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January 11, 2000

Modern ComposersI Was Looking At the Ceiling And Then I Saw the Sky. Music by John Adams; libretto by June Jordan; vocal direction by Grant Gershon; conducted by John Adams. (Nonesuch, CD # 79473-2) 1998.

The title of this opera by John Adams and June Jordan is a line attributed in a Los Angeles Times article to a survivor of the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. The opera follows a diverse group of Los Angeles residents during the period just before, during, and immediately after the quake. Written while the memory and trauma of the quake were still fresh in the minds of everyone who lived through it, the work was given its premiere performance in Berkeley in May 1995. This recording, with the composer conducting, was made in December 1996.

Some people contend that there are only a handful of basic plots in literature, including opera, one of which concerns the ways people's character is tested and revealed when they are thrown into dangerous and unprecedented situations. This is a theme that Adams has taken up in his previous operas Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China, and returns to in this "song-play," as he prefers to call it. In form, Looking At the Ceiling is closer to other contemporary "song- plays" such as Paul Simon's Capeman than it is to his earlier operas, but the treatment of themes is definitely operatic.

The characters in Looking At the Ceiling are seven young Los Angeles citizens, and the play tells how their lives are intertwined and how they are changed by the 1994 earthquake. The central story involves Dewain, described as "a black reformed gang leader," who is arrested by Mike, "a white cop who is also a community activist" for stealing two bottles of beer from a convenience store. The arrest, largely because it is being filmed by Tiffany, "a white TV crime- as-news reporter," escalates into a nasty confrontation, and Dewain is charged with the felony crime of resisting arrest, which could result in a 45-year prison term under California's "three strikes" law. At the beginning of the second act, Dewain is in jail when the earthquake hits and brings down his cell walls, leaving him looking at the sky. David and Leila, a preacher and a counselor who are also lovers, are in his church when the walls come down, injuring Leila and shocking David into realization of the depth of her love for him. With these and the other characters, the common thread of their quake-induced epiphany is the redemptive power of love, including not only romantic love, but patriotic love of one's nation or community -- a somewhat uncharacteristic 1990s twist on a venerable theme.

Musically, the work shows its ancestry in some of the earlier instrumental works by Adams, especially in the opening sections, but vocally is less "operatic" and somewhat more accessible than the earlier works mentioned above. Instrumentation is sparse and taut, consisting of three keyboards, two woodwinds, guitar, bass, and percussion. It is another indicator of the many directions opera is being taken, this one veering toward -- some would say dangerously close to -- musical theater. It is another intriguing working of current events and contemporary urban culture into musical forms that challenge as well as entertain.

You can hear portions of John Adams' song-play I Was Looking At the Ceiling And Then I Saw the Sky on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, January 13 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

The Harbinger