WORKS: I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky
PERFORMER: Darius de Haas, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Michael McElroy, Richard Muenz; ensemble/John Adams
CATALOGUE NO: 7559-79473-2
After the success of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, the world’s opera houses were beating a path to John Adams’s door with commissions for new large-scale stage works. Instead he came up with this: I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky is a singspiel for six singers and eight instrumentalists, which was premiered in Los Angeles in 1995 in a production by Peter Sellars and visited Europe immediately afterwards.
June Jordan’s deft and witty text brings together six sharply differentiated young people, rich and poor, WASP, black, and illegal immigrant, at the time of the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994. Their destinies are stealthily entwined, but the earthquake changes everything, as if it were a 20th-century deus ex machina; these resolutions, sweetly rather than cloyingly sentimental, are unexpected yet thoroughly credible, and the musical result is perhaps the most effortlessly approachable of all Adams’s scores: the numbers evoke rock and soul, gospel and cabaret, the sampler-dominated accompaniments have an acerbic rhythmic punch, the melodies, especially the title ensemble, are insidiously catchy. As an example of the utter fluency of Adams’s chameleon art it is perfectly judged.