I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky
by john adams
Libretto by June Jordan
John Adams' genre-defying Songplay in two acts piece is an earthquake romance set around the 1994 northridge earthquake. the libretto, a poignant socal social commentary written by june jordan, follows 7 young, diverse angelenos as they pick up the pieces in the aftermath of total devastation. the work, which adams' likens to kurt weill's, is an opera-musical hybrid a la bernstein and sondheim that brings together blues, gospel, minimalism, funk, and pop. Long Beach Opera will be giving a concert version and Southern California premiere of the work.
About i was looking at the ceiling...
The music consists of 20 songs in the pop mode but with particular Adamsian rhythmic and harmonic twists. For the original production Peter Sellars put the 8-piece amplified band on the stage and asked the singers to act their roles while holding microphones. After the Berkeley run, the second act was substantially revised, several songs added, the band was moved to the pit and the singers given body microphones. The original 1995 production played over fifty performances in Berkeley, Montreal, New York, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Paris and Hamburg. Long Beach Opera will be giving a concert version and Southern California premiere of the work.
a note from composer john adams
“I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky” was a quote from a survivor of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a catastrophe that devastated a large part of the northern Los Angeles area. The librettist June Jordan found this phrase in the Los Angeles Times and offered it to me as the title for what I wanted to be a Broadway-style show. After composing two grand operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, I’d realized that the only truly indigenous form of American musical theater was what we call, for lack of a more precise term, the “musical.” My first appearance onstage as a child was in a small-town production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, with my mother acting the role of Bloody Mary. In my youth I knew all the famous American shows more or less by heart, and my later discovery of West Side Story convinced me that this particular theatrical form could actually attain the level of genuine art. Another American icon, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, also stood as a model although as a theatrical entity it had serious formal problems.
“Ceiling/Sky” is essentially a polyphonic love story in the style of a Shakespeare comedy. The characters, all inner-city young people in their twenties, play out their personal dramas against the backdrop of specific social and political themes that were of importance not only to me but to June Jordan (the late poet and much esteemed essayist on African-American culture) and to the stage director Peter Sellars. They include racial conflict, relations with the police and authority in general, the persecution of immigrants (so large an issue in Southern California), and sexual identity. The Northridge quake, a natural catastrophic event that occurs near the beginning of Act II, acts as a kind of Deus ex Machina that forces inner transformations in the lives of the various characters. For this reason June Jordan gave us the whimsical description of the piece: an “earthquake/romance.”
In this 1995 interview from the WNYC archives, John Adams talks with host John Schaefer about his new opera I Was looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, finished just a week before the interview took place. Adams explores what sets this opera apart from his earlier efforts and how it resembles the form of the American musical. Cast members from the production perform live in-studio.
June Jordan INTERVIEW
I wanted to have a cast representative of the people who live in LA, the people that I teach and work with here at UC Berkeley. I came up with all the characters except for Tiffany, the crime television reporter—she was Peter’s brainstorm. I don’t watch television, so I didn’t know such a thing as crime-as-news existed. I was incredulous when he told me about it. He gave me a list of programs to watch and I was like, “Oh, my God!” And together, Peter and I figured out the Asian-American character, Rick. Actually, I was trying to have everyone in the cast be equal. Read the full interview in BOMB Magazine
about john adams
Composer, conductor and creative thinker John Adams was born and raised in New England. He learned the clarinet from his father and played in marching bands and community orchestras during his formative years. He began composing at age ten and heard his first orchestral pieces performed while still a teenager. After graduating from Harvard, he moved in 1971 to the San Francisco Bay area where he has lived ever since.
Adams’ orchestral scores are among the most frequently performed and influential compositions by an American since the era of Copland and Bernstein. Works such as Shaker Loops, Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine and his Violin Concerto are by now staples of the symphonic repertoire.
Adams’ numerous theatrical works, all done in collaboration with stage director Peter Sellars, include Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic. These operas, with themes drawn from recent American history, have made a significant impact on the course of contemporary opera.
