AROUND TOWN/MUSIC: John Adams’ “Ceiling/Sky” finally makes it to Los Angeles

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article was first published today in the above papers.

I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky
Southern California premiere by Long Beach Opera
Aug. 23, 8 p.m.
John Anson Ford Theatre; 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East; Hollywood
Ticket prices: $60-$125

Ceiling:Sky imageJohn Adams is America’s foremost living composer and, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Creative Chair, certainly looms large on the Southern California classical music scene. So it’s somewhat surprising that two of his major works have yet to be performed locally.

Adams’ Dr. Atomic debuted in 2005 in San Francisco, but the sheer size and scope of the opera will make it difficult to perform anywhere, let alone in Los Angeles. However there are different issues surrounding I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, which will make its Southern California debut courtesy of Long Beach Opera on August 23 at 8 p.m. in the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in the Cahuenga Pass (directly across the Hollywood Freeway from Hollywood Bowl).

Perhaps the biggest problem with “Ceiling/Sky” is “What exactly is it?” Using a libretto by the late poet June Jordan, Adams composed the work following the Northridge earthquake in 1994; the title (a quote from the Los Angeles Times) quotes someone who experienced the quake firsthand.

Even Adams isn’t sure how to describe his musical version of Jordan’s text. The work has variously been called an “earthquake romance,” a “song play” and an “opera-musical theatre hybrid.” Adams compares the spirit of the work — performed by several musical theater singers, accompanied by three keyboards and a rock band formation — to Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The Boston Globe described “Ceiling/Sky” as some of “the most successful crossover music written in our time.”

As Adams relates, “After composing two grand operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, I’d realized that the only truly indigenous form of American musical theater was what we call, for lack of a more precise term, the ‘musical.’ ‘Ceiling/Sky’ is essentially a polyphonic love story in the style of a Shakespeare comedy. The characters, all inner-city young people in their twenties, play out their personal dramas against the backdrop of specific social and political themes.”

For more, hear a 1995 podcast from WQXR in New York City where John Schaefer interviews Adams about his then-new work. LINK

“Ceiling/Sky” premiered in Berkeley in 1995 and later played in New York, Montreal, Helsinki, Paris, Hamburg and Edinburgh — everywhere but in Los Angeles where it is set. “We’re righting a wrong with this performance,” says Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek, who will conduct the Ford Theatre performance.

This marks the second local major Adams premiere for LBO in the past six months; the company presented Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer last March.

(c) Copyright 2014, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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