It's hard to describe exactly what it feels like to trip on hallucinogenic drugs (though, believe me, we've spilled many words trying). The brain on psychedelics lies somewhere between Earth and the otherworldly, sensing what is actually there while also perceiving those things just beyond reality, and never really knowing which is which. Sometimes, while under the influence, there is a thought, a vision, a sound, that seems to turn the entire universe on its head.
That is, in part, what it's like to listen to the work-in-progress that is LSD: The Opera. At times, the music is jarring; in other parts, it's melodic and ethereal. If you tune out the lyrics, it feels almost like a hallucination, full of unexpected noises and microtones that don't seem to exist in nature.
The goal of LSD: The Opera is not to simulate the experience of tripping, but to recreate the tumultuous history of the drug (it does seem, in this case, that function follows form). The opera is still in development—only about a third of it has been written, and only a few scenes have been performed—but what exists so far includes the history of Albert Hofmann, the accidental father of LSD; the CIA's secretive research on the drug, known as MKUltra; Aldous Huxley's first mescaline trip as described in Doors of Perception; and Timothy Leary's persuasive "dropping out" of the 1960s.I was desperate to know more. So I found Anne LeBaron, the composer and one of the librettists for the production.It should be noted that LeBaron is a respected composer in her own right. The Los Angeles Times once called her a "composer as transformer" for her ability to create alternate realities with her music. The New Yorker has described her as "an unusually inventive composer." She's worked on projects as diverse as an opera about New Orleans Voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau (Crescent City), an autobiographical monodrama about paranormal disturbances in her own home (Some Things Should Not Move), and a "one-woman cyborg opera" (Sucktion), which blurred the distinction between housewife and vacuum cleaner. And now, she's adding opera-as-acid-trip to the list.
An early, unstaged performance of "Bicycle Day," a scene in 'LSD: The Opera' where Albert Hofmann experiences the first LSD tripVICE: LSD: The Opera presents LSD as a structured story. Where does that story begin?
Anne LeBaron: Albert Hoffman, a Swiss scientist, was the person who first synthesized LSD in 1943. He was an upstanding scientist, a very respected scientist. He took a very small dose every day for his entire life.When [Hoffman] accidentally absorbed some of the LSD through his fingertips and got a buzz, he decided to dose himself a little bit, and became the first person to take a trip. He had no idea what dose to take. Back in 1943, there was a shortage of cars in Switzerland, so he rode his bike home, and he was tripping as he rode home. And when he finally crashed into his house, he wrote in his journal that he felt as though he was not moving at all. He was desperate for an antidote to the drug because he had overdosed himself, so he cried out for milk, and his neighbor brought him milk. But she appeared to him as a hideous witch in a mask. All that is in the opera.That seems very fantastical, very theatrical.
It's easy to just kind of sink back down into the historical and the authentic things that took place, sort of the "real" truth. But in opera you can go beyond that, taking liberties with such fascinating characters, and inventing new ones.
She thought if she could take LSD into the White House and give it to JFK, it would lead to world peace.
What other characters have you included in the opera?
I turned LSD into a soprano trio, and this soprano trio is kind of a unifying factor throughout the opera. The LSD trio rides home with [Hoffman, after his trip]. Hoffman doesn't really come back, but what happens to LSD after that is that the CIA had a secret project called MKUltra. It was a project for the exploitation of LSD to find out if it could be a mind control agent, a truth serum. This started about ten years after it was discovered, so in the early 50s. The government was afraid that Russia was ahead of us in finding a truth serum and wanted to use LSD as a weapon. We have a scene with the person who directed MKUltra, and you see LSD escapes being a very beautiful drug into one that is exploited and abused by the US government.Then it got into the counterculture. Everybody knows about that; that's what we all think of, right? So, of course, Timothy Leary—who was a great proselytizer and a most unsavory character—he has a scene. And the great writer Aldous Huxley, who wrote Doors of Perception based on his first hallucinogenic experience with mescaline, and later took LSD, has a scene. Then we have a scene with Mary Meyer, who was JFK's most beloved mistress, who would procure LSD from Timothy Leary to take back to Washington, DC. She thought if she could learn to be a guide in controlled circumstances, and if she could take LSD into the White House and give it to JFK, that it would lead to world peace.
As a composer, speaking from the musical side of things, how does the story influence the musicality?
The thing that was foremost in my mind, before I started, was: How can I write an opera about LSD when all of the music of the counterculture is just so great, and that's what people associate with LSD? Then I had an epiphany. And that was to use these Harry Partch instruments. Do you know anything about music theory?No, not really.
So, there are 12 tones to the octave. On a piano, you go from C to C and when you hit the higher C, you've played through 11 tones and the higher C is the 12th tone. Harry Partch's system is one with 43 tones to the octave. Imagine a piano with lots more keys between the lower C and the higher C. Forty-three tones, right? So my thought was to have those Partch instruments with the weird, microtonal scale combined with other instruments like string quartet, some winds and brass and percussion, to make things sound as though you're perceiving something that is not all of this Earth.That's brilliant. So you're hearing tones that obviously exist, but which are not part of the music we hear in our everyday lives—almost like an auditory hallucination.
Right. I had said to myself and to others, "I can't create a sound which would be like what you might hear or what you might perceive if you were under the influence of LSD." But you know what? I think I did. I say that because that's what it sounded like to me when I heard it. This has been corroborated by other people. So I chose the Partch instruments to help to take it out of the world that we know and to put it into a kind of psychedelic place, for a lack of another word.
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I know you performed a few staged scenes recently, and I read Mark Swed's review of those in the LA Times. He wrote there was a "feminist spirit" to the opera, especially since you have this trio of sopranos guiding the story along. Was that a conscious decision?
This is really interesting. Mark was telling me about his take on the feminist spirit and I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "It's very clear." Most of the men in this opera are scumbags and sleazeballs, and the two women who are the guiding light are Laura Huxley, who was Aldous Huxley's wife, who sings him into the next world when he's dying—I've written a beautiful part for her—and Mary Meyer, who had this great idea that she could help to get us away from the Cold War and move everything in a positive direction. And then, of course, the LSD trio—that's another kind of guiding, feminist spirit.I certainly wasn't thinking of this consciously, like, "We'll have a feminist spirit in this opera," but I was concerned, when the first libretto was sent to me, that there were no female characters. Women had very little to do with the invention and the further journeys of LSD. Very little to do with it. In the counter-culture, it was all male activity—the Timothy Learys, the Allen Ginsburgs, the Aldous Huxleys—and women were definitely in the backdrop, in the background. When I first got the libretto two years ago, I wanted to enlarge the characters who were there—and Laura Huxley was already there, and Mary Meyer was already there. And it kind of was an epiphany to make LSD a soprano trio, and create LSD as a character in the opera.Why write it as an opera, though? Opera doesn't strike me as an art form associated with hallucinogenics.
My two librettists [Gerd Stern and Ed Rosenfeld]—[Gerd] is 86 years old, and he knew Timothy Leary, he knew Allen Ginsburg; somebody called him the Forrest Gump of the psychedelic world—if they were talking to you, they might say that the goal of the libretto is to show how LSD led to a balance between good and bad. Between the positive and negative. I keep making the point that we have to show that through action, we can't just tell it. We can't just comment on it, but it has to be through what we see and feel.You can listen to select scenes from LSD: The Opera at lsdtheopera.com.This interview was edited for length and clarity.Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.