Among his recent works are the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Absolute Jest (for string quartet and orchestra, based on fragments of Beethoven) and the new Saxophone Concerto, written for soloist Tim McAllister.
Adams has received honorary doctorates from Yale and Harvard, as well as from Cambridge University in England and from the Juilliard School. On the Transmigration of Souls, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11, received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
John Adams is a much sought-after conductor, appearing with the world’s major orchestras in programs combining his own works with a wide variety of repertoire ranging from Beethoven and Mozart to Ives, Carter, Zappa, Glass and Ellington. He has been guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the orchestras of Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle, London and Philadelphia. He is currently Creative Chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
John Adams is also a highly esteemed and provocative writer. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and has written for The New Yorker and The London Times. Hallelujah Junction, his much praised volume of memoirs and commentary on American musical life, was named one of “the most notable books of 2008” by the New York Times.
about june jordan
June Jordan (1936 - 2002) was a poet, activist, journalist, essayist and teacher. Prolific and passionate, she was an influential voice who lived and wrote on the frontlines of American poetry, international political vision and human moral witness. The author of many award-winning books, she traveled widely to read her poems and to proclaim a vision of liberation for all people. Dynamic, rebellious, and courageous, June Jordan was, and still is, a lyrical catalyst for change.
Jordan was active in the civil rights, feminist, antiwar and gay and lesbian rights movements, even as she became known as a writer. In 1967, after running poetry workshops for children in Harlem, Jordan began her teaching career at the City College of New York. She taught at Yale University and Sarah Lawrence College, and became a professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she directed The Poetry Center. In 1988, she was appointed professor of African-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she founded the influential poetry program Poetry For the People.
June Jordan was the author of more than twenty-five major works of poetry, fiction and essays, as well as numerous children's books. Jordan wrote the librettos for the operas Bang Bang Uber Alles with music by Adrienne Torf, and I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, with music by John Adams; she wrote lyrics frequently for other musicians, as well as plays and musicals. Her journalism was published widely in magazines and newspapers around the world, and she was a regular columnist for The Progressive. An electrifying speaker, Jordan collected many of her most influential speeches and addresses in her books of essays.
Jordan earned numerous honors and awards, including a 1969-1970 Rockefeller grant for creative writing, a Yaddo residency (1979), a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1982) and the Achievement Award for International Reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists (1984). Jordan also won the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers Award (1995-1998), the Ground Breakers-Dream Makers Award from The Woman's Foundation (1994), the Chancellor's Distinguished Lectureship from the University of California at Berkeley, the PEN Center USA West Freedom to Write Award (1991) and a congressional citation for her outstanding contributions to literature, the progressive movement and the civil rights movement.
In a poor neighborhood of Los Angeles, the lives of seven young characters become entwined when Dewain, a former gang leader, is arrested by a policeman (Mike) for shoplifting two bottles of beer. He had been hurrying home to see his girlfriend Consuelo, an undocumented political refugee from El Salvador who is the mother of his baby. Dewain faces a harsh mandatory sentence if convicted of this petty crime, his third offense. Mike’s arrest of Dewain is captured on videotape for a local TV station program hosted by Tiffany, an anchorwoman. Tiffany is attracted to Mike, but her interest is not reciprocated. Meanwhile, David, a charismatic local preacher, is romancing Leila, a community activist. Rick, the public defender assigned to Dewain’s case, makes an impassioned plea in court for releasing Dewain. An earthquake hits the city, and the crisis causes much soul-searching. David realizes he is truly in love with Leila; Mike acknowledges that he is gay; Tiffany turns her attention toward Rick, who was dazzled by her at the trial; and Consuelo tries to convince Dewain to run away with her to El Salvador, but he decides to stay.
An award winning Bass Baritone whose experience spans Opera, Broadway, The American Song Book, pop, jazz and gospel. He has performed with LA Opera, The Industry, LBO, Savonlinna Opera Festival of Finnland, Banlieurs Bleues Festival of France and the Ravinia Music Festival, to name a few. He has appeared with Pacific Symphony, The Arizona Symphony, The Santa Fe Symphony, The Luckman Jazz orchestra, The Pasadena Pops Orchestra, The California Philharmonic, The LA Phil and The Telemann Chamber Orchestra of Japan. He has also been the recipient of several awards including first place in the Metropolitan Opera Western Region Competition. www.cedricberry.com.
