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Mars, Music, Mayhem

“War of the Worlds” director Yuval Sharon, composer Annie Gosfield, LA Phil, Disney Hall — 

From the late 1920s until the rise of television in the early 1950s, two relatively new inventions–motion pictures and radio– truly united the United States. By the time of their broadest reach in the 30s and 40s, movies had an immensely popular draw; millions of people went to see them every week. For a quarter, you could enjoy two films, a newsreel, a comedy short and a bag of popcorn.

Radio was an even more visceral unifier and when families owned one they felt connected to a wider world. The airwaves carried free sources of entertainment and information. Everybody listened to FDR’s “fireside chats’, popular music, Joe Louis prizefights and national news. And as rumors of war in Europe grew louder, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre illustrated just how powerful the medium of radio really was.

On Sunday, October 30, 1938, my mother and her parents were relaxing in the living room of our Hollywood home. They were listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy on the popular NBC radio show. Sitting upstairs at his bedroom desk, finishing homework, my teenaged uncle tuned in some innocuous band music and occasional news on the local CBS station.

Thirty minutes later, my petrified uncle ran into the living room shouting “The Martians are landing! There’s spaceships in New Jersey! Turn on the radio!” His parents and sister laughed at him because their radio was on; they just weren’t listening to Orson Welles’ frightening dramatization of H.G. Well’s 1898 science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds”. Despite four station identification breaks during the Halloween week show, the broadcast scared thousands of people and later became the subject of “mass hysteria” studies. Welles, already the most creative force in New York theatre, would soon startle the world with “Citizen Kane”, the first film he directed. But it was the “Martian broadcast” and its attendant publicity that secured his status as one of the twentieth century’s most well-known figures.

There is another clever director on the scene these days, working mainly in the world of opera. His name is Yuval Sharon and he was recently honored with a MacArthur “genius award” of $650,000 –for his body of work thus far and to encourage the continued creation of whatever projects might inspire him. His company, The Industry, is less than a decade old but has already dazzled critics with its experimental productions. Two years ago, Sharon devised the much praised, immensely complicated “Hopscotch”, an opera performed in (and viewed from) 24 limousines traversing Los Angeles streets and freeways.

This November, in collaboration with the women-run public arts organization NOW Art and the L.A. Philharmonic’s New Music Group, Sharon tricked and treated audiences with a post-Halloween extravaganza in and near Disney Hall. He directed a multi-site, multi-dimensional opera with music by Annie Gosfield and a libretto based on the Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast. The result was definitely out of this world.

Composer Gosfield is a New Yorker whose credentials place her at the avant-garde’s forefront. As noted in the Philharmonic’s program, she “works on the boundaries between notated and improvised music, electronic and acoustic sounds, refined timbres and noise”. Her score employs scratchy radio sounds, snippets of period music, the astounding Disney Hall pipe organ, two dozen standard instruments (strings, bassoon, brass, et al), a variety of “sampled” electronic squeaks and buzzes–loud enough at times to shake the seats in the auditorium–loads of percussion and the always ethereal sound of a theremin. Members of the New Music Group were vigorously conducted by L.A.’s resident treasure, Christopher Rountree. And kudos to Jonathan Deans, David Bullard and Jody Eiff, who designed different aspects of the sound, inside and outside the concert hall.

The ostensible reason for this suite-within-an-opera (which visitors from Mars will interrupt) is to hear Gosfield’s homage to Gustav Holst’s famous work, “The Planets”. Like that 1918 composition, her piece contains nine movements, some with exquisite passages for strings or voices while others are modern mixes of “found sounds” and scattered audio effects. Overall, the music was beautiful, dense, sometimes reminiscent of other source material but always interesting. Hearing Gosfield’s complete score “played straight”– without all the starts and stops, spoken dialogue and humorous segments breaking its continuity–would be a desirable and very different experience.

It is difficult to clearly describe Sharon’s “War of the Worlds”. This site-specific opera, primarily performed inside a theatre, was also a radio show broadcast to L.A. citizens through three repurposed, mid-1940s air raid sirens standing a few blocks away from Disney Hall. And It was street theatre, too, with three 15′ tall “Martians”, each operated by four mysterious, silver-costumed dancers, all of this augmented by musicians, singers and actors at each location.

Performers at the remote sites portrayed characters in the radio drama. They included Professor Pierson (Hugo Armstrong),  Mrs. Martinez (mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman) and General Lansing (Hadleigh Adams). Their voices and others were heard inside the theatre although the audience could not see them. James Hayden was on stage and used his superb bass voice as a period crooner, among other guises. Additional voices, including The Topanga Canyon Women’s Choir, emanated from somewhere off-stage.

Like the 1938 radio show, Sharon’s 2017 staging had multiple interruptions of the music at several points–in reaction to ersatz bulletins, phone calls and texts from frightened citizens as well as military announcements, sonic booms and explosions from outside the concert hall. The Welles version was pretty scary, especially when voices heard on the radio were screaming in terror as New Jerseyites were seemingly burned alive by Martian death rays. Yuval Sharon’s iteration was much more tongue-in-cheek and the audience was in on the joke from the beginning.

All of these goings-on were adroitly juggled by actress Sigourney Weaver whose duty as narrator helped to sooth everyone’s Martian-jangled nerves. Her stage skills, ease with comedy and innate charm made her the perfect hostess for the confusing proceedings. “Locals only” references about congested freeways, poor air quality and specific Los Angeles locales guaranteed some laughs, as did a walk-on by the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, mock-pleading for civic calm.

With Disney Hall’s stage partly in shadow, it was sometimes difficult to discern where the sounds of certain instruments and/or voices were coming from. And some audience members, myself included, kept waiting for drop-down screens to give us even a brief glimpse of what was happening outside. Sharon explained his reasons for not doing so in a program note:

“Although the production relies on state-of-the-art sound technology, the experience is focused on a ‘retro’ medium–audio only–to activate ‘the theatre of the imagination’ presented by radio dramas like Orson Welles’ original broadcast. We have purposely resisted a video stream connecting the various sites; no images can corroborate whether what you are hearing is actually happening. Instead, each audience member, put into a disorienting relationship with a series of disembodied voices, is challenged with the same increasingly difficult task we face every day of distinguishing fact from fabrication. ”

There was one remarkable instance when the audience in Disney Hall seemed to “see” something that was outside on the streets. Mrs. Martinez, the Mexican restaurant owner, is an eye-witness to the Martian landing. On the phone, in a panic, she described a creature emerging from a mysterious, smoking cylinder. As she spoke, a spotlight illuminated an upper level of the Disney stage where we saw a frightening figure in a blood-red dress. This female with an icy, skull-like face was “La Sirena”, a representation of the Martians.

The unrecognizable being who portrayed “La Sirena” was the Jerusalem-born, Juilliard-trained, Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann. She is in demand at the world’s greatest orchestras and first choice for many contemporary composers. It was thrilling to hear Plitmann rise from guttural depths and then soar with the highest possible notes a voice can reach. There is a skill that Cathy Berberian (classical/electronica), Yoko Ono (pop), Urszula Dudziak ( jazz vocalizing) and a few others share: the ability to create unearthly sounds with their voices. Hila Plitmann is their worthy successor and she was the best surprise in the reborn “War of the Worlds”.

Yuval Sharon is a young man with a lengthy career ahead of him. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
















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