Trying to describe Heather Christian’s Oratorio for Living Things with mere words is an impossible task. How can you translate the waves of sonic joy, devastation, fear, and humor that crash over the audience? You can’t understand the delicate alchemy of performers and material, staging and design that have resulted in this transportive experience unless you witness it for yourself. Christian, director Lee Sunday Evans, and the soul-altering eighteen-person ensemble of singers and musicians have achieved something so intensely personal for the audience that it then unites the individuals into a collective. It is the strongest case for the necessity of bodies-in-the-room live theatre since before the pandemic, a bold masterwork that announces itself as soon as it begins and is unrelenting in its innovation.
Christian uses the form of an oratorio to look at time in three separate scales. She writes:
In quantum time, we’ll visit elements necessary to life on a molecular level. In human time, we’ll deal with memory, primarily using verbatim memories I harvested from anonymous voicemails. In cosmic time, we’ll deal with time’s essential nature, which is marked and recorded only through collision and violence.
It reads as heady stuff, and it is–a third of it is sung in Latin–but the great thing about Christian’s writing is that it’s emotionally bare. It reaches into the deepest part of you and pulls on the thing it’s trying to touch. Reading the libretto and the English translations of the Latin later, it was remarkable how much I understood on a cellular level. The oratorio is designed to make each individual person respond to it differently, to interpret the musical textures and textual ideas on your own terms. On one layer, Christian is dealing with “astrophysics, ancient languages [and] microbiology”, but she is using that scientific minutiae to explore the larger connection we all have to living, to aging, to what comes next.
The eighteen virtuosic singers and musicians surround the audience on a series of walkways and staircases that comprise designer Kristen Robinson’s set. The various platforms keep the music close to the audience, including us in it. We’re not singing, but we are participating. The sound design by Nick Kourtides achieves something miraculous: the sound always picks up the entire group with thrilling clarity and balance, but it also feels subjective based on where your particular chair happens to be as the cast swirls around you. The costumes by Márion Talán de la Rosa are a finely tuned mix of blue and gray hues and contemporary, classic, and futuristic cuts and silhouettes that unmoor the singers from a concrete reality and highlight the otherworldly, time-bending realm of Christian’s music. Adding to this ethereal vibe is the glowing orb centerpiece of Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design. It illuminates and drops as the oratorio begins and, in this simple, but powerful gesture, it seems to send energy to the singers, to bring them to life or to conjure them in space. It’s a mystical experience.
Christian’s composition is wholly original, often startling, occasionally hilarious. The sheer volume of complicated, avant-garde music the singers are tasked with performing from memory is a feat unto itself. That they all do some of the best singing I have heard on a stage is another. The music is often so enveloping that when there are some moments where it slips into a lower gear, it lends them an urgency. By quieting down, these moments become more important. I found the final movement of the first act, “Iteration 4: Building DNA via Ticker Tape of Time Spent” to be particularly moving, even while I was laughing. The song is a list of time spent doing tasks like “throwing away unopened mail” and “defogging your glasses” commingled with time spent on more substantial things like “asking for someone to help” or “admiring someone’s face”. It contrasts time wasted with time well-spent and questions which is which. “Hydrogen and Helium” in Act III reframes the scientific reaction between these two gases as parents who are inextricably bound, but are tied through violence. It is a stunning showpiece for its soloist, Dito van Reigersberg, personifying a child of toxic parents, full of empathy and pain. Having said that, it belies the point to single out individual pieces or singers when the entire oratorio is a top-to-bottom masterpiece. Incredible moments happen with such frequency that the only way to identify them all would be to reprint the score.
Christian and company ask us to consider ourselves in time: where did we come from, what are we doing, where will we go. They were just two previews in when theatres shut down in March 2020, but after everything we have lived through in the two years since, these questions feel more relevant now than they did before. The wide-open nature of Christian’s music lets us frame her purpose however we want, to see whatever we want in it. It hit me deep, hard, and early and it could have gone on for twice as long–I would have stayed. Maybe by still thinking about it, part of me is still there. I urge you to go, to commune with it on your own terms, to try to cobble together how it made you feel.