life with her lover Dawain at the exact moment when he is awaiting the outcome of a trial that could send him down for life, under California's new "three strikes and you're out" rule.

But on other occasions the modernity of the setting turns tragedy into soap-opera, and the contemporary idiom is deflating: a phone call never has the same dramatic impact as the arrival of a messenger. Sellars does not shy away from the everyday in his staging, but stands back, relying on the graffiti artwork, the power of the performers, of the words and of the music to carry the tale. It may leave you half wishing for some of the difficulty and layering of his previous work, but you cannot fault its sleek minimalism and efficiency. CB

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