Sunday, November 19, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Architecture Saves the Day" (on Annie Gosfield and Yuval Sharon's opera War of the Worlds)

by Douglas Messerli

Annie Gosfield (composer), Yuval Sharon (adaption and director), War of the Worlds, conducted by Christopher Roundtree (conductor) / the performance Howard Fox and I attended was the matinee  at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 18

As a 7-year-old child, my husband Howard walked the few blocks from his Margate, Atlantic City house to the local movie theater to watch the film, War of the Worlds. Suddenly he found himself in the midst of a fantasy that utterly terrified him, and hid himself (in the 1950s school-taught procedure of “duck and cover”) under the theater seat in horror of what he was seeing on the screen. On the way back home he actually “saw,” so he believed a Martian in the neighbor’s back yard, and for weeks after had horrifying dreams.

      Yesterday’s matinee performance of the opera at the Walt Disney Concert Hall of War of the Worlds, with music by Annie Gossfield, and directed by Yuval Sharon was neither that scary nor even eerie, except for its occasional strains of Joanne Pearce Martin’s Theremin playing.
      Introduced by actress Sigourney Weaver, the small orchestral ensemble begins almost as a riff on Gustav Holst’s The Planets, with what even the program suggests is a “sweet piece” subtitled “Mercury,” to be interrupted midway by Weaver’s return to report to the audience some “breaking news”: “It seems that several unexplained explosions were observed in the sky over Los Angeles.” “Don’t panic,” she adds, “it doesn’t appear to be a terrorist attack, but scientists are describing it as explosions of incandescent gas originating from the planet Mars….”
      The performance of “Mercury” completed, the orchestra moves on to “Venus,” until suddenly there is a heavy rumbling overhead, followed with another Weaver interruption and a piped-in interview with a Professor Pierson giving first hand evidence of the “invasion” from across the street at the Tinkertoy Parking Lot (there were at least two other locations around town, centered about spots in which the director and composer had found pre-existing city sirens, which were brought back to life and took the concert-hall music to the streets).
      The professor describes that the rumbling sound that we had just heard has emanated from the object before him, which may have something to do with the previously noted activity on Mars.
      After the conversation, Weaver again leaves the stage, and the orchestra continues with “Venus,” until it is again interrupted—although continuing quietly in the background—this time for a another on-the-street report with Dr. Melissa Morse, KCRW’s head meteorologist, who interviews a Spanish speaking citizen named Mrs. Martinez, who has evidently witnessed the crash of another of the Martian spacecrafts.
Image result for War of the Worlds opera review
      More rumbles occur, as the orchestra continues with “Earth,” as well as more interruptions, this time from a General Lansing and, soon after, a message from the Secretary of the Interior, who not only reports that several of Martian crafts have been discovered around Los Angeles, but have also begun appearing in other states such as “Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania” (to which the concert audience heartily laughed, recognizing that these were the very states that helped Trump win the election). Bells begin ringing, and Pierson reports that the streets “are all jammed” (which indeed, at least on Bunker Hill, they had been pre-performance, forcing us to park in the very same Tinkertoy Parking Lot from which he was evidently broadcasting). Even Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti cannot do anything to save the city. And only the titanium cover in which Frank Gehry wrapped the theater in which we sat, saved those of us within. It appears that in this version of H. G. Wells’ fable, architecture, not oxygen, has saved the day.  
       Throughout these interchanges, a bit higher up from where the orchestra is playing behind an inexplicably Plexiglas-covered box, a Martian-like creature (the stunning Hila Plitmann), who sings in an incomprehensible language at the very highest ranges of her soprano voice while dressed in a bright-red cocktail gown. Her ability to draw in the words into a marvelous mumble-jumble of sounds, reminded me some of the performance I had seen the previous night sung by Joanna Dudley in William Kentridge’s opera, Refuse the Hour; and this opera, as well, is very much about time and space.
Image result for War of the Worlds opera       Yuvall argued that what he and Gosfield were attempting to do in adapting the original Orson Welles radio production of War of the Worlds was to bring up the issues of fake and real news—a notable project for our very confusing times, when it appears an American election might have been decided by the willingness of numerous na├»ve US citizens to believe Russian propaganda and outright campaign lies.
     Yet, it would be hard to imagine that anyone, at least sitting in the large audience at the Walt Disney Hall, was convinced by the so-called “hoax.” As a presumably polite and informed company of Los Angeles citizens, we could sit back and enjoy the ploys of the fiction. And this, in turn, took away much of the serious drama of both the original broadcast—during which hundreds of people did, in fact, panic, and run into the streets—and the film which terrorized the boyhood of my companion. This time around, War of the Worlds seemed more comic than terrifying, and the sci-fi fictional quality of the original was almost meaningless.
      But, one does have to admit, as a contemporary opera it is still a “blast” into a time and space to the where audience obviously was quite pleased to have traveled.

Los Angeles, November 19, 2017
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2017).

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