Sunday, 11 July 2010

John Adams Rock Opera Barbican

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.


lescamil said...

For those who may have trouble looking up this opera, the title is actually "I was looking at the ceiling and I saw the sky".

This is a piece I have been meaning to go back to. When I first heard it (the Nonesuch recording), I was turned off by it and dismissed it as some crossover trash. I was also much younger and immature as a musician and critic. I think that this time, I have a bit more of an open mind, so it should be an interesting experience.

Doundou Tchil said...

Amazing, ten minutes after I posted it, you're commenting ! Thanks ! Musically this is OK, politically it's mush.

Lauri D. Goldenhersh said...

Just a note -- the Northridge earthquake was in 1994. Loma Prieta, in San Francisco, was 1989. But I'm looking forward to the piece!

Anonymous said...

So, you dis the show without bothering to see it at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East? (Not The Barbican, although it's a co-production.)

If you'd have bothered to go, rather than just being snide about it, you might have revised your opinion somewhat. The Naxos recording isn't great or particularly representative; the production I saw at Stratford was completely different: stunning band, raw and powerful performances, superb singing and a great sound generally. At the performance I attended, the audience were on their feet clapping and cheering. And Leon Lopez, who played Dewain, most sincerely kicks Mr. Trotman's unbelievably tight ass. Fulbright & Juilliard, six languages, (not sure about pop songs & living in Europe) are great achievements, but Lopez has music theatre chops that blow Trotman away.

There was a guy at the back of the theatre making a recording when I was there, so maybe something will appear to challenge the Naxos release. I certainly hope so.

Doundou Tchil said...

So you haven't heard the Naxos release (or the others) and you prefer a recording made by some guy at the back of a performance ? That is fine, but don't diss me or others having a different opinion to yours. The whole point about this piece is the way Adams plays around with different genres and styles. So if you know the piece you'd have got the reason a multi dimensional performer like Trotman works. I was talking about the opera itself, not about your friend. If you don't allow other opinions, maybe the performance didn't tell you much about the opera.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you re-read my comment carefully re: the Naxos recording. I've also listened to one other commercial recording and neither of them compare with what I heard in the theatre.

I have no connection with Lopez other than to have appreciated a fine performance. The same with the rest of a superb cast.

And as you didn't see the production, you can have no opinion about it, can you?

Doundou Tchil said...

I didn't comment on the performance you saw, but on the opera. You are welcome to your opinions, and I to mine.

Anonymous said...

Agreed; but I believe that if you had seen the performance, you might have revised your opinion. This is why I say that the Naxos recording - the only complete recording, if I recall correctly - does the piece a disservice. It reminds me very strongly of the Bernstein-conducted recording of West Side Story, with Te Kanawa and Carreras, which may be beautifully sung, but loses any sense of place and period for me. Bernstein's wish to use singers, rather than "dancers who can sing a bit" is understandable, but what this production of Ceiling/Sky achieved was to use superb singers who can also act. From reading other articles about the piece, I gather that it took six months of intensive auditions to find the right voices for the piece.

If anyone associated with the Theatre Royal production reads this, I'd love to know if the recording was being made for commercial release.

Doundou Tchil said...

The whole point of this opera is to mix different music styles together so they contrast with each other. Musically it's more sophisticated than it seems at first, which is to be expected, John Adams is a serious composer. These aren't "really" pop arias. The piece goes down the pan because the pan because the plot and politics are moronic. The opera works better when performed in a non realistic way, so emphasis is on the music. The Germans are a radical experimental group, which suits Adam's basic style, which is about breaking down stereotypes. Trotman's good because in his life, he isn't a stereotype. People like him don't fit neat boxes, they defy pigeonholes. Like this music itself. Fine singing isn't needed, but musically sharp.