Centuries collide this week as the 18th-century Christ Church campus in Old City hosts a Mars-bound spaceship that’s evacuating the dying Earth.
Yes, the ship is imaginary. But in the world premiere of the choral opera Aniara: fragments of time and space — staged in the Christ Church Neighborhood House for five performances June 20 to 23 — the setting, the people on it, the accompanying music, and the passengers’ lost-in-space reactions are too current to be science fiction.
"It’s about the belief that somebody is going to save you,” said Donald Nally, artistic director of the Crossing, the Grammy-winning new music choir that is at the center of the piece. “It’s a description of how we live.”
The ambitious multimedia production is playing at the smallish basketball court-turned-theater that’s inside the Christ Church Neighborhood House. The floor will be the spaceship’s interior, with the audience sitting around the sides, more or less in the ship itself.
Scenic effects by video designer Joonas Tikkanen are being projected from the ceiling onto the floor, which is white and screen-like. Electric guitar will be employed for the destruction of the earth.
Aniara was composed by Robert Maggio, who chairs West Chester University’s department of music theory, history, and composition. The production is a collaboration between Maggio, the Crossing, and the Helsinki-based theater company Klockriketeatern, and will go on to play in the Netherlands and Finland later this year.
Seating for the Philadelphia shows is limited to about 115, which is why two of them will be liveestreamed free (at 7:30 p.m. June 21 and 3 p.m. June 22 p.m. at crossingchoirlive.org).
Earth’s end is just the start
The ruination of the planet Earth is just the starting point of Aniara, which is based on a 1956 epic poem by Nobel laureate Harry Martinson that continues to have a life in revivals, most recently as a Swedish indy film that played in Philadelphia last month.
Early on in the plot, space ship Aniara is hopelessly knocked off course and hurtles into infinite space with little hope for retrieval.
The story’s social dynamics recall Lord of the Flies but without a conclusion, because the ship just keeps going. Dictatorships, cults, rampant sexuality, and suppression of art all have their moments inside Aniara. And some of those moments were originally based on survival stories from Hiroshima.
“Everything is there,” said librettist Dan Henriksson, who had the task of boiling down the 106-canto poem into a 90-minute piece. But for all of the story’s social implications, he says, it may be about people who are simply looking for home.
The Crossing, which has won two Grammy Awards for its up-to-the-minute repertoire, would seem to be further out on a limb than usual — along with most of parties involved in this three-years-in-the-making project. All key collaborators are doing a little bit of everything.
Video designer Tikkanen shot clouds, glaciers, and barren landscapes in Iceland from an overhead drone. So what is projected onto the theater floor will be a view from the sky. Conductor Nally has had intensive exchanges with librettist/stage director Henriksson.
Composer Maggio’s steepest challenge was solved by the staging. An amorphous artificial-intelligence character named Mima — who seemingly brings individual fantasies to life — will be portrayed by Beijing Opera-style dancer Antti Silvennoinen. The obvious solution: percussive, Kabuki-style music.
“I wanted something that sounded ancient,” said Nally.
“It’s ritualistic and formal — and a departure from the rest of the piece,” said Maggio.
Points of departure
The chorus plays the passengers as a series of individuals — a departure from the 1959 Aniara opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl that had a considerable vogue in 1960s Europe, and portrayed the beleaguered population as a pleading homogeneous mass with various spacey electronic effects. None of that has any place in Maggio’s score.
One section has an otherworldly sound rendered by rocks rubbing together. Another, jubilant section called for a hybrid version of gospel.
“The score doesn’t stay in one place,” said Maggio. “In some cases it’s very simple and minimalist and clean and in other places it wants to open up for a sense of breath of expression. There are diverse styles to serve a symbolic function … that we’re not trying to solve but are letting them co-exist."
That’s a huge switch from Maggio’s lighthearted TouchTones, a phone sex musical presented at the Arden Theater in 2017. But starting in 1990 after his graduation from Penn, Maggio wrote numerous incidental theater scores for a variety of plays. He’s used to content dictating form.
Less seasoned in theatricality are the singers of the Crossing. The cast includes speaking actors. And though the chamber choir’s repertoire has often required movement of some sort, their responses to acting challenges aren’t typical.
But is anything typical on this project? Like the Aniara passengers, the creative team is working toward unknown destinations. “Clearly, it’s not the most efficient way to go,” says Nally.
The rewards? “Texture and nuance,” said Maggio.
What it all means remains elusive. The ship goes to nowhere, but what about its story? What is the audience to take away as the conclusion?
“I don’t know yet,” librettist Henriksson said last week. “We’re still looking for it. It’s changing all the time. After we do the show 10 times, we’ll know ‘This is what it’s about.’ “
One way of interpreting things is that the passengers reach nirvana. But what exactly is that?
“It’s beyond happiness or sorrow or time,” Henriksson said. “It’s nothing.”
Staging that might be the ultimate challenge. “For me,” he said with Scandinavian understatement, “it’s a very difficult concept.”
Aniara: fragments of time and space
Performed June 20-23 by the Crossing and Klockriketeatern at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. The 7:30 p.m. June 21 show and the 3 p.m. June 22 show will be live-streamed at crossingchoirlive.org
Tickets: $20-$35 (limited availability)