LOS ANGELES — In their 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds,” Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe proved that simulated news — in that case, an uncannily realistic account of an alien invasion — could make for pulse-quickening, even panic-inducing entertainment.
Almost 80 years later, riffing on reportage still pulls an audience. The “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” rely on familiar formulas. But some of the shock has gone out of the enterprise now that “fake news” has become a cliché. Bringing this once-audacious prank to the stage in 2017 faces a hurdle: how to make the original broadcast once again seem surprising.
At the premiere here on Sunday of an operatic version of “War of the Worlds,” the composer Annie Gosfield and the director Yuval Sharon responded to that challenge with a barrage of playful tricks that sprawled well beyond Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the performance was ostensibly taking place. Produced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Industry (Mr. Sharon’s experimental opera company) and the public art organization Now Art, the production had both chuckle-out-loud moments and haunting ones.
In a speaking role, Sigourney Weaver was a crucial link between the original and this new work. Instead of Orson Welles’s radio announcer, whose between-song commentary is interrupted by a Martian invasion, Ms. Weaver introduced the opera by portraying a lightly fictionalized version of herself — that is, as a marquee Hollywood name, here to lend a classical performance some glamour.
Ms. Weaver’s opening lines promised an evening of planetary-theme odes by Ms. Gosfield. Then, after the aliens appeared, she was called upon to “interrupt” this planned concert, giving the audience regular updates and facilitating question-and-answer sessions with sources outside the hall, where extraterrestrial destruction is taking place.Continue reading the main story
This inside-outside dynamic allowed Mr. Sharon, a recent winner of a MacArthur fellowship and the director of productions that have ranged over a train station and in cars throughout Los Angeles, to indulge his passion for staging operas in multiple locations simultaneously. This time around, as the “traditional” audience listened to vocalists and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Disney Hall, Ms. Weaver’s interlocutors and some other instrumentalists were stashed at three locations across the city, where additional crowds could attend, free of charge. (These exterior sites were chosen from among the locations of this city’s Cold War-era, now-defunct air raid sirens.)
Does this concept sound overstuffed? Initially, at least from inside Disney Hall, it threatened to feel disjointed. There, Ms. Gosfield’s thrilling chamber orchestra writing was, by necessity, often cut off by the need to reintroduce Ms. Weaver’s narrator and her latest bit of news about the alien-induced pandemonium.
Yet the hard-charging first movement, “Mercury,” was more than capable of standing on its own as a sizzling orchestral piece. Its references to vintage big-band jazz were refracted through some piercing harmonies. And the writing for brass instruments often merged seamlessly with buzzing, noisy motifs from the composer’s “sampling keyboard,” a vivid instrument of her own design, similarly prominent in some of her earlier work.
By the narrator’s interruptions during the following movement — a witty modernization of a crooner-and-orchestra number — the transitions came across as forced and a touch repetitive. But this early clunkiness abated as soon as Ms. Gosfield’s music was allowed to merge with the dramatic passages for Ms. Weaver’s narrator and the various “outdoor” characters.
One ideal blend came during the opera’s most memorable aria, sung by the character Mrs. Martinez — a witness to the panic outside the hall. The mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán performed the song at one of the raid siren locations, accompanied by pizzicato bass and a lyrically swooning violin stationed nearby. The music was relayed to the crowd in Disney Hall as Mr. Sharon’s staging there brought a visualization of the alien (dubbed La Sirena in the libretto, and sung by Hila Plitmann) being described by Mrs. Martinez. The collapse of physical distance was simple in design, perhaps, but stunning in execution.
These dizzying shifts in narrative space helped the opera seem like more than just a collection of clever gestures. Mr. Sharon wrote in a program note that “there is no privileged perspective” from which to view the production. But at critical moments, it’s obviously hard for audience members not to wonder about which position confers the best possible view. Those unavoidable considerations, in turn, pull the opera away from the comparatively well-trod “fake news” conceit, and toward a poetic way of exploring how different communities might absorb the same developing news story from different vantages and through different media.Continue reading the main story
Are we together during a crisis, or not? This “War of the Worlds” never becomes overtly didactic on this point, preferring to let the question linger in the air. The opera also seems to hold out hope for a truly communal experience. The finale unites players across the three siren stations and the concert hall for one last mutual gasp — even after audience members in Disney Hall have been told that the building’s titanium cladding has protected them alone from the aliens’ deadly heat ray. (Thanks, Frank Gehry!)
The “inside” crowd had the benefit of experiencing the chest-crushing low frequencies of Disney Hall’s organ, and a brief onstage cameo by Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. But the off-site crowds might have enjoyed a more rollicking, street-fair experience, — while still hearing Ms. Gosfield’s imaginative score clearly. There was plenty of lively crowd-captured video from the siren sites posted on social media. And there were large-scale, puppet-and-dance visualizations of the aliens that the Disney Hall crowd never saw.
“War of the Worlds” plays again, twice, on Nov. 18. An enterprising spirit could sign up for a free seat at a siren location, then pay to see the show directly afterward, inside Disney Hall. The rest of us may have to root for a souped-up recorded edition, perhaps one offering different vantage points.
It would also be ideal to have a distilled suite of Ms. Gosfield’s musical highlights. Even in a production that made a virtue of stalling and redistributing the flow of music, her contributions created a steady sense of momentum, conjuring some of that 1930s excitement, if (thankfully) a bit less mass hysteria.Continue reading the main story