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Experimental City – Los Angeles’ operatic dimensions

Marie Laveau (Gwendolyn Brown) emerging from her Tomb in The Industry's production of 'Crescent City' (Photo: Joshua White Photography)

When people think Los Angeles, they often think Hollywood and ‘Hollywood’ tends to be a byword for glitz and superficiality. But Los Angeles is also a home to musical experimentation. The groundbreaking Monday Evening Concerts that started on the roof of Peter Yates’ home in Silver Lake in 1939 are still going strong (though no longer on the rooftop), and I try never to forget that John Cage was born in the Good Samaritan Hospital on Wilshire Boulevard in 1912.

One of the significant ways in which Los Angeles contributes to musical life is in opera. Composer Anne LeBaron, who is interviewed later in this article, has written that living in Los Angeles, she’s ‘fortunate to be in physical proximity to nimble companies that embrace risk-taking, companies that are beginning to make history (or have been doing so for some time) by presenting challenging new work’ [i]. She mentions Long Beach Opera (soon to do Peter Lieberson’s ‘campfire opera under the stars’, King Gesar), Opera Povera and also The Industry, which established itself last year with a production of her ‘hyperopera’, Crescent City.

The Marassa Jumeaux (Maria Elena Altany, Ji Young Yang) in 'Crescent City' (Photo by Joshua White Photography)

Founded by director, Yuval Sharon, and producer, Laura Kay Swanson, The Industry aims to ‘present new and experimental productions that merge music, visual arts, and performance in order to expand the traditional definition of opera and create a new paradigm for interdisciplinary collaboration’ (according to their website). In October they’ll be presenting Invisible Cities, an opera by Christopher Cerrone based on the book of the same name by Italo Calvino. As The Industry’s kickstarter fundraising campaign said of this work, ‘Imagine yourself in LA’s historic Union Station, surrounded by passengers and passersby, wearing a comfortable pair of top-of-the-line Sennheiser wireless headphones with crystal-clear sound technology, listening to a new opera while discovering the live singers and dancers appearing and disappearing throughout the space.’ It’s a project that takes cognizance of Sharon’s desire to exploit opera’s capacity for multi-perspectives. It also has the support of the City and new mayor, Eric Garcetti – the kind of collaborative experimental work that Los Angeles is ripe for.

The big buzz last year, however, was Crescent City, the Industry’s first production in an old warehouse in Atwater Crossing [ii]. Its composer Anne LeBaron is a New Orleanian who now teaches at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) based in Santa Clarita in one of Los Angeles’ northern valleys. A former student of Mauricio Kagel and György Ligeti, LeBaron has pushed the boundaries not only of opera, but of instrumental music. I heard her monodrama Some Things Should Not Move (about her experiences in a haunted apartment in Vienna) at The Colburn School’s Zipper Hall in March and can well understand how an eventual production of that opera, when it is complete, might make a virtue of positioning the audience in a haunted space (if indeed that’s the direction it goes in).

Crescent City is what LeBaron calls a ‘hyperopera’. Not so much a genre, says LeBaron, as a ‘state of mind’, hyperopera takes opera’s collaborative potential and ‘ramps it up to another place that is more collaborative than anything you might imagine’. Hyperopera grew out of LeBaron’s courses at CalArts where students from various disciplines would get together and create an opera in a semester. There might be several writers, a composer for each character, negotiated ensemble writing…Crescent City took that concept to the highest professional level. Though there was only one composer, LeBaron and director Yuval Sharon storyboarded the opera before the final libretto was drafted. Sound designers and visual artists became members of the collaboration, ‘the creative family’, at an early stage of the process. They created the city that was the character behind everything else that went on in the opera [iii].

Crescent City is set in a city like New Orleans, just after a post-Katrina type event. Expecting another hurricane, Marie Laveau, queen of the voodoos, rises from her grave and approaches the Loa, the voodoo gods, pleading with them to spare her beloved city. At first indifferent, they eventually agree to save the city if they can find one good man in the debris.

‘The overall idea of hyperopera,’ said LeBaron when I met her in Santa Clarita, ‘is to diminish the hierarchy in opera, so that it’s not top-down composer, director, librettist and then the servants.’ In fact, LeBaron’s desire to change the hierarchy is inspired by the free interchange and fresh results of jazz. (Her score for Crescent City was described by Culture Spot LA as ‘Preservation Hall on acid’.) The big thing with this Crescent City production, however, was the use and design of the performance space. Six installation artists – Brianna Gorton, Mason Cooley, Katie Grinnan, Alice Könitz, Jeff Kopp and Olga Koumoundouros actually evolved a city in the Atwater warehouse. There was a supervening authority (Brianna Gorton was the curator) but separate ‘architects’ for the ‘buildings’ – cemetery, hospital, ‘dive bar’, swamp, Good Man’s Shack and junk heap – eventually amounting to a distinctive ‘civic character’.

The Good Man (Cedric Berry) in his shack (designed by Mason Cooley) (Photo: Joshua White Photography)

What made this opera such a unique experience? Audience members sat in the city with various options on where to sit in relation to the performers and musicians. ‘Our Dive Bar, the “Chit Hole”,’ says LeBaron, ‘was actually a long tongue of a runway – the tip was a tongue – and we had some of the audience sit around it in beanbag chairs. The highest-priced tickets were the skybox where you could have an overview of the city. And you could get a pedestrian ticket, too, where you could walk on planks behind and around the action.’ So the audience was fluid. It was possible to come on separate nights and gain new perspectives on what you might already have seen and heard.  Views were blocked just as in a city but live video on large screens around the space provided insight into areas you may not otherwise have been able to see. Video also served for surtitles or enhancement of stage action. The Loa, for example, were first seen onscreen, nonchalantly munching on chicken legs, before assuming human dimension onstage with other members of the cast.

