In 2015, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that the acclaimed young composer and theater director Yuval Sharon would join the orchestra for three years as its “artist-collaborator.” Sharon, perhaps best known in los Angeles for creating the car opera Hopscotch with his company The Industry, has had an eventful run with the Phil. In 2018 he oversaw a production of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” that stood out for the cinematic and multimedia complements to the composer’s work. The year before, he mounted a version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, complete with audience spots inside Walt Disney Concert Hall and outside near various Downtown air raid sirens. The cast included Sigourney Weaver and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
For the final collaboration of the residency, Sharon is reviving an opera that hasn’t been staged in 28 years, and never by anyone except its creator. It also has a dynamic and very large set.
The show is Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts, from the New York City-based composer Meredith Monk. The production opens on Tuesday, June 11, at Disney Hall and the three-show run concludes on June 14.
Based on the life of explorer Alexandra David-Néel, who traveled to Tibet in the 1920s, Monk’s experimental opera debuted in Houston in 1991 and had a subsequent tour the next year. It hasn’t been staged since 1992, in part because Monk elected not to let anyone else try their hand at it.
In a phone conversation last week, Sharon said Atlas symbolizes the type of experimental opera, like works from John Cage and Lou Harrison, that spark his interest. He said he had to build up to it in his residency, and that he couldn’t mount the production early on in the partnership.
“It goes beyond all traditional bounds of opera, including how it is produced,” Sharon said. “I knew putting it together would take a mammoth investment of creativity and ingenuity. I imagined that after three years of working together with the Phil, we’d be in a position to do it.”
Compared to the Houston debut, the Los Angeles production is “like the difference between black and white,” according to Wayne Hankin, who worked on the original and is the music advisor for the new version. The music is mostly the same — a few pieces have been extended — but Sharon’s staging and how they approach the creative process is unique.
The three-act opera features 19 cast members, including a trio of women who portray protagonist Alexandra over different periods of her life. In Sharon’s version, Alexandra’s journey is one of imagination, rather than physical.
Atlas, much like Sharon’s other productions at Disney Hall, is not limited to the stage itself, and takes advantage of parts of the Frank Gehry-designed building beyond the central concert hall. Different spaces will be transformed into the Artic, an agrarian village and the desert. The most striking part of the production is a sphere that measures 36 feet in diameter. This metaphorical world sits on the stage, with cast members singing around it and sometimes on a platform in the middle of it.
Hankin said that the music mixes traditional operatic instruments with Eastern options, including a soprano sheng, a large reed instrument with a series of pipes. Hankin also said this version of Atlas features more percussion than the original, at Monk’s suggestion.
Sharon, who was awarded a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Grant, freely admits that his version of Atlas is unlike Monk’s. It maintains a focus on what he termed the “journey as metaphor,” though he noted that what it means to explore and to travel has changed greatly over three decades. That includes approaching and depicting other cultures in a more sensitive way, while still showing how exploration can expand one’s horizons.
It also means expressing concern for how the modern world is impacting communities.
“In a more profound way, the piece in 1991 was prophetically warning that these landscapes — the Arctic, the desert — that are so based on particular ecologies are all in danger by the destructive impulse of humanity,” Sharon said. “While the opera celebrates the creative faculties of humanity, we are also simultaneously enacting a destruction, and that needs to be somehow reined in.
“That was prophetic in 1991. And now with our current climate crisis, it’s an all-too alarming vision on the horizon.”
Sharon said that those changes are integral to the opera, showing that different artists can adapt Atlas, which was one of his goals going into the production. The other major goal, he said, was continuing to champion works and creators he admires.
Sharon said that thread has been one of the main strands of his residency with the Phil. A related goal, he added, was to bring back what he considers “true American masterpieces” that haven’t had the opportunity to be properly heard.
Atlas runs Tuesday-Friday, June 11-14, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., (323) 850-2000 or laphil.com.