LSD: The Opera: Psychedelics Hit the Stage

Millions of words have been written about LSD and countless songs carry a debt to the oft-demonized hallucinogen. It even lends its name to a whole genre of popular music, acid rock, but there's never been an opera devoted to it. Until now.


Earlier this year, LSD: The Opera opened with a partial performance at the Wallis Annenberg Theater in Beverly Hills in February. That was followed by a pair of performances at the Schindler House in Los Angeles of a scene featuring Timothy Leary and Mary Pinchot Meyer (JFK's murdered mistress) in April, and a performance of five scenes at the REDCAT Theater in downtown Los Angeles in June.

The piece is still a work in progress—only about a third of it has been written—and it seeks not so much to replicate the LSD experience as to tell the history of the culture-warping psychedelic. The characters include LSD itself, played by three female sopranos (Love, Sex and Death), as well as acid icons Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary and LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann, among others.

Scenes written so far include one on Hofmann and his initial accidental discovery of the drug, one on the CIA and its secret LSD experiments in the MK Ultra program, one on Huxley's first psychedelic experience—a mescaline trip described in The Doors of Perception—and one on Leary's siren call to "tune in, turn on, and drop out." Guggenheim fellow Anne LeBaron composed the music and contributed to the libretto, along with Gerd Stern and Ed Rosenfeld.

The score may not replicate the acid experience, but it certainly creates a psychedelic ambiance, thanks in large part to its reliance on American composer Harry Parch's instruments, a collection of Western and non-Western instruments tuned with 43 tones to the octave, and quite capable of shifting listeners' perspective and perception with its fluid manipulation of tuning systems. The result is ethereal and melodic, full of unexpected sounds and microtones that seem to come from another planet.

Anne LeBaron is "an unusually inventive composer," according to the New Yorker, having created an opera about New Orleans voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau, "one-woman cyborg opera" (Sucktion) in which the line between a housewife and vacuum cleaner gets blurred, and an autobiographical monodrama about paranormal goings on in her own home, among other works. Her inventiveness is on full display in LSD: The Opera. Not only the Parchian instrumentation and intonation, but also her use of LSD the character is especially interesting. She (in the form of the three sopranos) bicycles home with Hofmann after his famous first trip, and she escapes from the clutches of the CIA, where she is exploited and abused, into the hungry hands and minds of Leary, Ram Dass and their ilk, bringing the psychedelic revolution into mass consciousness.

We leave you with two videos, the first an introductory interview with LeBaron interspersed with tones from the opera, and the second a scene from the opera itself. Talk about high culture.

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