LSD: The Opera charts the powerful historical ramifications—cultural, political, and spiritual—set into motion by Albert Hofmann’s discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide in 1943.
Embodied by three sopranos, LSD–Love, Sex, and Death–embark upon a trip of their own, encountering a diverse cast of characters known for their contributions to science, literature, publishing, intelligence, politics, and entertainment. A chorus functions variously as groups of prisoners, divinity students, reporters, CIA employees, heirs to the Mellon family fortune, and the high-stepping Georgetown Ladies.
Before LSD jump-started the counterculture movement, it was appropriated for nefarious uses by government agencies such as the CIA, and was ostracized, demonized, and feared. Practically half a century had to pass before the value of LSD as a therapeutic agent in medical and psychiatric settings began to once again gain traction and respect. The panorama of dramatic events initiated by the appearance of LSD encompasses scientific discoveries, murders, CIA classified experiments, festivities, and extraordinary meetings of minds among iconic figures such as Aldous Huxley, Albert Hofmann, and Timothy Leary.
The opera will be scored for an orchestra combining Harry Partch’s instruments (tuned with 43 tones to the octave) with Western and non-Western instruments. The listener’s perspective and perception will be affected by the fluid manipulation of tuning systems, contributing to the sonic illustration of events, actions, psychological states, and characters in LSD: The Opera.
In fifteen scenes, the dynamics of pop culture related to the promises of revelation and salvation that religion and science still offer us are explored through the kaleidoscopic lens of this remarkable yet controversial substance, lysergic acid diethylamide. In Act I, seven non-chronological scenes introduce most of the principle characters. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who first synthesized LSD, intentionally ingested a small amount as an experiment, and rode his bicycle home from the lab, hallucinating all the while. Bicycle Day is now celebrated throughout the world by LSD aficionados, on the day of his ride, April 19.
Ten years later, a pivotal meeting between Humphrey Osmond (psychiatrist who coined the word ‘psychedelic’) and Aldous Huxley changes the identity of LSD and other psychedelics from experimental drugs to universal mind-expanding agents. CIA director Allen Dulles activates Project MKUltra, a secret mind-control program manipulating people’s mental states through the surreptitious administration of LSD and other drugs, appointing Sid Gottlieb as head of the program. Albert Hofmann and his wife Anita make the acquaintance of Aldous and Laura Huxley during a luncheon; in the last scene of Act I, Mary Pinchot Meyer (mistress of John F. Kennedy) obtains LSD from Timothy Leary to distribute to “important figures in Washington DC.”
Act II commences with the increasingly demented overture of Phil Graham, President and publisher of the Washington Post, addressing the 1963 American Newspaper Publishers Conference. With an extreme lack of composure, he spills the secrets related to JFK and his mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer, who were evidently experimenting with LSD in the White House (depicted in the opera with shadow figures).
Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, spikes the champagne at Timothy Leary’s wedding. (One of our librettists, Gerd Stern, was present for the occasion.) Laura Huxley assists Aldous on his deathbed with an injection of LSD, per his request, as the assassination of JFK is simultaneously broadcast. Mary Meyer is viciously murdered one year after JFK’s death— friends and relatives race to find her tell-all diary. Years later, Cord Meyer, former CIA operative and her ex-husband, bitterly spills the truth about her still-unsolved murder, from his wheelchair in a nursing home. Sid Gottlieb, CIA spook who retired to run a leper hospital in India, returns as a goat-herder in Virginia; surrounded in his log cabin by all the surviving characters, they extol the Zen of Now.
Total of 12 principals (with double-casting):
LSD, Love, Sex, and Death (coloratura, lyric soprano, mezzo; S doubles as Mary, D as Laura)
Albert Hofmann, chemist who first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (tenor)
Allen Dulles, fifth director of CIA (bass; doubles as Cord)
Sid Gottlieb, head of CIA’s secret Project MK-Ultra (baritone; doubles as James) George Hunter White, head of CIA’s Operation Midnight Climax (tenor; doubles as Francis and Humphrey) Humphrey Osmond, psychiatrist who coined the word ‘psychedelic’ (tenor; doubles as Francis and George) Aldous Huxley, writer (lyric baritone)
Laura Huxley, wife of Aldous (mezzo; doubles as D)
Phil Grahm, publisher and co-owner of The Washington Post (dramatic baritone)
Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, spiritual seeker/teacher and writer (tenor)
Timothy Leary, psychologist and writer, instigator (high tenor)
Mary Pinchot Meyer, JFK’s lover and confidant (lyric soprano; doubles as S)
Katherine Graham, widow of Phil Graham and publisher/owner of The Washington Post (contralto)
Cord Meyer, CIA official and Mary Meyer’s ex-husband (bass; doubles as Allen) Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA (tenor; doubles as Humphrey and George) James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA (baritone; doubles as Sid)
Chorus: Partch instrumentalists (functioning as prisoners, divinity students, CIA employees, Hitchcocks of the Mellon family, and Georgetown Ladies)
Orchestra: flute, clarinet/bass clar., bassoon, contrabassoon, horn, trumpet, piano/celesta, harp, percussion, 2
violins, viola, cello, contrabass
Partch instruments: kithara, surrogate kithara, chromelodeon, diamond marimba, bass marimba, cloud chamber bowls, harmonic canon
See “MEDIA” tab to view photographs of the Partch instruments, videos of scenes performed at the the Wallis Annenberg Theater in Beverly Hills (First Take showcase), a video of the Tim and Mary scene performed at the Schindler House in Los Angeles, and historical figures on which the characters are based.