For years, Rock stars have been putting together "concept" albums, stringing together a number of songs and calling it "opera". So John Adams does the same with I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky.. Wonderful title, taken from an eyewitness to the Northridge earthquake in California in 1989. In theory, a great idea for an opera, in Adams's usual style of mixing fact and fiction, but this comes dangerously close to parody.
Adams' "concept album" uses a rock band, supplemented sometimes with clarinet and saxophone. .It even starts with what is described as a late 1970’s “hit song”. Then there’s a number “á la Stevie Wonder” – Adams’ words, not mine. It’s followed by a Latin American duet and “hard blues rock à la Joe Cocker”. Along the way we visit jazz, funk scat and “lyrical ballad à la Witney Houston”. There’s even a number grandly named “aleatoric improvisation à la Witold Lutoslawski in rock style”. It’s certainly very clever, for it enables Adams to mimic the chosen style and carry it off in a more sophisticated manner.
It’s an adventure in musical gender bending and not bad at all as rock opera – much better indeed than some of the more mock serious offerings. For people who’ve only known rock, this may come over as genius writing, for some of it really is not bad. On the other hand, though, I could not escape the feeling that it was self-consciously pretentious, well intentioned but stupid, like a restaurant serving fashionable takes on traditional dishes. Pie and chips with sushi, perhaps, or fried Mars Bars with cognac dressing..
Adams compared his work to the Brecht and Weill classic, The Threepenny Opera. It’s ostensibly about seven working class people. Adams found June Jordan, the poet and civil rights activist to write the libretto. There is social comment here, for how could there not be when the characters are small-time criminals, illegal immigrants, gays and minorities? At the end, two of the characters stand up nobly for democracy, and the illegal immigrant vows to go back to El Salvador to fight for human rights. As politics, it’s about as analytical and realistic as cornflake packet art.
So guess what, I didn't go to the new production at The Barbican But for anyone who wants a recording I suggest the one on Naxos which is not only dirt cheap but an unusual cast - Germans singing American. This adds a decidely surreal touch, which improves the work immeasurably. The secret of appreciating this work - not one of Adams' best - is not to take it too seriously. The Naxos recording (2004) is by the Young Opera Company Freiburg..
Kimako Xavier Trotman (wonderful name) stands out as Dewain, the hardman convict with a soft side, who wants to become a lawyer and fight for justice. His voice is agile and muscular, easily making the transition from ghetto music to the elevated declarations of hope in the culmination of the opera, when he discovers freedom and love. He is also a Fulbright scholar and Juilliard graduate, who speaks six languages, writes pop songs and lives in Europe. If anyone can convincingly span the gap between popular and “serious” music, it’s someone as genuinely multigenre as he.