Tracing the Development of Meredith Monk’s Atlas and the Embodiment of American Opera

By Jessica Wood, Assistant Curator
June 29, 2018
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

This post was written by Professor Ryan Ebright of Bowling Green State University, an NYPL Short Term Fellow for 2017-2018. Professor Ebright visited the Library for the Performing Arts to study the Meredith Monk Archive.
In May 1990, Houston Grand Opera impresario David Gockley penned a lengthy letter to executive producer Barbara Dufty of Meredith Monk’s House Foundation concerning Monk’s opera-in-development. After spending more than a decade establishing a reputation for site-specific multimedia works that redefined conventional understandings of theatrical space and the relationships between music, movement, and drama, Monk had, by the late 1980s, parlayed her prestige and the success of her vocal sextet Dolmen Music into an opera commission.
With less than nine months remaining before the premiere, however, Gockley was concerned the piece remained in the conceptual stage, lacking a definite title, plot, and musical score. Whatever did exist was embodied in the performers. Worried about mounting costs and the possible withdrawal of co-commissioners, Gockley wrote, "We must deal with reality and then go forward to the next phase: that of Meredith’s unencumbered creativity within the parameters that we jointly have established."

These parameters, hammered out over three years, exemplify the relationships forged between avant-garde artists and American opera companies, thanks in part to Opera America’s pioneering "Opera for the Eighties and Beyond" initiative. Even as artists gained access to new resources and companies capitalized on these artists’ prestige, different production methods and aesthetics sometimes collided.
The Monk-HGO contract for Atlas reached in November 1989 is a case in point. It allowed for sixteen weeks of group rehearsal, an allotment that constrained Monk’s usual collaborative creative process while marking an unprecedented personnel expense for HGO. In this instance, the friction between artist and institution reflected contrasting positions on the role of the body in opera. For Monk, the human voice and body are generative, central not only to operatic performance but also to its formation.Atlas is unusual, both aesthetically—its adventurous plot is conveyed primarily through movement and wordless vocalise—and in the collaborative method of its creation. Formed in an era when the genre of opera had purportedly become, per opera historians Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, "a wonderful mortuary full of spectacular performances," ossified by a museum-culture mentality, Atlas offers a case study on the corporeality and ephemerality of contemporary opera. Most operas, new and old, rely on performers to bring a musical score to life. But with Atlas, the process occurred in reverse. The score—such as it is—was derived from the improvisations and experiments of the performers in the rehearsal process, and represents an end point in the development of the opera, rather than a starting point.
Monk’s aesthetic stance, and its ramifications for American opera, led me to the Performing Arts Library during July and August of 2017. With the support of a NYPL Short Term Research Fellowship, I spent two weeks digging through the Meredith Monk Archive, an immense cache of historical treasures ranging from sketches and photographs to rehearsal audio tapes and production memos. These sources helped me trace the development of Atlas, focusing especially on the translation from body and voice to score. I found that Monk’s intertwining of music and movement, as well as her exploration of unorthodox vocal timbres, posed representational challenges that traditional notation could not overcome, leading to a score that is an imperfect reflection of the embodied music.
Combined with archival research I had already undertaken at the Houston Grand Opera, as well as numerous interviews with Atlas artistic and administrative personnel, my research at the NYPL helped inform my presentation on Monk’s Atlas at the American Musicological Society national conference last fall. My work on Atlas will eventually constitute a chapter in my book-in-progress, Making American Opera after Einstein, which investigates how innovative American composers, artists, and institutions have redefined the genre of American opera since the paradigm-shifting appearance of Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976.
Monk’s collaborative method of creation and her bodily aesthetic, reflected in the lack of an authoritative score, have limited artists’ ability to perform Atlas. Since its initial U.S. run, subsequent European tour, and BAM performances the following season, Atlas has essentially disappeared from opera stages. But that will soon change: Monk has given her blessing to director Yuval Sharon to remount the opera in June 2019 in Los Angeles. Exactly how Sharon and the performers will address the challenges of Atlas, however, remains to be seen.