THE 'ATLANTIS' PROJECT
A CYCLE OF FOUR OPERAS
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The project is to compose and write libretti for a cycle of 4 operas on the subject of a lost civilisation of antiquity, drawing principally on Plato's account of 'Atlantis' and also on many contemporary writings of the last 100 years, which seek to find a basis of factual and psychological reality in the myths of many cultures linking past global cataclysm to the destruction of antediluvian civilisation.
Four pieces of music have already been composed by Strahan which present themes intended for use in the operas. One of these recordings has already been released on CD: 'Atlantis' for Flute and Piano. This was commissioned by Michael Scott of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and composed with the assistance of the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council, and it was first performed at a Masters Degree Recital by Belinda Gough, one of Michael Scott's most promising students, who is now furthering her career in Europe.
The second piece is 'Eden in Atlantis' for soprano Flute and Piano which was premiered last year by Liza Rintel, a soloist with Opera Australia, with Michael Scott and David Miller both distinguished soloists on the staff of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Together these two works portray aspects of the Atlantis story capturing its mythic characters and the magnificence of Atlantean civilisation.
A third work 'Atlantis Variations' is a 50 minute work in three sections for solo piano, which culminates in a passage portraying the ultimate destruction of this world by fire and flood, caused by an alignment of the sun, Venus, the Moon and Earth which causes an asteroid strike which in turn causes a slippage of the earth's crust.
A cycle of 4 operas invoking mythology and concluding with a flood clearly seeks to emulate the model suggested by Richard Wagner's 'Ring of the Nibelung'. Wagner's work was a product of the political and philosophic thought of the late 19th century, whereas the 'Atlantis' project will reflect changes in social attitudes of the last 100 years. However, what the project could have in common with Wagner's 'Ring' is its suitability for generating the kind of public interest in performance, leading to linkage in trade between art marketing and tourism, which a successful piece of music theatre often creates.
The first opera, "Eden in Atlantis" will evoke a time described by many cultures as an Age of Paradise, or a Golden Age, when humans lived closer to nature. The following three operas will deal with the events of the following time, an age of high civilisation dominated by a great maritime power, as described in the famous account of Atlantis written by the Greek philosopher and historian, Plato Aristocles, in 355 BC based on information told to his ancestor, the Athenian statesman Solon, by Egyptian priests in the city of Sais, in 590 BC Provisional titles for these operas are: "Poseidon in Atlantis"; "Calypso in Exile" and "The Destruction of Atlantis".
The following is the edited text of a talk given by the composer to introduce the first performance of the 25-minute Scene for Soprano, Flute & Piano, on Nov 16 1996.
"I would like first to explain why this Australian composer is choosing to explore a topic of such antiquity. What has this to do with Australia today? Why concern oneself with events which, if they happened, may have happened eleven thousand five hundred years ago! Why hark back to European literature? The story of Atlantis isn't even about the Pacific region! It's about the Atlantic Ocean. Well, let's widen the parameters a little. The Atlantis story is not European. It's Egyptian in origin. And, no doubt because of that, it has always been an embarrassment in European culture. It presents figures from Greek mythology as historical people. It claims knowledge of the Americas before they were discovered. It claims that a high civilisation existed during the Ice Age. And it claims that this civilisation was destroyed by a cataclysm of such magnitude that it could not have been a local event.
There is, of course, a huge literature on what is called pre-history. There are conflicts within science about the age of human civilisation, and there is conflict between religious and scientific opinion. And there is disagreement about the meaning of mythology. How much actual history does it contain? The scientific consensus has maintained that human civilisation as we know it began to evolve no earlier than 6,000 years ago. This safely quarantines human development within an era of geological stability, and allows for what is essentially the Western 19th century idea that technological and material development follow a path of progress, ever upward and onward.
That is at variance with an idea common to the early mythology of nearly every world culture - that a series of high civilisations have existed reaching back many millennia, each one being destroyed by a global cataclysm. Beliefs vary about how many such ages there have been. Four is the number given by both Greek and Hopi Indian traditions. The Mayan Indians count seven. The Chinese speak of ten. Western culture, borrowing from Hebrew Scripture, counts only two, Eden, and the age which ended with the Great Flood.
Plato gave a precise date for the sinking of Atlantis - 9,000 years before his own time: that is, 11,000 years ago, roughly the time of immense earth changes described by geology as the end of the Quaternary Age, a period of climate change which saw the end of the Ice Age and a rise in sea level. There is a great deal of evidence that these changes were accompanied by cataclysm. Perhaps the most vivid evidence is the case of the snap-frozen mammoths, whose bodies are still emerging from Siberian perma-frost. The first recorded body was found in 1797 and many have since been discovered in a frozen state, their meat still palatable to sleigh dogs, and with undigested tree leaves in their stomachs. On one famous occasion mammoth steaks were served to humans at an Academy of Sciences dinner in Moscow in the 1930's. The terrain in which the frozen mammoths are found does not support the kind of vegetation they were eating when they died. Their habitat was a temperate zone. It is clear that something cataclysmic happened which, in one stroke, suffocated or drowned them, froze them, some still standing upright, and moved their entire region within hours from a temperate to an arctic climate. Something that must have shaken the entire framework of the globe and affected every ocean and land mass.
