In 1939, Orson Welles created and broadcast “fake news” that led panicked listeners to believe that aliens were invading Earth from the planet Mars.
One of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship (“genius grant”) winners, director Yuval Sharon, has taken the original radio script as the basis for a new one-hour performance piece heard around downtown Los Angeles in three November 2017 performances. Composer Annie Gosfield’s use of radio sounds and other-worldly effects, along with traditional instruments and ensembles, made her the ideal collaborator for this event. Structurally, Gosfield modeled her piece very loosely on Gustav Holst’s The Planets—or at least on the first four planets of his suite.
And “around downtown Los Angeles” was literally that: performances occurred simultaneously at Walt Disney Concert Hall as well as at three outdoor WWII-era siren sites, where each of the sirens, all slated for removal and discard, were able to be repurposed for one final swan song, with near-instantaneous two-way communication, by utilizing the latest microwave audio transmission technology for the greatest simultaneity.
War of the Worlds could be experienced with ticketed seats for one of the Walt Disney Concert Hall performances, or through attendance at one of the three siren sites where seat reservations and unreserved standing room were free and open to the public.
Thanks to the technology available, actors, singers, and musicians could participate at all four locations simultaneously, and all audiences—at all locations—could hear everything. Audio transmissions passed directly and with complete success between all four sites, with audiences wherever they were located able to experience the work in its entirety.
Onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall was the main ensemble, conducted by Christopher Rountree, and comprising twenty-three musicians, along with a computer sound technician, actors, and singers. On the rear of the stage, a large high riser was partitioned with plexiglass walls and ceiling, to house a Percussionist with three stations; a Keyboardist (including a Theremin and another computer); and a Martian singing otherworldly sounds and text, in full green makeup and red military uniform, the invading alien otherwise known as coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann.
Featured in performance were actress Sigourney Weaver as the MC; and, for the first performance only, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as himself.
Partnering with the Los Angeles Philharmonic were two other organizations as co-producers: The Industry, an independent, artist-driven company creating experimental productions that expand the definition of opera; and Now Art, a public arts artist organization specializing in installation art (as described by their respective websites).
Two of the three performances of War of the Worlds took place during Noon to Midnight, the new-music festival that allows audiences to roam the spaces of Walt Disney Concert Hall for a day of pop-up performances by top contemporary Southern California ensembles.
Note: The Author is a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a former ICSOM Member-at-Large.