Although Meredith Monk had been composing theatrical and semi-theatrical vocal works for two decades, Atlas, from 1991, represents her first real foray into the world of opera. During the 1970s Monk had developed a unique palette of extended vocal techniques, and had combined it with choreography, film, and other media. In 1979 she presented the multi-movement vocal work Dolmen Music, featuring members of a recently formed ensemble trained in Monk's style. The director of the Houston Opera heard Dolmen Music, invited Monk to instruct some of his singers for a 1985 performance of the piece, and opened the door for the subsequent commission of Atlas by the opera company. Even then, the genre had to strain a bit at its edges to encompass Monk's distinctive multimedia style; likewise, the composer applied her polymath talents to a degree rarely encountered in the opera world, devising the score, training the singers, as well as singing alongside them, and participating extensively in the choreography and visual design of the work.
The opera's plot line is drawn, quite loosely, from the life of Alexandra David-Néel, a noted nineteenth century explorer and Orientalist (and, for a brief period, professional opera singer). David-Néel's story is not treated historically, however, but metaphorically: the protagonist of Monk's opera, Alexandra Davies, sets out like her namesake on a journey to a distant place, but this trip turns out to be metaphysical rather than geographical. The opera's first act, "Personal Climate," begins with a teenaged Davies choosing traveling companions and embarking on her journey. In "Night Travel," a middle-aged Davies and her companions travel to the ends of the Earth. In "Invisible Light," Davies, now advanced in years, attains spiritual awakening. These three acts make up 24 scenes, each of which is built on a distinctive and characteristically lucid musical pattern, often a simple bass line or chord progression. Aside from a few unusual colors, such as the shawm and the glass harmonica, the ten-member instrumental ensemble remains largely unobtrusive throughout, primarily serving to establish the patterns to which the voices gradually add additional layers of patterned counterpoint. Little text is used to convey the plot; rather, the singers, who also double as dancers and mimes, act as flexible, organic instruments, painting each scene with unexpected timbres, curiously incongruous syllables, and subtle expressive inflections that combine with the visual elements to create an integrated artistic whole.