Was this the same event which caused Atlantis to sink beneath the waves? Plato presented his account as history, and it was acclaimed by Socrates as "no invented fable but genuine history". Egyptian literature which might have confirmed the story told to Plato's ancestor was lost when the great libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum were destroyed by religious zealots in successive waves of conquest. Mayan Indian tradition echoes aspects of the Atlantis story. Alas, Mayan literature was lost too. All but 20 codices and scrolls of Mayan and Aztec writing were destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores, depriving us of all but the barest record of the pre-history of this region.
To complicate matters, science has also suppressed evidence. When Charles Darwin published his 'Origin of the Species', he deliberately ignored evidence of the inexplicable disappearance of whole species, because he wanted no loose ends in a theory which decreed that the planet has only experienced gradual change. Recent scientific confirmation that dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid strike 60 million years ago allows for modification of the dogma of uniformitarianism. But the same event around 11,000 years ago which killed mammoths also destroyed thousands of other species. All over the globe their fragmented remains are piled in chaotic graveyards from Alaskan muck islands to tar pits on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles!
To sum up, there is scientific evidence of past cataclysm. But is there any real evidence of human civilisation in the remote past coinciding with such global upheaval? Well, there is the hypothesis put forward by the late Professor Charles Hapgood, and which was cautiously endorsed by Albert Einstein. In 1966, Hapgood published a book titled "Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilisation in the Ice Age". This presented the results of a study of medieval and Renaissance maps which showed coastlines which had not yet been 'discovered', including parts of South America and an ice-free Antarctica. He theorised that these were copies of much older maps which were made by a maritime civilisation which existed prior to the change in sea levels that occurred roughly 11,500 years ago. He also theorised that, under as yet unknown circumstances, the lithosphere, the earth's outer crust, periodically shifts around on the core, causing whole areas of land once in temperate zones to shift into polar regions. Other evidence of past civilisation is in the Cyclopean building remains scattered around the globe, built by an unknown people, using an unknown technology who displayed great mathematical skill and knowledge of astronomy. The Egyptian pyramids are but the most famous example, and the larger ones together with the Sphinx are now thought by many to have been built much earlier than formerly supposed. The most recent book on this subject, "Fingerprints of the Gods", by Graham Hancock, suggests that Antarctica may have been the home base of this civilisation. Where does Atlantis fit into all of this? Well, recent history shows that an island can appropriate culture and become the centre of power. After all, Australia was invaded and colonised 200 years ago by just such a power!
Plato's story of Atlantis described the island as having, initially, been colonised by a god, Poseidon, who married one of the natives. What an intriguing idea that Positron and his brother Zeus may have originated in Antarctica and may have colonised Atlantis and the Mediterranean - thus creating two power groups which eventually went to war with each other, a conflict remembered in Greek myth as the war between the Gods and the Titans.
In a theatrical sense I find this whole saga very suitable for opera. But writing it is also part of my own quest for the truth about human origins. What happens when a world age ends? What happens is that we experience some extremely bad weather. The foundations of the earth are shaken. There are signs in the heavens. There are volcanic eruptions and earthquakes throughout the globe. Sometimes the sky moves, which can mean the poles shift, or the axis tilts. Enormous tidal waves sweep across continents carrying everything before them. A cloud cover of debris hides the sun for months, years, perhaps decades. The biblical shadow of death. How much of our civilisation would survive such devastation?
The assumption in most mythologies is that the end of a world age is an act of God, brought about by human wickedness. But what if such events are no more than very bad weather? Moreover, what if the very bad weather is, in cosmic terms, a relatively frequent event, even a relatively normal event ? Like a thunderstorm, or a hurricane? Perhaps the occurrence is cyclic? Perhaps the ancient human preoccupation with astrology is symptomatic of attempts to predict the event? Recent research suggests that the ancients had knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes, and were able to plot the occurrence of events during our galaxy's 26,000 year cycle.
If cataclysm is a cyclic event, the human race should come to terms with it. Religion already anticipates the last day. Science should plan for it. The truth can change attitudes. At the very least we should stop pointing nuclear warheads at each other, and point them instead to outer space, to home in on rogue asteroids. We should make good use of the time allotted to us. We should be kind to each other. We should heed the mute testimony of the dinosaurs from 65 million years ago; and the mammoths from 11,000 years ago.
Musicians especially have a reason to be grateful to those snap-frozen mammoths. Over the past three centuries musicians have had very intimate contact with these creatures, especially keyboard players. Historically, most of the world's ivory has come from mammoth tusks. The ivory was usable because, like mammoth meat, it was perfectly preserved. This means that since the invention of the keyboard, much music has been played on ivory from animals which died around 11,000 years ago."