I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky Synopsis

Like two of Adams' earlier works (Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer) this opera is based on actual news events in recent history. Here the event is the strong 1994 earthquake that hit the Los Angeles area, called the "Northridge earthquake" after the town nearest its epicenter. The title comes from a remark by a survivor, quoted in a newspaper.

Unlike the other Adams operas to that point, the characters of this one are all fictional. There are seven leading characters. Like any good disaster movie, the opera first acquaints us with them and then places them against the background of the disaster, the earthquake. They include a black man with a minor criminal record (Dewain) and his "undocumented immigrant" lover, Consuelo; a local African-American Baptist Church minister (David) who is in love with Leila, a graduate student and Planned Parenthood clinic counselor; this love is unrequited. Also unrequited is the love of Tiffany, a "pert, airbrushed anchorwoman" for Mike, an idealistic young policeman. The seventh character is Rick, a young lawyer who was the son of Vietnamese boat people. The opera follows these characters in their various interrelationships.

The main plot line is set in motion when Mike happens upon Dewain during a minor shoplifting incident. Since Mike is then being filmed by Tiffany, he can't defuse the situation simply by returning the two bottles of beer Dewain lifted, and the situation escalates to an on-camera felony case of resisting an officer. Rick defends Dewain, trying to get the charges dismissed, since the offense would be a "third strike" under the state of California's habitual offender statute. He examines Tiffany on the witness stand and falls in love with her. That evening, David finally has a moment alone with Leila, in the church. They embrace as the earthquake strikes. This natural disaster changes everyone's life, reveals secrets, clarifies goals and characters. At the end, the whole cast sings a septet which is in the form of a slow, gentle passacaglia.