In the 1980s, when the composer, choreographer, performer and director Meredith Monk was commissioned to create a new work for the Houston Grand Opera, she spent most of the budget on luxuriant amounts of rehearsal time. After all, she had to school traditional operatic forces in her idiosyncratic, Buddhism-inspired process, which is as much a way of life as a way of making music.
During auditions for the work, “Atlas” — her masterpiece and one of the defining operatic experiments of the 20th century — divas in heels and gaudy gowns showed up at Ms. Monk’s TriBeCa loft looking as if they wanted a job at the Metropolitan Opera. She offered them sweatpants and socks instead.
Once the singers slipped into more comfortable clothes and the Monk method ran its course, the result was glorious — a sui generis, stirringly spiritual, nearly textless tale of the maturation of a female explorer. Its plot and emotions are evoked through intricate gradations of pitch, volume and vocal attack, a vocabulary of gentle wailing, babble and calligraphically flowing lines, rather than words.
But it was virtually impossible to replicate.
Because so much of Ms. Monk’s output is holistic — dealing with the mind and body in equal measure — and emerges in precise response to the strengths and weaknesses of her particular performers at a particular moment, with scores that are incomplete at best, revivals are rare. When they do happen, she is central to the process.
For the first time, however, she is entrusting one of her theatrical productions — “Atlas,” no less — to someone else: Yuval Sharon, who is staging the opera for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, June 11-14.
“It’s an enormous honor but also an enormous responsibility,” said Mr. Sharon, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient who with “Atlas” is concluding a fruitful three-year residency with the Philharmonic. “I’d like to think of it as a milestone. Everybody knows that this cannot be a piece that we just take on with any sense of casualness.”
For Ms. Monk — who is in her mid-70s but is not planning to retire, she said, until she “drops dead” — it is an experiment. What does her work look like in the hands of another artist? In a piece whose music, movement and design are intricately interwoven, what happens when discrete elements become the work of individual artists? And, if all goes well, what else might be ripe for revival?
In an interview at her loft, Ms. Monk said she probably would not have allowed another director to take on the opera. But Mr. Sharon, whom she met when they worked together on John Cage’s “Song Books” with the San Francisco Symphony in 2012, won her over. Patient process is central to his work, much as it is to hers, and he had long adored the 1993 ECM New Series recording of “Atlas.”
“The essence of the whole relationship: I know that he loves this piece,” Ms. Monk said. “That is the bottom line. And I trust that he actually understands what this piece is, the aspiration of it. What more can you ask for?”
Mr. Sharon asked Ms. Monk to be involved in the Philharmonic revival, at least to give approval throughout its development. But she said no.
“If I were going to approve of it, I would do my own production,” she recalled telling him. “This is an experiment to see if you can fly with this, if you can dream with this. And that’s the only way we’re going to know.”
THE RARITY of “Atlas” — after the premiere in Houston and a 1992 run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it all but disappeared — belies its greatness. Its spiritual journey and cosmic mystery, as well as its mesmerizing temporal elasticity, rival Wagner’s “Parsifal.” Joshua Kosman, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, once compared it to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and said it “ranks with the most haunting and original music theater of our time.”
It is loosely inspired by the life of Alexandra David-Néel, a European explorer who traveled to Tibet. The opera’s Alexandra is joined by companions, each seeking some kind of fulfillment. (Her aspiration: “to seek the unknown.”) They embark on a globe-spanning quest by turns surreal and metaphorical, encountering ghosts, demons and, by the end, a state of pure energy.
The title refers to the world but could just as easily apply to the expansive vocal technique on display; it’s essentially an encyclopedia of Ms. Monk’s artistry up to that point. And, like much of her output, it is very much an ensemble work. The line between soloist and group is often blurry — to the extent that, when Ms. Monk cast the show, she didn’t give out specific roles: Everyone learned everything.
Because the ensemble is so central to making “Atlas” work, Ms. Monk did tell Mr. Sharon that she wanted to help cast the Los Angeles production. The singers who made it through a traditional audition with Mr. Sharon came to New York for two days of intensive, workshop-like callbacks with her.
She asked the performers to demonstrate the technique required for the opera, including the movement, but the rest was more intuitive. “I was looking at the radiance of them, the generosity of their spirit,” Ms. Monk said. “The nose knows. I just can see it.” (Mr. Sharon was similarly imprecise yet assured: “She just sees right to the heart of people, and it’s beautiful to behold.”)
Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, who was cast as Alexandra, the role originated by Ms. Monk, said she found the auditions more humane than the five or 10 minutes singers typically get. “I felt like I had the time to settle into my skin more,” she said.
“It was just like: The point is not to put on some show and pretend that I’m really accomplished or that I’m the best for the role,” Ms. Lynn-Jacobs added. “The point is to be myself.”
In Los Angeles, Katie Geissinger, an original cast member, was brought in as a coach. Jeannette LoVetri, Ms. Monk’s vocal teacher — and the reason, Ms. Monk said, she’s in such good vocal health at her age — is helping as a consultant.
Wayne Hankin, also from the Houston production, is serving as a music adviser and playing in the pit with the orchestra, which includes instruments not typically found in opera, like a Tibetan singing bowl and a sheng, a traditional Chinese wind instrument. He also worked with Ms. Monk to create a new edition of the score, with a slightly expanded orchestration and, for the first time, a notated vocal line. (Previously, the singers had learned their parts by ear.)
Even so, a melody on the syllable “ah” gets a singer only so far. That’s where Ms. Monk’s colleagues have come in — to teach a new generation her technique, Ms. Geissinger said, “the way a choreographer would put together steps.”
Part of Ms. Geissinger’s work, she added, is allowing the singers to let go so they can be more expressive, reinventing the piece for themselves rather than aping the recording. Music education is full of rules — how to stand, how to breathe — and rehearsing “Atlas” is about breaking those down, opening up one’s artistry without sacrificing skill. As Mr. Sharon put it, “All composers want individuals to perform their music, but Meredith wants the music to unlock the individual personality of the performer.”
It’s easy, Ms. Lynn-Jacobs said, to think of singing as something that happens “in your throat and head.” But she has come to think of it as a broader experience. “Being in all of your physical body is just as important,” she said. “You let go, and you realize that our bodies are our lives. We have them for a reason; they tell us things.”
She has also found the nearly wordless libretto to be a revelation. “You realize,” she said, “how limiting language is.”
The opera could hardly look more different in Los Angeles than it did in Houston and Brooklyn. At the heart of Mr. Sharon’s production is a massive sphere, 36 feet in diameter, that will fill the stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. (The first four rows of seats have been removed to make room for the orchestra.) It will spin and serve as a canvas for video projections.
“The sphere felt like the perfect expression — a microcosm and a macrocosm,” Mr. Sharon said. “It could be an atom or an eye, or the earth or the sun. It can, in a way, represent this sphere of consciousness and very fluidly transform into a universal expression.”
Mr. Sharon has also made small changes to the libretto. Some fixes are for political correctness, in scenes where the travelers might have come off as colonists. Others are to amplify Ms. Monk’s prophetic depictions of a fragile environment now increasingly threatened by climate change.
“She might not like everything,” Mr. Sharon said with a nervous laugh.
Ms. Monk isn’t worried. She’s also not totally in the dark. Here and there, she has received updates from her colleagues, and she’s thrilled by what she’s heard. So is Mr. Hankin, one of her enthusiastic messengers, who has been fully persuaded by the insights the young team is bringing to “Atlas.”
“Houston was nice,” he said. “But it’s now a memory. This is theirs.”
June 11-14 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; laphil.com.