Navigating Meredith Monk

As the DVR recorded the Tony Awards for my daughter, who was working Sunday evening, I was absorbing music theater of a different kind: Meredith Monk’s opera Atlas.

I’m not exactly a Meredith Monk devotee, but Atlas was a nice surprise. Like Einstein on the Beach, it’s built from bright and downright pleasant musical phrases (repeated in groups of four, versus Einstein‘s groups of 40 minutes). But it feels more operatic. Atlas has concrete characters and a storyline, with the action occurring through mostly wordless singing. Sometimes it’s melodic; sometimes it’s vocal swooping, shrieking, half-spoken bird calls — different vocal quirks that emerge based on what the scene and story are calling for. Experimental vocals aren’t always my thing, but I mostly enjoyed Atlas.

The catalyst for listening was a New York Times article about the Los Angeles run for Atlas, happening this week. The performance is special in itself, because this thing ain’t exactly Hamilton. It sounds like Atlas hasn’t re-emerged since debuting in Houston in 1992. But what makes the upcoming show interesting is that Monk isn’t directly involved. Normally, her operas are only partially scripted and involve a lot of intuition in the casting and rehearsals, with Monk overseeing what I suppose is the loose “feel” of the project. This time, all the big decisions are up to Yuval Sharon, with Monk being kept in the loop but not directly involved.

Monk’s process sounds new-agey, but listening the ECM recording of the opera, you can tell where it comes from. There are “normal” melodies and harmonies, and many downright pretty segments filled with “ahhs” and “da-da-da-das.” But some scenes brim with abstract vocal sounds — improvised, not formally scripted, but not chaotic. The right people are playing the right parts, and they’re building a cohesive scene, but it must be largely improvised, and from what I’ve read, I would also guess that the exact sounds are tailored for each performer’s voice. (The operatic precision of the voices really does matter. It elevates the whole project.) This seems like the kind of work that won’t work unless the performers are collectively in the right frame of mind. The L.A. production is apparently the first time the vocal parts were written down; the Houston cast learned their parts by ear. No wonder Monk is normally so closely involved.

Like EinsteinAtlas has a clean, pared-down sound and pleasant, airy tonalities. It’s certainly different and minimalist but doesn’t feel like the kind of avant-garde meant to send the audience screaming to the exits. [Note to self: An opera built from angry yelps and shouting, where the sound of the audience departing loudly in disgust is actually part of the composition…]

Bits of dialogue appear here and there. “Choosing Companions” has travelers introduce themselves to the main character (a female explorer) in plain speech, then reveal character traits in vocal wandering. For one man, it’s kind of a clumsy, meandering “aah,” as if his brain is stalling during a job interview. I hope it’s meant to be a comic moment, because I did laugh. Another character launches into a scripted tune that the heroine joins in on. He must be a better fit.

Some feature operatic tones sung in what might as well have been composed form. “Loss Song” plays like a through-composed piece, a quiet break featuring vocals and harp. It’s pretty and straightforward and would make a nice standalone piece during a college radio show.

I get the feeling that on stage, Atlas uses the singers’ more abstract sounds to convey elements of character, in-the-moment emotion, and setting. There’s some shrieking in the segment titled “Ice Demons,” for example — no big surprise. And the visual aspect probably helps convey a sense of story. Probably. The L.A. production puts some or possibly all of the action inside a massive sphere, with video projections on the outside. Audiences might walk out puzzled, but I do think they will come away with a sense of a story amid all their questions.