'I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky': Opera Review

Keith Ian Polakoff
This hybrid of opera, pop and Broadway musical is an ambitious brew of many flavors that doesn't coalesce into any distinctive taste

The 1994 Northridge earthquake is evoked in the Southern California premiere of this little-seen opera by John Adams and the poet June Jordan

Pre-dawn on Jan. 17, 1994, the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, the so-called Northridge earthquake struck Los Angeles with the fastest peak ground velocity ever yet instrumentally recorded. Causing strong shaking as far away as Las Vegas, its 6.7 ferocity was reinforced by a 6.0 aftershock a minute later — and another of equal size 11 minutes after that. This literally cataclysmic event provides the "before and after" scenario for seven emblematic Los Angeles archetypes in a highly artificed collage of musical modes ranging from opera to oratorio to Tin Pan and Schubert Alleys to rock, soul, gospel and R&B.

Inspired by the interview quotation of the title, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, the esteemed poet and essayist, the late June Jordan, approached composer John Adams to work on this project about the quake, actually epicentered not in Northridge but on a previously unknown fault in neighboring Reseda, a working-class immigrant area deemed less suitable for media branding purposes.

After his modern operatic masterpieces, The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China, Adams was keen to attempt the more indigenous form of a potentially popular musical. Jordan’s libretto, written in a concentrated six weeks, invokes much of the political consciousness redolent of the period, which, however dated, remains a woeful reminder of how far we have not in fact come. (At the performance review, an escalating confrontational arrest of a promising young black man for shoplifting a couple of beers stimulated audible shivers not inflicted by the night chill.)

Making its Southern California premiere, the opera was performed in a near-capacity 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheater across from the Hollywood Bowl. Enacting history before an audience familiar with these events as a touchstone of local experience, in a venue where one could in fact look up on a clear enough night actually to see the stars, added a poignant immediacy to the experience.

The often meandering, spasmodic situations are unconnected by either dialogue or through-scoring. But the opera provides occasions for some uneven, though often impressive and intricately tuneful, songs. Adams sought models in Kurt Weill and Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps somewhat defensively, he prefers to characterize the work as a "songspiel," though it partakes of a full panoply of popular American musical genres. Nevertheless, for all his determination to write socially conscious, crowd-pleasing pop, he manifests no affinity for selling out his classical chops.

Almost every ditty, however melodic, even anthemic, reverts to an art-song vocabulary, setting Jordan's alternately arch and lovely poetry with tricky metrical shifts and treacherous vocal lines, underpinned by Adams' own trademark repetitive figures. The title piece, sung by the company to open and close the evening, boasts dense seven-part harmonies, an audience rouser unabashed in its complexity and thoroughly characteristic of the Adams style.

Ceiling/Sky has endured a bumpy life since its 1995 premiere in Berkeley, when it would have seemed ripped from the headlines. Like many attempts to combine classical, stage and pop idioms, the amalgamation of styles tends to please partisans of none of those, and the lack of any palpable dramatic through-line deprives the individual vignettes of urgency and charm.

Reversing the usual disaster-movie order, here the setup of characters (as diversely representative as a World War II movie bomber or submarine crew) proves more intriguing than the impact in the aftermath of the catastrophe. While undeniably ambitious, the scope of the artistic and social issues tackled only highlights the piece's mixed success. (Reception has been more favorable abroad, with a recent Paris revival scheduled to repeat in Rome.)

Prompted by the muted response to that first Peter Sellars-directed production, the Nonesuch recording cut out eight numbers and enlisted such star voices as Audra McDonald, Darius de Haas and Marin MazzieTo its credit, the ever-innovative Long Beach Opera resurrected the uncut work, which runs about 45 minutes longer, adding some real meat as well as inevitably more fat. The well-cast singers handled the musical demands with apparent ease, as well as displaying fine theatrical sense in approaching each song, even as the composition as a whole resists directorial ministration.

Especially impressive were Holly Sedillos as an El Salvadoran refugee with one missing child and another inseparable from her breast; Cedric Berry as her lover, a luckless felon of convincing charisma; and Lindsay Patterson as a Planned Parenthood birth control counselor. The entire conception oddly anticipates the multiple strands of Crash, set in Los Angeles a decade later.

For all its evident insufficiencies as musical drama, Ceiling/Sky still manages to lurch from one individual gem of a passage to another, albeit without the sense of momentum and structural drive that might allow these disparate high points to cohere. Adams became far more adept with many of these ideas in his more recent El Nino or The Gospel According to the Other Mary. However, for all its effortful vicissitudes, this opera maudit, in its striving and failing to please, seems a more humane and less pretentious enterprise.

Cast: Holly Sedillos, Cedric Berry, Lindsay Patterson, Zipporah Peddle, Bernard Holcomb, Andrew Nguyen, Zeffin Quinn Hollis

Composer: John Adams

Libretto: June Jordan

Director & conductor: Andreas Mitisek

Sound designer: Bob Christian

Presented by Long Beach Opera