In October 1938,
frightened parts of this nation with a radio adaptation, written by
late-Victorian novel “The War of the Worlds.” The drama wasn’t especially timely in the traditional sense, but it inspired panic in enough listeners to land Welles on the front page of several major American newspapers. Since then, the radio play and the reaction it spawned have steadily returned to public consciousness because some believe they offer telling insights into how easily average citizens can be frightened and manipulated.
The New York-based composer
and the L.A.-based director and theatrical provocateur
must think so, for they have revisited the material in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the public-art organization Now Art and Mr. Sharon’s company, the Industry. Their iteration, which they’re calling an opera but is really more of a theatrical happening with music, transplants the action from Koch’s Depression-era New York and New Jersey to current-day Los Angeles.
Local arts lovers with a taste for the cutting edge will know Mr. Sharon, a recent recipient of a lucrative MacArthur Foundation grant, as the inspired moving force behind a series of increasingly adventurous new works that have been staged in unusual places—including Union Station (“Invisible Cities”) and in automobiles that stopped at rotating locations downtown (“Hopscotch”).
The move to the Walt Disney Concert Hall—where “War of the Worlds” received its premiere on Sunday and where it will be performed twice more on Saturday as part of the Philharmonic’s “Noon to Midnight” extravaganza—marks something of a shift toward the mainstream for Mr. Sharon, who was named the orchestra’s “artist-collaborator” in 2016 and found mixed success late last season with two events: a Liederabend that juxtaposed songs by
with brief dramatic episodes from
and a staged production of
rarely seen opera “Young Caesar.”
For “War of the Worlds,” Mr. Sharon’s imprint is even greater; he is the work’s librettist as well as its adaptor and director. The amusing central conceit finds the audience gathered for a concert of Ms. Gosfield’s music, cheekily indebted to Holst’s “Planets,” hosted by the actress
appearing as herself and thus injecting both Hollywood pizazz and requisite meta into the proceedings. She reappears at key points in the 65-minute experience, her mien morphing from mild fluster to dread as she conveys news of the increasing devastation just outside the concert hall’s walls.
Broadening the work’s scope are the three remote locations where related parts of the drama unfold simultaneously. These satellite sites are within walking distance of Disney Hall and those unable to secure entry to the main event may wish to visit these ancillary spaces, all near decommissioned Cold War-era air-raid sirens that have been incorporated into the action as the alien equivalent of sleeper cells. The historic sirens have been retrofitted with state-of-the-art speakers and transmit live the activities in the hall to those outside. Speakers in the hall serve the reverse purpose when the drama shifts to the scientists and onlookers encountering the aliens.
Ms. Gosfield’s music, performed by the Philharmonic’s New Music Group and authoritatively conducted by
is an appealing pastiche that combines the industrial sounds for which she is best known with more traditional forms, including delightful allusions to
Broadway years and mid-20th-century Latin-inflected dance rhythms. And those fond of vintage sci-fi movies will relish her canny use of synthesizer (the source of those disconcerting radio-wave sounds and other distortions) and theremin (with its inimitably eerie fluctuations), as well as innovatively struck percussion, much of it produced in a section of the auditorium usually reserved for seating or large choruses and here sealed off to muffle the alien sounds.
That area also serves as something of a cage for the game soprano Hila Plitmann, attired as an alien in a silvery second skin beneath a fish-tailed crimson gown and a cap that recalls stewardesses from the “Mad Men” era. Her performance of menacing hisses and various feats of vocalise gives her the show’s ostensible star turn—her only competition the increasingly addled bass crooner, a droll
whose standout song “Venus” was entirely Ms. Gosfield’s creation. Other voices (like that of the mezzo-soprano
and the baritone
) were transmitted from the remote sites and thus unseen at Disney Hall.
Many of the show’s most relatable lines are too locally oriented for audiences elsewhere, so Mr. Sharon will have to alter his libretto if this work is to travel. But there seems no other reason why this deft and witty riff on our inherent vulnerabilities—to superior powers, uncertainty, impulsive thinking, etc.—should remain bound to this city in particular. In any case, Mr. Sharon is clearly going places.
—Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on classical music and film.