John Adams’s I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
Libretto by June Jordan
David Gregson interviews Long Beach Opera’s Andreas Mitisek
An interview by David Gregson.
Love, war, religion and even politics are common subjects for opera, but one would be hard pressed to think of any works inspired by a natural disaster. Such pieces would make up a very short category on Jeopardy.
“What is John Adams’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky”? might be the “question” to one of the Jeopardy “answers,” only “Ceiling/Sky” isn’t really an opera at all. It’s more of a … what? A song cycle? A song-play? A Broadway show? A pop/rock record album? In fact, it’s such a hybrid work that many people, including quite a few critics, do not quite know what to make of it at all.
The Jeopardy “answer” would be “A genre-defying musical piece based on the 1994 Northridge earthquake.” With a libretto by June Jordan and music by John Adams.
In any case, for Andreas Mitisek, the inspired and inspiring artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera, it’s just the sort of thing the company likes to do. A full staging might be nice, but for one night only — Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 8pm — we will be able to hear a live LBO concert version of the work in the Ford Amphitheater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, CA 90068. It will run nearly two hours with one intermission. Mitisek himself with conduct.
In an email interview, I asked Mitisek how the idea to perform “Ceiling/Sky” came about?
“We received an invitation from the Ford to be part of a collaboration with the Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series,” he said. “I immediately thought of John Adams’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. It’s a relevant, creative work, the kind of piece LBO loves to perform. And the timing was right. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Northridge earthquake and this amazing work has never been performed in Los Angeles. It was composed in 1995; however, the issues [in the text by June Jordan] reverberate in today’s headlines — racial profiling, immigration, birth control, gang violence. The country and Congress are still conflicted over these issues and they remain unresolved, none of them overcome.”
There is no spoken text. “It’s a song-play following seven diverse young Angelenos coming from different social and economic backgrounds, all of whom experience the Northridge earthquake,” said Mitisek. “In the songs, we learn of their dreams for the future, their families and relationships, and we see how the physical earthquake causes emotional quakes which change their lives forever.”
Those familiar with the original recording will find the instrumentation has not been changed for the August 23 performance. “It’s scored for a rock-style band, not an orchestra,” said Mitisek. “Clarinet, alto sax, keyboard, bass, drum, and electric guitar,” — and even though it’s a so-called concert performance, “the LBO won’t have singers just standing or sitting in a line and singing one by one as is done in some concert performances. The Ford Amphitheater is a great open setting for this piece, surrounded by nature — rocks, trees and the sky above as the ceiling.” As for the music — “Open your ears and leave your preconceptions at home. It’s definitely a unique blend of styles – rock, jazz, pop, Broadway, minimalism. Adams compares it to The Threepenny Opera.”
When I first interviewed John Adams some years ago for San Diego Magazine, “Ceiling/Sky” was one of the first things we talked about. I told him I liked it. Adams seemed surprised and delighted. Even today it remains one of his under-appreciated children. Mitisek said he agreed it is a neglected work, especially in the US. “It’s been performed more in Europe,” he said. “It’s time to revisit this work and explore its relevance today.”
Adams’s many important works reflect social concerns. “Every Adams piece reflects contemporary life and is connected to the issues of our time,” says Mitisek. Think Doctor Atomic, The Death of Klinghoffer, Nixon in China, and The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
For more information about this and everything LBO, please visit their website.
Sat. Aug 23, 2014 @ 8pm
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East
Run time: 110 minutes, 1 intermission
Sung in English
Dewain: Cedric Berry
David: Bernard Holcomb
Mike: Zeffin Quinn Hollis
Rick: Andrew Nguyen
Leila: Lindsay Patterson
Tiffany: Zipporah Peddle
Consuelo: Holly Sedillos
Conductor, Stage Director: Andreas Mitisek