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  • Meredith Monk’s ATLAS in Los Angeles
  • Paul V. Miller (bio)

ATLAS, an opera in three parts by Meredith Monk.

Libretto and choreography by the composer.

World Premiere: 22 February 1991, at the Houston Grand Opera.

Performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, Disney Hall, Los

Angeles (June 11, 12, and 14, 2019).

Paolo Bortolameolli, conductor. Yuval Sharon, director. Es Devlin, designer.

Luke Halls, projection designer. Danielle Agami, choreographer.

Emma Kingsbury, costume designer. John Torres, lighting designer.

Milena Manocchia, Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, and Ann Carlson, Alexandra.

Recording: “ATLAS: an opera in three parts,” ECM Records, 1993 (ECM 1491/92).

La commedia è finita!Vollendet das ewige Werk!Oh! Oh! mes cheveux descendent de la tour!News has a kind of mystery.

For opera lovers who understand and can place them, these lines conjure up vivid images and emotions. They may stimulate memories of musical themes, lavish sets, lighting effects, or even spark nostalgic reminiscences of pleasurable evenings shared among the company of friends or loved ones at the opera house. Of course, theories of the libretto’s ability to shape dramatic flow and its influence on musical realization in opera aroused passionate debates from its very inception. This is familiar territory: Giulio Cesare Monteverdi vindicated opera composers’ expressive musical language when he argued the passions expressed through the text justified unprepared dissonances in madrigals. On the other hand, Pier Jacopo Martello declared in 1715 that poetry ought to have the lowest place in opera, not the highest, because the proper place for words was in the theater, not the opera house.1 This discourse did not take place solely on a theoretical level; it became the subject of Salieri’s one-act opera Prima la musica e poi le parole (1786), which revolves around a composer who has written a viable operatic musical score for which there are as yet [End Page 350] no words. A century and a half later, Strauss’s Capriccio (1942) takes on the same question, arguably with ambivalence: which comes first—poetry or music?

Regardless of their relative place in opera’s hierarchy of constructive elements, most listeners would probably regard words as an essential characteristic of the genre. Salieri’s composer believes his composition to be incomplete without the poet’s craft. Indeed, words seem so fundamental to opera that even verbalizations without any specific lexical meaning are elevated and often seem to take on unusually pungent significance: instead of choosing excerpts from I Pagliacci, Das Rheingold, Pelleas et Mélisande, and Nixon in China, I probably could have inserted the equally well-known utterances “Hm! Hm! Hm! Hm!” from Die Zauberflöte or “Hoyotoho!” from Die Walküre at the beginning of this article. It is therefore ironic that even though words seem to be an essentializing condition for opera, audiences seldom understand the meaning of the words themselves. Without supertitles, many operagoers have no idea what libretti actually mean, as they are so frequently sung in a foreign language.2

For those who actually do understand the meaning of the libretto, many realize that operatic texts often carry connotations less benign than they may seem at first hearing. For some, the whole notion of language itself is problematic. A growing branch of philosophy has shed light on the way language often marginalizes women, subtly coerces individuals into performing stereotyped gender roles, and perpetuates injustices against disempowered groups.3 Through music, opera sometimes magnifies the subcutaneous violence that language insinuates.4 How might one confront language’s silencing effect or its hermeneutic injustices in a libretto? A radical solution would simply be to eliminate the words entirely—but then, what would opera be like without that which many regard as an indispensable component? Would the price of freeing opera from one of its problematic signifying strata—music, voice, performance practice, staging, and gesture all signify, too— justify the liquidation of the verbal terrain?

Composing opera without words—or creating an environment wherein the appearance of words is the exception, rather than the rule—is, I think, one of the great achievements of Meredith Monk. Already with her early studio opera work Education of the Girlchild (1972), Monk used the particular qualities of...


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