The ensemble was ready to premiere its “processional” opera — a ritual journey through the afterlife, where the audience would be led through the grounds of the Getty Villa after dark. But on the day of the premiere, as the company rehearsed a story about the other side of death, walls of fire ripped toward Malibu and Pacific Palisades.
The devastating Woolsey Fire in November spared the villa, but it shut down operations at the museum — and the new opera “katabasis” from the L.A. company Four Larks.
“That there are forces of nature that are beyond our control, and there’s not really anything that we can do about them, felt sort of appropriate to the journey that we’ve been taking,” said Mat Sweeney, the work’s creator and composer.
That journey has continued, and “katabasis” has risen from the ashes: The show will finally have its fully staged premiere this week with three sold-out performances Thursday through Saturday.
Four Larks, the junkyard opera company led by Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, had drafted two other works, “Orpheus” (2014) and “Homeric Hymns” (2017), as part of the Villa Theater Lab, an incubator for theater artists to develop work connected to the museum’s collections.
The company typically performs in a warehouse downtown, but the villa invited Four Larks to develop an opera to be staged on-site, inspired by the exhibition “Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife.” That show was built around a loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Naples: a massive southern Italian vase decorated with what could be “a movie poster for the underworld,” according to curator David Saunders.
The exhibition is an artistic survey of the 5th and 4th centuries BC in Greece and southern Italy, “when ideas about the afterlife are sort of in flux, developing, coalescing,” Saunders said. “You’re starting to see people thinking about where they’re going to go and how to improve their chances of going somewhere good.”
Among the show’s highlights are tiny golden tablets imprinted with instructions for the deceased once they’ve arrived in the underworld — remnants of mysterious rites that were usually reserved for the wealthy.
“The idea of these essentially religious, performative ceremonies that would guide initiates through the process of dying and going down into the underworld — that really was the element of the exhibition that David was most interested in,” Sweeney said, “and that feels like it’s such an obvious leaping-off point for creating a performance.”
Like past Four Larks productions, Sweeney composed a score — which he described as “chamber pop, with world-folk traditions infused into it” — for a bespoke ensemble of 13 players.
“We’re bringing in performers who have a really exciting range of practices, whether that’s butoh, a Chinese guzheng player, an Appalachian folk singer or an underground jazz singer,” Sweeney said.
“That feels like it’s really specific to L.A. as a cosmopolitan city. Greek polytheism is all about the ability to absorb other gods, and there is an inherent cultural exchange that’s a part of that.”
Audience members — 100 “initiates” at each performance — will begin their trek after the museum has closed, starting in a back garden normally off-limits. Guided by the ensemble, they will travel through a modern spin on the ancient conception of the afterlife — a “katabasis” is a descent into the underworld — and witness Sisyphus rolling his boulder up a hill, Tantalus and other figures springing to life from the exhibition.
The opera is contemporary and political, the creators said, although they won’t divulge much more — other than emphasizing that it’s not modern in a gimmicky way (“Medusa on an iPhone!” Sweeney joked).
There’s no set other than the architecture of the grounds, which Four Larks was given mostly free rein to roam. The company typically works with found objects, and for this piece, as Peters-Lazaro put it, “the villa is our found material.”
“To have this silent museum at night and areas that are usually full of hushed voices — just the sounds bouncing off the walls in unexpected ways is really a great thing to activate and to experience,” he said.
At the end of the 70-minute production, audience members can take in the exhibition and reflect on the images and ideas that inspired “katabasis.”
After the original two-week run went up in flames, Four Larks held a concert version of the show in its downtown space, thinking that would be the only opportunity to perform it. But, Sweeney said, “the spine was missing.”
The villa was able to carve out three nights for a second chance before the “Afterlife” exhibition closes in March, so a few hundred people can experience the opera the way it was conceived — providing an opportunity, as Saunders put it, “to really make the museum walls and the collection porous in some way.”
Museums are among the few places for which people still leave their homes to experience art, Peters-Lazaro noted, forming a congregation of strangers.
“For us,” he said, “continuing that to the next step of adding a performance level, which requires that congregation in time and space, felt like a very pertinent way to keep the conversation going.”