In demand tenor Bernard Holcomb is quickly establishing himself as a promising operatic talent. This season, he makes his début at Opera in the Heights as The Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto and makes a triumphant return to Lyric Opera of Chicago as Robbins in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Recent engagements include his début with Chicago Opera Theatre, appearances with Renée Fleming and Patrick Stewart in Second City’s Guide to the Opera, Alfredo in La traviata (Pine Mountain Festival), Nathanaël in Les contes d’Hoffmann (Chicago Lyric), Rodolfo in La bohéme (Civic Orchestra of Chicago), and Gastone in La traviata (Michigan Opera).
Andrew Nguyen is excited to be making his debut with Long Beach Opera this season. No stranger to performance, he has sung in choruses at venues throughout Southern California and beyond, including the Honda Center, the Nokia Theater, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Verizon Amphitheater. He received his music degree from Cal State Fullerton and has studied with South Coast Repertory teachers Diana Burbano and Greg Ungar. In this upcoming production of John Adams's song play, Andrew makes his move from background to foreground in a challenging display of versatility and fluency in both classical and popular styles.
Lindsay is excited to return to the stage with Long Beach Opera this new season. Most recently, she was an ensemble soloist in LBO's June production of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. She is a resident artist with the Riverside Lyric Opera company where she has played the role Zita in Gianni Schicchi, and the Third Lady in The Magic Flute. She is also a concert soloist having sung the roles of Mary in Resphigi's Laud to the Nativity, alto soloist in Handel's Messiah, and Soprano soloist in Mary E. Caldwell's Of Time and Eternity. Lindsay holds her Masters in Vocal Performance from California Baptist University.
Zipporah Peddle is a dynamic vocalist, arranger, music director, and educator, hailing from the beautiful city of St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. She has a Master of Music degree from UNLV, where she studied under Dr. Tod Fitzpatrick. Favorite credits include Lead Vocalist in O (Cirque du Soleil), Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus (UNLV Opera), Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream (U.N.I. Theater), and two seasons with the Charlottetown Festival. Zipporah has toured with The Nathaniel Dett Chorale and Poperazzi; her voice is featured on iTunes with Vox Indigo and in James Cameron's film, Cirque du Soleil: World's Away.
Soprano–and Santa Monica native–Holly Sedillos holds a BA in music from Dartmouth College, and studied voice at the Royal College of Music in London. On Dec. 7th, Holly will solo in the L.A. Master Chorale’s Messiah singalong at Disney Concert Hall. Holly was last seen as Jasmine in Aladdin at Disney’s CA Adventure. Holly sings for SAG-AFTRA, recently on Despicable Me 2 and Godzilla. Look for her as a soloist on the upcoming Maze of Games soundtrack. Holly studied at Groundlings, the Baron/Brown acting studio, and currently takes voice from Jim Uselman and Renee Sousa. She is honored to be making her LBO soloist debut.
Since 2003, Mitisek has been LBO's Artistic & General Director. Recent LBO directing credits: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, King Gesar, Macbeth, Tell-Tale Heart, Van Gogh, The Paper Nautilus, Ainadamar, and Maria de Buenos Aires. Recent LBO conducting credits: The Death of Klinghoffer, Camelia la Tejana - Only the Truth, The Fall of the House of Usher (co-production with COT), The Breasts of Tiresias, Tears of a Knife and Moscow, Cherry Town. Other conducting credits: Joruri in Tokyo, Don Giovanni (Seattle Opera), Madama Butterfly (Orlando Opera), Jane Eyre (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) and Eugene Onegin (Teatro Municipal in Santiago de Chile). Mitisek has also conducted the Austrian and Italian premieres of Nixon in China. In 2012, Andreas joined Chicago Opera Theater as General Director.