Southern California Premiere Features libretto by bisexual poet, June Jordan

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An earthquake romance.  A genre-defying song play. With a score by leading contemporary composer John Adams and a libretto by the late poet June Jordan, I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky was written as an homage to the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Taking its title from a quote from someone who experienced the ’94 quake firsthand, Ceiling/ Sky is an opera-musical theater hybrid that mixes pop, jazz, gospel, blues and funk, all underpinned by Adams’ minimalist musical voice.

Rich with the sounds and rhythms of American urban life, this “song play” uses the Northridge quake as a starting point to explore issues of race, gender and immigration among young Angelenos. Adams himself compares the spirit of the work, performed by musical theater singers and accompanied by three keyboards and a rock band formation, to Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The Boston Globe has described it as some of “the most successful crossover music written in our time.”

“Music is an art form about feeling,” Adams said in an interview. “I think we tend to forget that, particularly in the era of modernism where music has become very much a kind of intellectual activity.”

The libretto by the late poet, June Jordan is an integral part of this.

Born in Harlem, New York, June Jordan (1936 – 2002) was an openly bisexual poet, activist, journalist, essayist and teacher. Jordan was born the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents. In her book Civil Wars, she wrote: “No one ever presented me with a single Black author, poet, historian, personage, or idea for that matter. Nor was I ever assigned a single woman to study as a thinker, or writer, or poet, or life force. Nothing that I learned, here, lessened my feeling of pain or confusion and bitterness as related to my origins: my street, my family, my friends. Nothing showed me how I might try to alter the political and economic realities underlying our Black condition in white America.”

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. Jordan self identified as bisexual in her writing and came to be known as “The poet of the people.”

Ceiling/Sky premiered in Berkeley, CA in 1995, then went on to tour extensively throughout the world. It was seen in Montreal, New York, Helsinki, Paris, Hamburg and Edinburgh — but never in Los Angeles where the action is set. The first cast recording was released on Nonesuch Records in 1998 and featured performances by Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Darius De Haas. 

It has been twenty years since the Northridge earthquake shook California. The Los Angeles County Arts Commission is presenting the Southern California premiere, performed by Long Beach Opera.  LBO artistic director Andreas Mitisek conducts a concert staging at the Ford Amphitheatre on Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. as part of the Ford’s Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series.

The LBO cast at the Ford will include Cedric Berry as Dewain, a reformed gang leader; Bernard Holcomb as David, a Baptist minister; Zeffin Quinn Hollis as Mike, a cop who is also a community activist; Andrew Nguyen as Rick, a Vietnamese-American Legal Aid defense attorney; Lindsay Patterson as Leila, an African-American graduate student working as a family planning counselor in an abortion clinic; Zipporah Peddle as Tiffany, a TV crime-as-news reporter; and Holly Sedillos as Consuela, an undocumented immigrant mother of two from El Salvador.

Composer, conductor and creative thinker, John Adams occupies a unique position in the world of American music. His works, both operatic and symphonic, stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, brilliance of sound and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes. Adams’ music has played a decisive role in turning the tide of contemporary musical aesthetics away from academic modernism and toward a more expansive, expressive language.

Long Beach Opera, well known for its world, American and West Coast premieres of new and rare operas, is dedicated to the advancement of the frontiers of opera, in repertoire and in production style. LBO’s artistic vision is to present unconventional works — repertoire which is neglected by other, more mainstream opera companies, ranging from the very beginnings of opera to modern and avant-garde works, emphasizing their theatrical and musical relevance to our time.

This summer marks the Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series’ second season celebrating Los Angeles as a destination for world-class artists who find here both collaboration with, and inspiration from, celebrated local artists. The series is presented by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission with support provided by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and all proceeds benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation.
 
The 1,200 – seat Ford Theatres creates an intimate concert experience that is a favorite among Angelenos. Each summer, the Ford hosts a diverse roster of events representing music and dance styles reflective of the communities that comprise Los Angeles County.

I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky takes place on Saturday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m.  A $5 discount is available with advance purchase by Aug. 16. For more information and to purchase tickets go to FordTheatres.org or call (323) 461-3673 (323 GO 1-FORD).

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About Author

Denise Penn

Denise Penn is a Southern California-based journalist who has covered issues for the LGBT and HIV-affected community for nearly two decades. While an investigative reporter for the Blade Newsmagazine, her coverage of hate crimes became part of Congressional records. She served as News Editor for the Lesbian News and has contributed to In Los Angeles Magazine, EDGE, and many others. She is also a clinical social worker and brings that perspective to her articles. She produced and hosted an award-winning community television program in Long Beach, California for 12 years.

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