American Opera Classics - Adams: I Was Looking... / Simon

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In 1998, I reviewed the composer-led excerpts from John Adams’s collaboration with poet and activist June Jordon (1936–2002), I was looking at the ceiling and...
In 1998, I reviewed the composer-led excerpts from John Adams’s collaboration with poet and activist June Jordon (1936–2002), I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky. The title is a quote from a survivor of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in southern California. Here we have the whole work. In the earlier review, I assumed what was missing was connecting dialogue, a mistake corrected by one of Fanfare’s many frighteningly alert readers. In fact, the entire work is sung, and here the designation is “song play,” which seems to describe the form quite accurately. The work has much in common with pieces like Brecht-Weill’s Das kleine Mahagony or, more recently, the Rice-Lloyd Webber collaborations, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, in that the songs operate more or less as commentary to the onstage action. Like the Brecht-based Weill works, there is a great deal of implied and explicit social criticism, something that five years into the Bush administration seems much less quaint now. The problems with the work remain. The cardboard characters and their largely clichéd interactions keep everything at arm’s length, something compounded by the tendency of the songs to comment on the action rather than embody it. In addition, for all of its cleverness, Adams’ pastiche score rarely rises to the kind of immediate melodic impact one finds in Weill, Sondheim, or LaChiusa.

The plot, taken from the John Adams Web site, is as follows: in mid-1990s Los Angeles, David, a preacher, sings about his many love affairs and his current girlfriend, Leila. Dewain is arrested by Mike, a homophobic cop, for stealing two bottles of beer while trying to reach his lover, Consuelo, who is afraid that her son has been arrested by the INS. Tiffany videotapes the arrest; she wonders why Mike is not more receptive to her advances. Dewain resists arrest and Mike has him charged with a felony, meaning he could go to jail for 45 years under the “Three Strikes” law. At his trial, David, his lawyer, tries to explain his client’s point of view. After questioning Tiffany, Rick begins to be attracted to her. David visits Dewain in jail, where Dewain tells him he’s decided to go to law school. Leila wonders if David will ever settle down. As act II opens, Leila and David are making out on the couch in David’s office in his church when an earthquake hits. Leila is knocked unconscious. Mike visits Tiffany’s house; she asks him why he hasn’t been more forward, and he has a crisis of sexual identity; Rick suddenly appears, and she asks him out instead. Dewain, in his cell, recounts how the walls split open and he could see the outside, but, realizing that he was better off working inside the system, he did not escape. Consuelo tells him she is going back to El Salvador to fight for political freedom; Dewain decides to stay in Los Angeles. Lying in David’s arms, Leila begins to recover.

At the time of the premiere, Peter Sellars, the original director, offered up the hope that the work would become the play of choice for high schools everywhere. That seems as unlikely now as it did then (should anyone care, the high school musical of choice, once the rights become available, will be William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), in part because of the sexual and sometimes heavy-handed political content as well as the sheer difficulty of the music. For all its flaws, the work gains enormously in stature when heard complete and, to set the show in context, it is a whole lot more interesting musically than Rent or any of the Andrew Lloyd Webber “rock operas.”

The performance is very fine. Darius de Haas, returning from the original cast, as David the preacher and Kimako Xavier Trotman as Dewain, the gang member, are the only Americans in the cast. It would be idle to pretend that anyone could replace Audra McDonald as Consuelo but Martina Mühlpointner is very good. If you listen closely, some of the singers have slight accents, occasionally making their words a fraction less distinct but, frankly, you have to listen for it and it makes no impact at all on the overall success of the enterprise. As before, the work is recorded like the musical that it is rather than in the defined space more commonly associated with classical music. Therefore, a discussion of recording quality is really beside the point. Extensive notes and a detailed synopsis cued to the individual numbers are included, but no text.

FANFARE: John Story

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 18, 2005

  • UPC: 730099690324

  • Catalog Number: 8669003-04

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Period: ""

  • Composer: John Adams

  • Conductor: Klaus Simon

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Band of Holst Sinfonietta, Young Opera Company Freiburg

  • Performer: Darius de Haas, Jeannette Friedrich, Jonas Holst, Kimako Xavier Trotman, Lilith Gardel, Markus Alexander Neisser, Martina Mühlpointner


  1. I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky

    Composer: John Adams

    Ensemble: Band of Holst Sinfonietta, Young Opera Company Freiburg

    Performer: Darius de Haas (Voice), Jeannette Friedrich (Voice), Lilith Gardel (Voice), Jonas Holst (Voice), Martina Mühlpointner (Soprano), Markus Alexander Neisser (Tenor), Kimako Xavier Trotman (Baritone)

    Conductor: Klaus Simon