But why do this in an opera? Firstly, the maximum development of the opera’s constituent parts enlivened other aspects of the work. With regard to composition, different heterogenous configurations of instruments (including strings, woodwinds, didgeridoos and electronica) in varying spatial arrangements accompanied strikingly different scenes. Olga Koumoundouras’s desire to do the dive bar as basically one enormous anus got LeBaron thinking that the dive bar should be all trombones and this led to the idea of bringing in the chromolodeon, the Harry Partch organ that has 43 tones to the octave. A big part of the payoff for all the various elements knocking together like this was increased vigilance on the part of the audience, multi-perspectives keeping the audience’s critical faculties active.

Yuval Sharon was the director of Crescent City. An Illinois native and graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Sharon was Project Director for four years of New York City Opera’s Vox program where he first met LeBaron and presented concert presentations of Crescent City. He has worked at houses such as the Mariinsky and Komische Oper, Berlin, and was Associate Director for the world premiere of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht with Graham Vick for the London 2012 Cultural Olympics.

Deadly Belle (Timur Bekbosunov) (Photo: Joshua White Photography)

I asked him about the value of what LeBaron calls ‘meta-collaboration’. Why do it? ‘All operas are inherently collaborative,’ he says. ‘It’s not as if the composer is not being influenced by singers he or she is working with or the librettist and the source material. There are lots of influences. To take all of that away and say that this person is a monolithic creator is something that is not quite honest as to how operas actually come to life. It takes a village.’

Sharon was Assistant Director to Achim Freyer on the LA Opera’s Ring cycle. ‘Wagner is a huge part of my background,’ he says, ‘but much as I love the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk [Wagner’s theory of opera as a union of the arts], I can’t forget the Brechtian critique that Wagner takes all of the arts and throws them into one stew and makes a mush out of it. The music and text and scenography all become one general flow that puts the listener into a sort of catatonic state, whereas Brecht [whose plays and theories influenced 20th century theatre] wanted to separate the elements, to really wake up the audience and keep them alert and critical.’

Mention of Brecht, who wrote his classics The Caucasian Chalk Circle and the American version of Life of Galileo in LA’s beachside city of Santa Monica, takes the discussion into deeper theoretical areas. It may be objected that most opera lovers go to opera for the emotional experience, but Sharon doesn’t see emotion being excluded from the equation. ‘The idea of breaks and disruption in Brecht’s work was not at the expense of emotion. They were something that made the audience realise the construction of the emotion and woke up their critical faculties. I think opera is an emotional experience but it shouldn’t be manipulative. I don’t go as far as other people to say that Puccini is super-manipulative. But Puccini’s music almost always only means one thing. His orchestral writing’s very deep but the emotional life is ultimately, somewhat one-dimensional. And depth doesn’t always have to be multiple things happening at once. Verdi can create depth but almost lengthwise through a piece.

‘But you talk about being able to view things from different angles?   

‘Absolutely.

‘And this is part of the reason why the audience can re-position themselves?

‘I’m really interested in that.

‘They will see things differently?

‘That’s right. That’s a key idea for me really, because what opera really does provide is multiple perspectives and multiple viewpoints onto the same action, same idea or same character. The multi-headed beast that is opera actually really encourages this type of thing.’

Which is all well and good, but are we talking about an area opera could legitimately move into and attract a completely new audience? ‘Oh absolutely’, says LeBaron, noting that The Industry’s goal was that everybody in Los Angeles should have heard about Crescent City and just about did. ‘It was a very mixed audience,’ says Sharon. ‘I’m really excited about that because that’s certainly been the mission for The Industry. I see opera as being a very solid 21st century possibility. And so I very much wanted to speak to people outside of the traditional world. There were certainly opera lovers who came. But we had just as many visual arts people. We had just as many people from all works of life who just wanted to see this spectacle. For a lot of people Crescent City was their first opera and they would come up to me and say, “Oh, is all opera like this?” And I’d say, “Well not exactly,” but that’s not bad either. We don’t want a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s exciting to see people’s gears turning a little bit and saying, “Oh wow, if this is opera what else is possible?”’

Sharon doesn’t believe the pieces he’s developing will replace the old operas or that the directorial ideas he came up with for Crescent City would necessarily be appropriate for them, but the sort of work he’s doing reveals directions for exciting new development in this 400 year-old form. After all, he says, ‘the potential for re-reading – that’s what’s really great about the standard repertoire.’

And the exciting thing is that there’s an audience for this in LA, and not just an audience but, as Sharon has noted before, ‘an amazing audience’ that has been developed here ever since Schoenberg and Klemperer came to town in the 1930s. Why look, even the Los Angeles Opera is doing the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass work Einstein on the Beach next season, right after that old favourite, Carmen.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013


[i]  ‘Crescent City: A Hyperopera (Anne LeBaron), Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music, Volume 19, no.1 2013, pp1-6

[ii]  See The Industry’s page on Crescent City

[iii] See Yuval Sharon’s blog Building Crescent City, chronically the construction of Crescent City’s set in The Industry’s warehouse theatre