Oratorio for Living Things Review: Heather Christian’s Hip Religious Experience

“Oratorio for Living Things” is such a gorgeous, awe-inspiring concert of original music by Heather Christian that it feels like a religious experience.  Indeed, the music — inflected with Baroque, gospel, blues, pop, and jazz — could work as a church service. A third of the songs are even in Latin…and the concert comes with its own prayer book!  That’s the libretto, a small, paper bound booklet that is handed out to each of us as we enter the completely reconfigured theater at Greenwich House, and take our seats in what look like the plain wooden pews of a Mennonite meeting house, except steeper. 

The libretto is probably essential reading to understand most of  Christian’s piece (it offers English translations for the Latin, for example.)  But, like the classical oratorios by Handel, Mendelssohn or Bach, it’s not necessary to grasp fully what’s going on in order to appreciate the soaring score, which is brought to intricate, harmonious life by a choir of some dozen virtuosic singers plus a half dozen versatile musicians on horns and strings, piano and percussion.

“An Oratorio is a religious-adjacent music service,” Christian writes in a letter on the booklet’s inside cover, “that is, at its core, a rumination on a subject or theme the composer (in this case, me) has decided is ‘holy.’
“Tonight, the holy thing is Time.”

The songs of “Oratorio for Living Things,” she goes on to explain, are divvied up among three “scales” of time: “the quantum, the human, the cosmic.”

Let me pause here. This is the third piece I’ve seen by Heather Christian.  “Prime: A Practical Breviary,”  was a 10-song cycle about the early-morning prayers performed by Christian monks. “I Am Sending You The Sacred Face  was a meditation on the life of Mother Theresa that Christian wrote for Joshua William Gelb’s Theater in Quarantine. In both cases, they were as contemporary as they were classical – as hip as they were reverent; and, if not always completely accessible, consistently entertaining.

And both those pieces were presented during the pandemic – as audio theater and digital theater, respectively – without the benefit of the in-person stagecraft created under the direction of Lee Sunday Evans.  Evans has helmed such experimental but undeniably plugged in works of theater as “Dance Nation,”The Courtroom” (based on an actual deportation case)  and  Intractable Woman: A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya (based on the true story of a murdered Russian journalist.) 

The singers and musicians of Oratorio are  dressed in costume designer Márion Talán de la Rosa’s hip street clothes (not choral robes or formal concert attire), and the singers climb up and down the steep staircases that divide Kristen Robinson’s set, which has transformed the usual proscenium set-up into arena seating. The performers station themselves on the narrow stages at the top or the bottom of the staircases, or along the stairs themselves. It creates a lush, do-it-yourself Surroundsound, and a sense of intimacy; there was always a singer standing a foot away from where I was seated.

All this encourages the audience to feel less intimidated by the dive into the esoteric concepts of time. Act I offers  songs about the quantum scale of time, by which Christian means the essential elements of life on a molecular level, like water and oxygen. Here is a music video of the song “Carbon” that Ars Nova put together during the delay in the oratorio’s opening (it was supposed to open exactly two years ago today) Ignore the fancy videography (there are no projections in the Greenwich House production):

Notice the clever collective recitative cataloguing of cumulative time spent (wasted?), eg

Three and a half hours throwing away unopened mail
Forty minutes putting lids on Tupperware
Eighteen days looking for a bathroom…
One year signing your name

The song is renamed “Carbon/DNA” in the libretto. It will take me further study to figure out why. 

Act 2 (there are no intermissions) is about the human scale of time. It mostly concerns memory, and comes the closest to traditional monologues (not very close), with cast members recalling incidents from their childhood. (“when I was very very young I think about three or four. um
I —have an extremely clear memory of a village of people.
That used to live on my knees at night when I was trying to go to sleep…”)

It’s worth noting that the reminiscences in Act 2 reportedly derive from voice mail messages Christian solicited from strangers.

Act 3 concerns time on a cosmic scale – “marked and recorded only through collision and violence,” Christian writes us in her letter.

At one point, the cast intones all the years that the volcano has erupted on Mount Vesuvius.

The violence on a cosmic scale, however, is linked to human trauma.

Here’s a video of a song from Act 3, “Hydrogen and Helium,” sung in the video by Heather Christian herself (again, not what it’s like in the in person production), with the singer comparing her mother to hydrogen and her father to helium

“They long to be together and they tear themselves apart
And the constant fluctuation
Simply burns”

The most memorable (and, to be honest, most decipherable) lines in “Oratorio for Living Things” come near the end, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar – the life of the universe viewed as if a 12 month calendar. So (as the singers recite) January one is the Big Bang…September fourteen, formation of earth…November one Invention of sex by micro organisms …Human beings don’t even make an appearance until mid-December.

Despite such moments of clarity, and for all the auditory pleasure, there’s no denying the intellectual complexity of “Oratorio for Living Things”…even if you follow along with the libretto.  It is dedicated to three Carls – the cosmology Carl Sagan, Carl Orff, the German composer of the 1930’s cantata Carmina Burana, based on 11th century poems in Latin, and Italian physicist Carlo Rovell, author of “The Order of Time,” all of whom she’s said influenced this piece. All three Carls are/were popularizers of the fields they had mastered, but their life’s work is heady stuff. Christian is maybe more focused on the heady than the popularizing.

A line in Christian’s piece probably explains better than I can why this didn’t much bother me:
“A very smart person once said that given the choice between living in a universe where only some things are known and knowable and living in a universe where either everything or nothing was known, they’d take the former. Because out of mystery evolves curiosity, and out of confoundment evolves wonder. “

Is “Oratorio for Living Things” the masterpiece it felt like when I was sitting there surrounded by it? I can’t say; maybe nobody can say yet. That will take time.

Oratorio for Living Things

Ars Nova at Greenwich House Theater through April 17 (extended to May 22, but then closed May 14, because of positive COVID tests in the company.)
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $35-$65
By Heather Christian
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Music direction by Ben Moss, scenic design by Kristen Robinson, costume design by Márion Talán de la Rosa, lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, sound design by Nick Kourtides, Latin consultant and translator Greg Taubman, production stage manager Jo Fernandez 
Singers and instrumentalists: Johnny Butler, Kirstyn Cae Ballard, Jane Cardona, Sean Donovan, Carla Duren, Clérida Eltimé, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Brian Flores, Odetta Hartman, Quentin Oliver Lee, Angel Lozada, Divya Maus, Barrie Lobo McLain, Ben Moss, John Murchison, Onyie Nwachukwu, Dito van Reigersberg, and Peter Wise.
Photographs by Ben Arons

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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