Tectonic Shift: Two Decades After the Quake, "Ceiling/Sky" Debuts in L.A.

"Ceiling/Sky" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff

In the early morning of January 17, 1994, the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake ripped through Los Angeles, sending the city into chaos. In the L.A. Times, a survivor commented poetically, "I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky." It perfectly sums up the confusion of the moment: when a disaster strikes, the world seems surreal, vulnerable, uncontrollable, unpredictable. Maybe not the words you think of when you think of a musical performance, but the unexpected is exactly what to expect when a "song-play" by the same name as that quote takes the stage at the Ford Ampitheatre on Saturday night.

The late poet, author, and playwright June Jordan was taken by that quote while she was composing the libretto for John Adams' composition about the disaster, and she was the one who made it the title of the enigmatic piece. Later, the song-play, directed at the time by Peter Sellars, opened to mixed reviews at the Lincoln Center in New York (better reviews would follow during its run in Europe), but it's not until this year, the 20th anniversary of the quake, that "Ceiling/Sky" will finally play for an L.A. audience in Hollywood. Here, it will be directed by acclaimed director Andreas Mitisek of the Long Beach Opera and is part of the Ford's Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series.

A 1995 article in the L.A. Times chronicling the New York opening queried, "Which leads to the obvious question: Why isn't a show about Los Angeles, created by West Coast artists, scheduled to play in Los Angeles? No one in Los Angeles has asked for it, Adams answers. There are rumors, Jordan answers. I'm only thinking a day at a time, Sellars answers."

"Ceiling/Sky" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
"Ceiling/Sky" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff

At the technical rehearsal at the Ford, the Austrian-born Mitisek laughs, similarly mystified, at why it never played for an Angeleno audience. "You know, that's a great question," says the Mitisek, calmly shrugging his shoulders. "I'm not sure if I can answer it. That's why Long Beach Opera is here."

The song-play -- called thus because of the inability to technically classify the piece as an opera or a musical -- follows a multicultural septet of Los Angeles residents as they react to the quake that jolts Act II. Among the characters are a black former gang leader who is arrested, his undocumented Salvadoran girlfriend (the mother of his child), his closeted arresting officer, a TV anchorwoman who is attracted to the cop, a gospel preacher who is in love with a community activist, and the ex-gangster's lawyer, a Vietnamese immigrant.

Story continues below

Jordan's libretto tackles controversial topics that feel contemporary; sexual identity, racism, immigration, and the use of force by law enforcement are all addressed in songs like "Your Honor My Client He's a Young Black Man" and "Consuelo's Dream."

"Interestingly enough, besides the earthquake, all the issues these young people talk about seem still to come up right now 20 years later," says Mitisek. "Even if you look to Ferguson. There's expectations of what a young black man is, and how police interactions are; the Salvadorian illegal immigrant living here -- look at the whole discussion about immigration and what to do with people who live here who have children here; the Vietnamese immigrant who wants to be a top lawyer; the cop trying to figure out who he is being gay. It's about people in their mid-20s from all walks of life, figuring out how to make it."

"Ceiling/Sky" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
"Ceiling/Sky" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakof

Adam Davis, managing director of the Ford, concurs: "When [Mitisek] brought the idea, I thought, 'That really could speak to us. There's a lot going on out in the world -- maybe it's not officially an earthquake -- but it's shattering and shaking us.'"

Having been elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 1994, Zev Yaroslovsky recalls the earthquake (which he describes as someone picking up the city and violently dropping it), like the song-play; it brought to the fore unexpected matters. "Who knew that we had a large Central American community in Sherman Oaks?" says Yaroslovsky, whose Signature Series aims to bring unique local and international talents to the Ford. "The reason we knew that they were Central Americans was that there were hundreds of people who, after the earthquake, went to the Sherman Oaks Park and camped out there. When I asked them why, they said that they were from Guatemala, and they experienced the Guatemala City earthquake [in 1976], a there was a foreshock, so they thought it was over with the foreshock in Guatemala City and then a bigger quake hit and buildings collapsed. So when they were awakened by the [Northridge] earthquake, their context was that this was probably a foreshock. So they didn't trust the buildings, and they slept in the park."

Zipporah Peddle, the singer who plays Tiffany, the newscaster, sees the action as a way to point out the rare humanity that happens when things seem hopeless. "The earthquake happens, and everybody becomes vulnerable," she says. "It's actually a really nice thing that happens in the show: a lot of the social barriers come down, and we're meant to see the cast as a community, as neighbors, as people who care about each other, and not as their stereotypes anymore."

The music itself is a genre-hopping mélange, bouncing from gospel to pop to musical theater to opera to jazz -- sometimes within the same song. "It feels disjointed in a way that if an earthquake happened how it would feel," says Davis. "I wasn't here, thank goodness, during Northridge, but everyone that I talked to remembers that moment: 'Where are my kids? Where are my loved ones?' Relationships still happen. Life is still moving forward. You're still a dad; you're still a mom; you're still a boyfriend or girlfriend; you're still a child. And it's going to be disjointed. I appreciate the complexity of what it takes to make you feel like I've been through an earthquake."

"Ceiling/Sky" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
"Ceiling/Sky" | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff

During the technical rehearsal, Mitisek warns one of the singers to watch out for a particularly twisty piece passage she has to deftly curl her voice through -- jumpy and complex, the music is classic John Adams. The composer is known for his challenging postminimal masterpieces "Shaker Loops" (1978) and "Short Ride in a Fast Machine." In fact, "Ceiling/Sky" is hard to classify partly because of Adams' unbound approach.

And its what makes it such a compelling piece of music. At 110 minutes, it's as succinct as a play, but the complexity of the music makes it engrossing, and Adams purposefully enunciated Jordan's libretto along with the music, so that it can be easily deciphered. The message is meant to be understood. Mitisek lauds his cast for being up to the task, filled with award-winning singers Peddle, Cedric Berry, Bernard Holcomb, Zeffin Quinn Hollis, Andrew Nguyen, Lindsay Patterson, and Holly Sedillos.

"With many works by John Adams, in the end, it should sound easy, but the intricacy of the clockwork is much more complicated," says Mitisek. "The piece itself, even though some numbers are pretty straightforward jazz or gospel, but you need singers who are trained crossover singers in all of these different genres, and they need to be trained classically so they can also master the behind-the-stage musical challenges that are in the score. John Adams just writes brilliantly, but you really need to be a good musician to play everything."

In the end, though, it's the topic of the earthquake that might connect the hardest with an Angeleno crowd. After all, says Davis, prognosticators unceasingly talk about us being on the verge of the big one. "It's just something to think about," Davis says. "The audience that is coming should be ready for an adventure."


Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes