There were plenty of ways to get weird in McMinnville last weekend.
Ground zero was downtown, where thousands turned out under sunny skies for the 23rd annual UFO Festival parade, the most popular attraction in a weekend of programming organized by McMenamins Hotel Oregon. The festival draws an eclectic mix of professional and amateur ufologists, along with cosplay enthusiasts and sci-fi buffs, out-of-towners and locals hungry for a summer festival vibe.
Out on the east side of town, however, was weirdness of a different sort.
To be sure, Klingons, alien “Greys” and Men in Black will return next May, but what went down Saturday and Sunday at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum was arguably a once-in-a-lifetime affair, thanks to both Portland-based Third Angle New Music’s penchant for aesthetic adventure and fortuitous timing. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the flight of the Spruce Goose, the prototype “flying boat” built in the 1940s by Howard Hughes. Since the 1990s, the famous wooden aircraft with a sprawling 320-foot wingspan has resided at the McMinnville museum, and it was under the tail of that beast that Third Angle closed its 2022-23 season with two performances of a uniquely weird chamber opera by Philip Glass and librettist David Henry Hwang: the rarely performed “science fiction music drama” 1000 Airplanes on the Roof.
“Rarely performed” is a loaded distinction earned, unfairly or not, by a variety of performative pieces for all sorts of reasons, and Glass’ work checks several boxes.
Third Angle Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann came up with the idea in January 2022 after reading up on Hughes and the museum that houses the plane. I asked why 1000 Airplanes doesn’t get out much, and she ticked off several reasons, not the least of which is the unusual instrumentation.
The piece, which runs about 90 minutes, requires a few keyboardists on synthesizers and wind players each performing on several instruments including flute, various saxophones, and an electronic wind synth. There is also soprano Arwen Myers, whom I could have listened to all night — and a single character, “M,” played by Ithica Tell.
“That’s not a group that’s assembled by an orchestra, and musically it’s awfully involved for a traditional theater company to want to take it on,” Tiedemann said. “Then there’s the added layer of complexity doing anything outside a traditional concert venue. It takes a flexible organization like ours to pull this off. Third Angle is known for taking crazy ideas and making them happen, particularly with site-specific performances. It’s been all hands on deck, and our team has really rallied to pull this off.”
The story itself has a baked-in strangeness. This is where 1000 Airplanes on the Roof gets really interesting for a host of reasons. Hwang’s libretto is a first-person telling by M of what she believes was her abduction by aliens, although to say that she “believes” this is part of the story’s psychological complexity.
M, whose single-letter name recalls Kafka’s similarly disoriented “K” in his posthumously published novel The Castle, really doesn’t know what to believe, or whether she should tell anyone. Her apparently extraterrestrial captors, whose ineffable presence is frighteningly evoked by the sound of swarming bees, give her clear marching orders: “It is better to forget. It is pointless to remember. No one will believe you. You will have spoken a heresy. You will be outcast.”
Between 1975 and 2021, Glass composed nearly 30 operas, and 1000 Airplanes appeared in 1988, little more than a year after a well-publicized template for the alien abduction experience was making its way into American culture. Early in 1987, writer Whitley Strieber’s Communion hit bookstores, introducing to the world the now nearly ubiquitous popular visual conception of a bug-eyed alien “Grey,” whose visage is always in plentiful supply during the UFO Festival. Strieber’s book shot to the top of national best-seller lists (on the nonfiction charts) with a cover image rendered by artist Ted Jacobs based on the author’s easel-side description of an entity he claims showed up in his upstate New York cabin bedroom on Dec. 26, 1985.
M’s bizarre story, which isn’t so much re-enacted as told with Glass’ signature sound as a sonic backdrop, is clearly a nod to Communion (and also the 1961 Betty and Barney Hill case) in a key respect. Both are stories in which the “experiencer” (as they are respectfully termed in ufology) simply attempts to understand what happened to them while hanging on to their sanity. Glass’ score feels like it’s sweeping us along to some liminal singularity, the place occupied by M where distinctions between real and imagined, terror and ecstasy, sanity and insanity are blurred.
Hwang touches on this in a 1990 anthology of his dramatic works.
“While researching the topic of UFO abductions, I was moved by the plight of individuals who believe they have encountered this phenomenon,” Hwang wrote. “They seem to be caught in an insoluble dilemma: To the extent that they admit that this has happened, they are, by definition, crazy; if they try to deny the experience, however, they create a disjunction with their own past which then drives them crazy.”
As M puts it about 45 minutes into the piece: “How can I say it? Even to myself? Without thinking I’m crazy? And yet, if it is the truth, and I continue to deny it in order to remain sane, is that not the height of insanity?”
