Atalanta strategy

An opera by Robert Ashley

ATALANTA (ACTS OF GOD), whose theme is “architecture”, is the first part of a trilogy of narrative works (“operas”), of which PERFECT LIVES, whose theme is “agriculture”, is the second part, and NOW ELEANOR’S IDEA, whose theme is “genealogy”, is part three.

1983. Marymount Manhattan Theater, New York.

Robert Ashley’s opera ATALANTA (ACTS OF GOD) is a collection of stories, songs and musical themes arranged into three groups. Each group is focused on the character of an extraordinary man of our times.

I.Max Ernst (surrealist painter)

II.Willard Reynolds (shaman storyteller)

III.Bud Powell (composer pianist).

The three groups/three men are thematically connected as possible suitors for an extraordinary woman, symbolized by Atalanta.

The core of each of these groups of material can be found in the “Anecdote”, which directly, albeit poetically, recounts some aspect of each man’s character. Each principal anecdote is surrounded by secondary stories and arias. But each of the three groups contains the same basic structure.

Elements from the three groups can be performed in two ways: 1) a program consisting of all or some of the component parts of one group, or 2) a program composed of, for example, all three of the Character References and all three Anecdotes.

1982. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.


“It’s a Girl”

The “Max” Character Reference (“When I met him he was pretty old...”)
The “Max” Anecdote:
“The Headlines”
“Chorale” (“No Never No”)
“Problems on the Flying Saucer”
The “Odalisque” Aria
“Au Pair”
“The Billfold”
“The Etchings”
“The Rotations”

The “Willard” Character Reference (“Our various ideas about work, our politics ...”)
The “Willard” Anecdote:
“The Headlines”
“Chorale” (“Tighter, Yeah”)
“Problems on the Flying Saucer”
The “Odalisque” Aria
“Au Pair”
“The Story of Tomato Soup” (aka “Empire”)
“The Mystery of The River”
“The Rotations”

The “Bud” Character Reference (“I said, Excuse me if I seem distracted.”)
The “Bud” Anecdote:
“The Headlines”
“Chorale” (“Giving Love Away”)
“Problems on the Flying Saucer”
The “Odalisque” Aria
“Au Pair”
“The Family Stories”
“Mr. Harris”
“The Rotations”

1985. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo by Lawrence Brickman.


The anecdotes, both in their vocal and instrumental forms, are performed in the spirit of “divine inspiration”, or heedlessness. In this method, which differs fundamentally from what might be termed “improvisation”, the characters of the opera are invoked, sometimes, in the process of their being depicted. In other words, “magic” is allowed as a reality.

Technically, the method requires at many points in the performance that the performer begin anew, but as a soloist, with her/his contribution to an evolving ensemble situation, but independently, and without foreknowledge of the intentions of the other members of the ensemble. Thus, an enormous variety of ensemble sounds and moods are discovered, and these discoveries are, in a sense, dedicated to (if not influenced by) the people the opera is about.

The performance of the music uses three styles of spontaneous invention: vocal inflection (irrespective of grammatical structure in the text), modal inflection of a pattern of melodic and harmonic suspensions in the synthesizer keyboard solos, and rhythmic inflection of the momentum in the mixing of pre-recorded orchestral materials with the sounds of the live performance.

1984. Hebbel Theater, Berlin. Photo by Richard Majchrzak.

Orchestral parts were commissioned by The Trisha Brown Dance Company, and various mixes of those parts are currently used for the dance, “Son of Gone Fishin’”, by Trisha Brown.

The creation of the three principal anecdotes was made possible with the support of the Festival d’Automne à Paris, Josephine Markovits, Music Director.

The Odalisque section was commissioned (originally, for orchestra and voice) by the Arch Ensemble (Berkeley, California), Robert Hughes and Thomas Buckner, Music Directors, with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts Consortium Commissioning Grant.

ATALANTA (ACTS OF GOD), in its complete version, was commissioned for performances produced by the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago, in 1985, under a program developed and curated by Nancy Hoyt. This work was made possible with grants from the Inter-Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The “Au Pair” stories were written by Jacqueline Humbert.

The principal anecdote in the third Episode, “Bud”, is adapted from a true story told by Daniel Filipacchi.

Original orchestra tracks derived from the “Palace” organ, courtesy of Gulbransen, CBS Musical Instruments, a division of CBS, Inc. Additional orchestra tracks recorded from the Gulbransen 380X Musicomputer and the Prophet 600.

1987. The Camden Festival, London.


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