Meredith Monk writes, “I have always believed that opera… can perfectly reflect the perceptual richness and complexity of our lives.” It would be hard to conjure up a more exemplary combination of forces to see this in action: Monk, with her multi-sensory composition; director Yuval Sharon, completing his third year in residence at the LA Phil with a remarkable string of accomplishments; set designer Es Devlin, who has reimagined pop concerts and opera stages; and Walt Disney Concert Hall itself, a venue with seemingly endless possibilities in sound. It was a potent enough combination to draw a buzzing crowd for a new production of ATLAS, a groundbreaking work by Monk that is being undertaken for the first time by someone other than the composer herself. The results were unforgettable.

<i>ATLAS</i> © Mathew Imaging
ATLAS
© Mathew Imaging

The most obvious aspect of the production is the giant sphere that sits in the middle of the stage and takes up an astonishing amount of room. It is, at different times, a globe, an eye, planets, stars and much more, thanks to the projection design of Luke Halls. Constantly appearing in motion, being entered into through a retractable stairway, opening portals for singers, it is a spectacular achievement. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was built for the hall and, with the orchestra pushed out to the removed seating, the hall seemed built for the sphere.

With the sphere as the focal point, Sharon focuses his vision of ATLAS on the planet Earth itself, more specifically on our relationship with the planet in the midst of the climate crisis. Sharon states his “new vision is not offered as a contradiction or correction to the original but as an affirmation of it…” Indeed, this ATLAS is undoubtedly Monk’s, from the holistic performances by the outstanding cast to the choreography, here executed by Danielle Agami, and the timeless costume designs of Emma Kingsbury. Sharon succeeds at bringing it all to fruition in a manner that celebrates Monk’s vision.

<i>ATLAS</i> © Mathew Imaging
ATLAS
© Mathew Imaging

The music is mesmerizing. Drawing on a multitude of genres and techniques, it is almost always enticing; sung almost entirely without words, it is expressive and poignant. While the opera’s plot is a story about Alexandra (loosely based on the life of explorer Alexandra David-Neel), the journey is the means to discovery, not of locations, but universal truths. However Alexandra doesn’t embark on this journey alone.

Where Monk’s piece achieves transcendence is in the exploration of the human relationships. The plaintive sounds of Monk’s repetitive vocal melismas when young Alexandra’s parents let go of her to her “Future Quest” are deeply moving. How could one not recall other operatic farewells, particularly Wotan’s Abschied? Likewise, the infectious, interlocking vocal lines of “Choosing Companions” are so compelling that the music, choreography and performance combined is as stirring as a Verdi oath duet.

Along the way, the explorers encounter far off lands, and endure challenges. John Torres’ lighting was an essential part of Sharon’s team in making this come to life. At the center of the fantastical are the explorers’ responses to them. When the fifth explorer, the subpar Erik, succumbs to the forces of greed, he is lost from the group, physically separated by the sphere (with terrifying strobe effects) and it is here where Sharon’s vision falters. The physical separation leaves no hope of redemption for Erik. In Sharon’s vision, the explorers are thwarted from saving Erik by the destruction of the planet rather than from Erik’s yielding to temptation despite the desperate efforts of Alexandra.

<i>ATLAS</i> © Mathew Imaging
ATLAS
© Mathew Imaging

This fork in the road informs Sharon’s conclusion that focuses less on the explorers going their separate ways, their inevitable and moving goodbyes, but on the sphere. It seems an unsatisfying detour. When Alexandra returns to earth she isn’t confronted with her younger selves. She returns savoring her treasures, not the earth itself. It is an incongruous finish, yet one that is delivered with musical aplomb.

The cast was an impressive assembly of singers and actors. Milena Manocchia and Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as the two younger Alexandras were remarkable vocally and theatrically. Yi Li was another standout as the endearing traveller Cheng, but the amount of vocal and musical prowess required by this piece was fulfilled in spades by every member of the cast. The LA Phil New Music Group played deftly and were confidently lead by Paolo Bortolameolli.

At over three hours, it was a true odyssey, certainly one that lived up to the expectations after nearly 30 years of waiting for a new production. While it should not take another 30 years to see such a creation again, those of us worried about the state of affairs and the planet should celebrate the piece and heed its messages while we can.

****1