It is a relentless carousel of internal dialogue that, it turns out, is appropriately accompanied by the wild repetition found in a Glass score, which was dazzlingly performed by half a dozen artists. Soprano Myers, providing the stunning wordless vocals, was joined by Tiedemann on piccolo/flute and wind synth, John Nastos on flute and soprano sax, Sean Fredenburg on soprano sax and tenor sax, and Maria Garcia and Yoko Greeney on synthesizers. Nikolas Caoile conducted, and Charley Reneau provided the voice of the alien.
In the end, M opts for the safety of normalcy. Reclining on a hospital bed on the small patch of scaffolding that provided a slightly elevated stage, she is questioned relentlessly by an off-stage doctor voiced by Elaine Vote.
“Do you ever see faces above the subways?” the doctor asks. “Have you ever been visited by beings from other worlds? Has the furniture in your apartment ever been visited by paranormal experience? Has a sound appeared to you in the flesh? Do you understand the mechanics of the fourth and fifth dimensions? Has your hand ever drawn, in spare moments, machines beyond your comprehension?”
To each of these and many, many other questions, M obediently replies, “No.”
As M’s existential crisis illustrates, there are multiple prisms through which one can view aliens in the bedroom or on the roof, or anywhere. Third Angle characterizes its production of 1000 Airplanes as fitting the season’s mission to “explore the human mind” and destigmatize mental illness, a problem that by most accounts is on the rise. Interestingly, destigmatization is a project military officials have said is among their goals since the Pentagon’s concession in 2017 that UFOs are real. With a fully staffed office charged with collecting UFO data and issuing regular reports, officials want military personnel, and particularly pilots, to feel comfortable coming forward to describe what they’ve seen.
Third Angle ties it back to the man who built the Spruce Goose. “M’s psychosis,” the show notes state, “mirrors the life of billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes, the architect of the Spruce Goose, who was afflicted with his own mental health struggles.” Tiedemann and Tell, interviewed last week by Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Dave Miller on Think Out Loud, both seemed drawn to the ambiguity of M’s story. Maybe it happened, or maybe it’s just all “in her head” — whatever that might mean.
Indeed, ambiguity is part of the production’s aesthetics. “So what is an opera?” the program notes ask. “That’s the question at the heart of a piece like this. The answer is triumphantly ambiguous.” Unlike traditional opera, 1000 Airplanes’ narrative is spoken, not sung; Myers’ singing is wordless. Amusingly, the music that Glass intended to be “futuristic” at the time now sounds, thanks in large part to the synth work, very “eighties.”
Given the territory that Strieber’s book and 1000 Airplanes on the Roof render in prose and music, it is unsurprising that not all critics were thrilled. In addition to some humiliating interviews of the author on television, Communion was annihilated by The Nation magazine in a legendarily vicious 6,000-plus-word review, although the author got the last laugh by prominently displaying the following excerpt on the back cover: “If Whitley Streiber isn’t fibbing in his new book Communion, then it must be accounted the most important book of the year, of the decade, of the century.”
When 1000 Airplanes premiered in Washington, D.C., a year later, The Washington Post’s critic termed it “avant-garde theater of an intermittently compelling and disappointing nature” that “pales after a while.” The Boston Globe was similarly dismissive. Even so, as if to prove that Glass invariably divides audiences into two irreconcilable camps, the Chicago Sun-Times landed on the other side. 1000 Airplanes, that paper’s critic declared, was “no ordinary multimedia spectacle. A seamless blend of art and technology, it is an intensely moving and visually stunning piece of theater that redefines the boundaries between live performance and film with mind-boggling dexterity.”
Given that 1000 Airplanes on the Roof was unveiled in the wake of a book that for a short while was a national sensation, it seems appropriate to note the unique cultural moment in which the delightfully unique Third Angle revival was mounted. Many of the officials who were interviewed a few years ago by The New York Times and 60 Minutes about UFOs have since hit the podcast circuit and strongly hinted, teased, and suggested that, Chinese spy balloons notwithstanding, officials really do believe they’re dealing with some unknown nonhuman intelligence.
But a couple of days before 1000 Airplanes took flight, this meandering Pentagon UFO story (which has now been the topic of two public briefings you can watch on C-SPAN) took a twist: the spectacle of a highly regarded Stanford University biologist, Dr. Garry Nolan, saying he is “100 percent” certain that Earth is being visited by aliens and talking matter-of-factly about the government quietly trying to reverse-engineer “downed craft.”
Thing is, Nolan wasn’t on a podcast streaming from a millennial’s basement; he was speaking last week at SALT iConnections, a prestigious international conference of high-tech royalty, industrial capitalists, political power brokers, and financiers at the Glass House in Manhattan. Unlike Strieber’s visibly uncomfortable appearance on the Phil Donahue Show (remember him?) Nolan’s extraordinary assertions didn’t elicit laughter.
So who knows? Depending on how all that plays out, whatever “real” turns out to be, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof may one day graduate from one of Glass’ “rarely performed” minor operas to the most important one he ever wrote. Maybe even the most important opera of the century.