Act 1, Scene 1, “Overture” (“Out of Body”), and Scene 6, “Choosing Companions” (1991)
Meredith Monk’s first opera,* Atlas , was commissioned by The Houston Grand Opera (HGO) as part of the HGO’s Opera New World program, which aimed to redefine traditional opera repertory. The work was premiered on February 22, 1991, at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston, TX.1 It is a virtually textless opera (the only words are a few lines of spoken dialogue) and consists of 18 voices, two keyboards, clarinet, bass clarinet, sheng, bamboo saxophone, two violins, viola, two cellos, french horn, percussion, and shawm.2 It is set in three parts, “Part I: Personal Climate,” “Part II: Night Travel,” and “Part III: Invisible Light.”3
Atlas draws inspiration from the life of Alexandra David-Neel, a French-Belgian explorer, Buddhist spiritualist, writer, and lecturer, in the form of main character and female explorer Alexandra Daniels.4 The opera follows the quest of Daniels and a few fellow travelers for adventure, meaning, and spiritual transcendence. In Atlas, “travel is a metaphor for spiritual quest and commitment to inner vision.”5 Over the course of the expedition, Alexandra and her companions, “journey to the tropics, the Arctic, a desert, a forest, a city apparently under dictatorial martial law and finally, a heavenly ‘realm of pure energy.'”6 Along the way, the travelers are aided by “guardian angel-like” guides as they face ghosts, spirits, and personal and societal demons.7
The opera opens in the 1950s home of Daniels, who yearns to travel and explore, and act one takes the audience from Daniels’ home, through her decision to follow her dream, to choosing her companions for her journey.8 Accordingly, the “Overture” sets the scene for the opera and introduces the changing ostinato motives and varying vocal effects that are used throughout the opera to show the evolution of Daniels’ life.
The “Overture” opens with a two-measure ostinato that rocks between two harmonies, meters gently shifting between duple and triple meter. It is lifelike; alterations and slight extensions make the ostinato feel alive as it changes. In its rocking motion and lifelikeness, the ostinato presented in the “Overture” can be seen as “giving birth” to the opera, evoking the image of a sunrise and a sunset, and acting as a prelude to Alexandra’s cycle of life as showcased in the opera.9
The clip begins at 0:45 with the rocking ostinato that signifies the birth of the opera and Daniels’ journey. At 0:50, a low voice enters followed by brief, higher vocal interjections starting at 0:54, showcasing Monk’s use of vocal effects and lack of reliance on text.
The “Choosing Companions” scene opens with a drone and a voice singing harmonics, creating a delicate, ethereal “tapestry of sound.”10 As the lights come up, teen-aged Daniels is replaced by 25-to-45-year-old Daniels, suitcase in hand. The stage is dark except for a spotlight on Daniels. At 0:38, Monk uses three projected slides to give information about Daniels: an identification card, Daniels’ first memory, and her aspiration to seek the unknown. Using these projected slides shows both Monk’s nontraditional interdisciplinary methods and her lack of reliance on sung text.
As the title suggests, “Choosing Companions” is the scene in which Daniels selects her companions for her journey, interviewing potential candidates in an airport.11 The companions are chosen by the sounds of their voices; those who do not belong have a dissonant tone (such as the man at 6:58). From time to time, biographical facts about the candidates are projected to personalize the characters. Again, this shows how Monk avoids a reliance on text. Further, starting at 2:44, we see elements of Monk’s style in her emphasis on particular movement and use of vocal effects.
Throughout, “Choosing Companions” sets a chaconne to a walking bass line, played by an ostinato in the strings and later joined by bass clarinet. “Choosing Companions” is important because it shows how the ostinato changes over the course of act one and how it represents transition and evolution. Since the “Overture” and the rocking of a child, the ostinato has now been paired with a walking bass line, implying a walking adult who has places to go.12 This use of ostinato and the chaconne figure are both significant. The chaconne figure returns at the end of act one, altered and paired with new ostinato figures as the characters prepare for their journey and the adventure begins.
*Monk has called her larger theater works “operas” since 1971, but they are not considered “traditional opera” pieces. According to Monk, “an opera is not a play set to music but ‘a multi-perceptual form combining music, movement, theater and visual images.'”13
1 William Albright, “OPERA: The Wordless Libretto: There’s an absence of text in avant-garde composer Meredith Monk’s ‘ATLAS,’ but no absence of adventure,”Los Angeles Times, 3 March 1991, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-03-03-ca-108-story.html (accessed 3 Nov. 2019).
2 Meredith Monk, “Chronology,” Meredith Monk, https://www.meredithmonk.org/about/chronology
3 Janice Mowrey, “Meredith Monk: Between the Cracks,” Perspectives of New Music, 51, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 87.
4 Bonnie Marranca, “Meredith Monk’s Atlas of Sound: New Opera and the American Performance Tradition,” Performing Arts Journal 14, no. 1 (Jan. 1992): 18.
5 Meredith Monk, “Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts,” Meredith Monk, https://www.meredithmonk.org/repertory/atlas/.
6 Albright,”OPERA: The Wordless Libretto.”
7 Monk, “Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts.”
8 Mowrey, “Between the Cracks,” 87.
9 Mowrey, “Between the Cracks,” 87-88.
10 Mowrey, “Between the Cracks,” 90-91.
11 Marranca, “Meredith Monk’s Atlas of Sound,” 18.
12 Mowrey, “Between the Cracks,” 91-96.
13 Albright,”OPERA: The Wordless Libretto.”