What ensued was mass hysteria, with terrified listeners stampeding from their homes into the streets and reports of suicide flooding hospital switchboards everywhere. Anxiety-ridden, the country was still in the midst of the Depression and also on the brink of World War II with the rise of Hitler. It wasn’t surprising, then, that this one-hour radio play took its listeners by metaphorical storm.
Now, nearly 80 years after that iconic broadcast, Yuval Sharon, founder and artistic director of The Industry, the company devoted to new and experimental opera, has brought his radical adaptation of the play to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the streets of downtown Los Angeles (November 12 and 18).
Using the original radio script as the basis of this bold new performance piece, Sharon invited Annie Gosfield to compose the score, with Christopher Rountree (of wild Up fame) conducting the LA Phil New Music Group. With some 25 musicians performing at the Hall – instrumentation includes Theremin, celesta and sampling — the score was broadcast through three refurbished WWII-era sirens that have been reactivated for two-way communication. Onsite musicians included multiple percussionists, a cellist, violinist and bassist, with performers sending their reports of alien invasion back to Disney Hall.
Narrated by actor Sigourney Weaver, this “War” opened with a brass raucousness that vacillated between a “Twilight Zone”-like two-note motif and static radio sounds. Rountree led the ensemble with sweeping gestures, evoking, at times, a celestial, er, one might even say, extra-terrestrial quality reminiscent of Lalo Schiffrin’s “Mission Impossible” theme, with Mark Kashper leading an intense string section that could feel at home in any Bernard Herrmann score.
But the cacophony had just begun when Weaver alerted the audience to breaking news, explaining that “we may need to evacuate,” though there was “no need to panic.” There was great interplay between Weaver and the singers at the three siren sites, when a convincing Mayor Eric Garcetti made a surprise appearance at the Hall, assuring us that even though Martians had landed, the citizens of L.A. would prevail.
Supertitles were projected on screens in the concert venue, with the most striking visuals — and an otherworldly sonic landscape — coming from the astonishing Hila Plitmann as La Sirena who, with Joanne Pearce Martin on Theremin/sampler and Matthew Howard credited with percussion for live foley, performed from a riser at the rear of the stage, Pablo Santiago’s lush lighting adding to the atmosphere.