In 'Oratorio for Living Things,' the song is you

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, June 17, 2024

In 'Oratorio for Living Things,' the song is you
From left: Kirstyn Cae Ballard, Ben Moss and Carla Duren perform Heather Christian’s “Oratorio for Living Things,” at Ars Nova’s Greenwich House theater, March 12, 2022. The new music-theater work turns a tiny amphitheater into a vast cathedral of sound. Gabby Jones/The New York Times.

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- At the Academy of Music, where the Philadelphia Orchestra used to play, longtime subscribers were sometimes rewarded with a chance to move from floor-level seats to raised gilded boxes at the back of the horseshoe. After my parents took that step, my mother soon regretted the change. It’s true she saw the players better from above, but she’d felt them better from below, where the buzz of bassoons and the blast of tubas came through the wood directly to her feet, turning symphonies into seismic events.

I thought of her vibrating metatarsals — and so much else about the rapture of intimate art — while sitting in the wooden amphitheater housing “Oratorio for Living Things,” Heather Christian’s profoundly strange and overwhelmingly beautiful new music-theater piece at Ars Nova’s Greenwich House theater. Tightly packed in the small, steep, egg-shaped bowl designed for the space by Kristen Robinson, six instrumentalists and 12 singers make music there that shakes the 100 audience members like a 90-minute earthquake.

That seems appropriate for a work about profound human issues: our place in history, our place in the universe. At least that’s what I think it’s about, judging from lyrics I snatched from the sweep of sound and from reading the libretto later. Even then, I was not always sure I could pass a test on its content; though an author’s note in the program explains that the subject is time at three scales — quantum, human and cosmic — much of what was billed as quantum or cosmic felt distinctly human to me.

No matter. If the text is sometimes baffling and hermetic, it is confident enough in its oddness that you do not worry about crashing when it flies close to the twee line. Though I apparently didn’t recognize the “ballet of Chloroplasts and Mitochondria” that forms a part of an early section called “Oxygen + Photosynthesis,” I enjoyed it anyway. For Christian, ideas are fuel; it’s not that “these words mean nothing,” as one lyric coyly suggests, but that their meaning is not apprehensible through our usual interpretive circuitry. Unknowability, being part of the message, is necessarily part of the medium.

As if to emphasize that, and draw parallels to traditional oratorios, much of the text is sung in Latin — but in this case translated backward, by Greg Taubman, from Christian’s English originals. Even when the words are contemporary, they are often drawn from unusual sources, including an accounting of how we spend our lives (13 days sneezing, 10 minutes giving bad directions to strangers) and a phone line Christian set up to solicit “memory mail”:

“I was like 5 years old, and both my parents were working late all the time,” one starts.

“It’s 1964 or 1965, Beatles time, and I’m carrying a plate of spaghetti,” starts another.

What’s haunting is how the oratorio form and Christian’s private cosmology elevate such banal statements to an almost sacred plane. Alternating in the classical manner between massed choral singing and solo arias — all exquisitely performed under the music direction of Ben Moss — she throws several centuries of musical styles into the pot and swirls them around. The ear passes through currents of plainchant and gospel, blues and electronica; you may catch wisps of Carl Orff and Steve Reich, Gustav Holst and Jules Massenet, in much the way you spot faces in a crowd scene.

Yet this is not concert music. The production, directed by Lee Sunday Evans, highlights thematic cohesion and theatricality even without a traditional story. Both the set and the performers are draped in varieties of deep-space blue, as if to suggest a shared chemistry between people and their environment. (The beautiful costumes are by Márion Talán de la Rosa.) The sound (by Nick Kourtides) and lighting design (by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) are likewise saturated, picking out voices and faces — great ones to begin with — to emphasize the shifting dynamic of individuals and groups.

Even better, Evans has found a way of working with the singers so that every syllable sung, even the seemingly meaningless ones, feels as if it were informed by specific emotion.

But what is that emotion? Traditional theater often tries to bind audiences by pushing them toward a shared response, whether horror or hilarity. Christian is not working in that vein. As in earlier pieces like the requiem “Animal Wisdom” and the Mother Teresa cantata “I Am Sending You the Sacred Face,” she focuses on personal expression instead of story, content to let the formal elements shape the larger experience and leaving listeners free to make their own connections.

In less skilled hands this could result in chaos or camp, but even her Mother Teresa, played by a man in drag with a ring light for a halo, avoided that trap. “Oratorio for Living Things,” which was shut down by the pandemic after two preview performances in March 2020, takes similar risks to get as close to spirituality as a contemporary theater piece dares. Near the end, after some sort of cataclysm brings the music to a halt, we are asked to stand in silence for a while, “feeling where we are on this New Year’s Eve of the cosmic year.” The performers admit that we may find this embarrassing: “We’re all embarrassed,” they say.

But I — who usually slide under my seat when dragooned into acts of audience participation — was not embarrassed at all. I felt instead the kind of awe I feel in cathedrals, where the architecture itself forces one’s thoughts upward and outward. Or perhaps I felt more as my mother did when beautiful music came through her soles. Just so, in “Oratorio for Living Things,” Christian provides the notes, but your body is the song.

Event Information:

'Oratorio for Living Things': Through April 17 at Greenwich House, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Today's News

April 1, 2022

A Whitney Biennial of shadow and light

Bust from the Met Museum, said to be looted, is returned to Libya

A tiny Brontë book, lost for a century, resurfaces

A mural lionizing an Indian ruler is sold at auction. His legacy is contested.

Exhibition features fourty new drawings by leading American artist Richard Serra

San Antonio Museum of Art acquires important works by pioneering American photographer Laura Aguilar

Exhibition of new work by Willie Cole opens at Alexander and Bonin

Mennello Museum of American Art presents Contemporary Expressions: Prints from Flying Horse Editions

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 'dissent collar' donated to the Smithsonian

Museum show highlights media-makers on the autism spectrum

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego adds Rothko, Kusama, and López acquisitions to expansive collection

Auction devoted to British and world coins, and historical medals to be held at Dix Noonan Webb

Walker Art Center appoints Amanda Hunt as Head of Public Engagement, Learning and Impact

The Brooklyn Museum appoints new Curator of African Art and Director of Libraries and Archives

Another world record sale from Posters Auction International totals over $2.8 million

Anna Zorina Gallery opens an exhibition of works by Leah Yerpe

Warhol prints soar past estimates at Bonhams Los Angeles sale

Sam Falls now represented by Galerie Eva Presenhuber, 303 Gallery, Franco Noero, Jessica Silverman

Richard Lipez, who reimagined the gay detective novel, dies at 83

A tap-dancing soul in spirit-world limbo

Anna Netrebko seeks distance from Putin after losing work

In 'Oratorio for Living Things,' the song is you

The 2022 Instagram Updates You Need to Know About?

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Gambling

6 Reasons to Invest in a Home Security System

How Do Electric Bikes Work?

What is E-Liquid │ Ultimate Guide to Vape Juice

Can Food Be Considered Art?

The Best Way to Design Your Outdoor Kitchen Online

The art of playing slots

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful