New York

Meredith Monk

Bold and colorful, Meredith Monk’s ATLAS: an opera in three parts celebrates one artist’s esthetic persona and moral value system with a compendium of her signature effects: throaty, trilling vocals; performers making varied shapes on a large landscape of a stage with their flat-footed swaying; a visual narrative carried by an overriding sense of childlike wonder. The opera begins quietly, even modestly, in a domestic setting: a ponytailed teenager at home with her portly father and housewife mother. They perform on a ribbon of a stage bounded by a large wall that will soon be raised to liberate the girl from her confinement. Before it does, however, we see an emblematic white horse projected onto a lowered screen, circling a paddock and poised for flight.

Having established the theme of a personal journey out of adolescence in search of meaning, the character, as she grows older, is portrayed by three different artists with Monk assuming the role in middle-age. The woman and her fellow singer-travellers begin a cross-continental trek, leaving their urban angst at the airport. Monk’s travellers seem to yearn for colonization by the “exotic” cultures they encounter, bedding down with camels and the peoples of the desert, or twirling with elegant, hip-swaying dancers from an enchanted forest.

En route, they gain and lose a few followers. One of the original multicultural tourists, back at his computer in the bowels of the city, succumbs to the lifestyle which, despite his travels, is the only one he can call his own. Indeed, these journeymen and women never really manage to leave New York City. Unlike Peter Brook’s production of the Mahabarata, this work is less evocative of uneasy travel to distant lands than of the walk of that well-known foursome down the Yellow Brick Road: the travelers stand still as moving tableaux of foreign lands pass before them. While Monk wants to decry “the loss of wonder” in contemporary life, this work makes it clear that importing “freshness” or “innocence” from other cultures does little to soothe our suffocating and restless consumerism.

ATLAS’ simple story works primarily as a vehicle for Monk’s eccentric and infectious music. Under the direction of Wayne Hankin, the opera house was awash with richly layered sound, interspersed only with the most minimal of texts. As in the works of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, sound and image are used together to construct Monk’s modern epic: ATLAS is built from the sense of awe, the awakening of desire and longing, produced by the sheer scale of the three-dimensional pictures on stage, and by the physicality of the sounds that so intimately accompany them.

With sound and image the main protagonists, there is little to be said for the “characters” onstage, and typically for Monk, her players form a close-knit community serving the musical needs of her opera. Impassioned and energetic, the clarity of their choral work overrides the excessive length and cloying sweetness that mar some parts of this sentimental journey. Nevertheless, the road traveled here is Monk’s very own. Beginning with works of the ’70s, like EDUCATION OF THE GIRLCHILD, Monk’s autobiographical operas have remained absolutely consistent with her earliest visions. Always at the center of the story are personal and moral evolution amidst changing cultural circumstances. ATLAS continues Monk’s sentimental education, setting the stage for further exploration in the ’90s.

RoseLee Goldberg