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 Orff and Reich, Holst and 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.
Oratorio for Living Things
Through April 17 at Greenwich House, Manhattan; arsnovanyc.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.