As part of the LA Phil’s FLUXUS festival the LA Phil New Music Group teamed up with The Industry to produce John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2—a late work by the American Experimentalist that submits Europe’s great operatic repertoire to a radical fracturing and re-compiling that divorces all aspects of the music, production, and lighting from one another (and even from itself in the case of the orchestra and singers). As independent voices, music, lights, and staging overlay one another in a new, atomized context, the audience is left “wandering through the forest of opera” as director Yuval Sharon put it in a promotional interview with music advisor Marc Lowenstein.
Europeras 1 & 2 were originally conceived by Cage as a sending-back of the robust opera repertoire imported to American opera houses from Europe–albeit after undergoing a particularly Cagean postmodern treatment. Now staged at Sony Pictures Studios some 30 years later, it was perhaps appropriate that this imagining of the work introduced a further degree of de- and re-construction in which the audience was privy to action taking place off-stage, to the sides and behind the stage. This was effective in helping to incorporate the sounds of production (e.g., ropes and pulleys, rolling props, actors entering and exiting the stage) into the sound world of the work, though the pre-recorded tape component would have better suited the production had it been panned across the stage (perhaps even through separate speakers on stage) rather than across the audience. As it stood, the recording felt too removed from the action of the production to be perceived by the audience as an incorporated part of the work. The taped excerpts aside, though, the sound was good and The Industry rightfully resisted the urge to micromanage the balance of particular combinations for more traditional aesthetic effects. It was a clean and measured performance that carried a calm, well-rehearsed sense about it. If there was something to criticize musically, the performers themselves might have been given license for a bit more of the “delight in noticing” that Sharon and Lowenstein mention in the taped interview; instead of the wonder of unexpected moments of collision and harmony between elements, the various components felt very separate and compartmentalized.
Admittedly, I understand the impulse to let the individual components speak for themselves without heavy-handed coordination. But I think the trap that a work like Europeras confronts is that the absurdity can easily become admired for its disjunct comedy rather than for the beauty of its composite subtleties. It is no doubt that a work of this length and style will have moments that are funny, chaotic, disjointed. But other moments must be allowed to breathe, to embrace, to demonstrate that beauty and art arise naturally and without our intervention if we are open to experiencing them.
To quote Sharon once more, as he described this sentiment so eloquently: “Opening up to chance allows us to see that our perspective of things being as they are limits us to the potential of how things can be.” At moments I felt the production focused too heavily on the importance of chance itself as an anti-rhetoric or aesthetic, rather than as a tool for exploring and embracing new coincidences that resonate with us as humans. The moments that did revel in that admiration of how things can be, of suprise, of resisting ego, though, were powerful.
On November 18th Walt Disney Concert Hall transformed into a showcase of the community, talent and swagger of Los Angeles new music. The second annual Noon to Midnight event was as much an exhibition as a festival: An overlapping schedule of pop-up performances populated the building’s many nestled spaces, encouraging attendees to wander and casually sample the day’s various offerings. The music-making spilled over Gehry’s grand titanium shipwreck onto the sidewalk and plaza, but the main stage served as a central hub for major performances, punctuating the day with moments of communion between curious ears scattering outwards toward the bustling amphitheater, beer garden, and cozy nooks and crannies of the hall.
In truth, this collar-loosening was the first successful performance of the day. Among younger audiences, the glitzy, glass-enclosed posters of Dudamel might seem out of touch with the Phil’s superimposed tagline “our city, our sound” as his immaculate white bow tie and baton are a far cry from the flimsy band posters that litter telephone poles around Echo Park. But something about licking food truck drippings off of your fingers while listening to electric guitars compete with traffic noise really tempers the imposing austerity of the concert hall. And so, from the very onset, Noon to Midnight transformed the space from a venue for witnessing art into a home-base for engaging with it.
And engaging it was. Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s new performance piece, War of the Worlds was a fitting centerpiece for the event, occupying both the hall and remote sites in a sprawling, tech-savvy production that cleverly balanced national and local relevance (see Nick Norton’s review here). Wild Up performed two separate sets. The first was a showcase of the collaborative works born of the LA Phil’s National Composers Intensive, featuring new pieces by six young composers. As one might expect, the music reflected an excited exploration of the ensemble’s open-mindedness, navigated by some promising compositional voices. The second set utilized the ensemble’s larger forces to premiere several new works that best demonstrated the ensemble’s agile, performative charm—sometimes dance-y, sometimes delicate, sometimes asking “how did I end up waist deep in this swamp” and “are trombone multiphonics the only way out.” But whether shimmering or sloshing, Christopher Rountree and wild Up were always committed, always convincing, and always a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
The smaller ensembles offered a more intimate experience, including a noisy, forward-looking set by gnarwhallaby, installation performances by HOCKET and Southland Ensemble, jazzy moments with the LA Signal Lab, and a tight, driving performance by Jacaranda. Outdoor spaces hosted less traditional instrumentations like RAGE THORMBONES and Los Angeles Electric 8. The performance that perhaps best encapsulated Noon to Midnight as a whole was Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Etoile: red fish blue fish, spread among the serene beer garden atop Disney Hall, animated the crisp evening air and city views with a radically virtuosic performance in which audience members strolled between and around the performers to create a consuming, fluid and completely individual experience of the colossal work. Here the performance and experience of the music were inseparably entangled, defined by the audience’s direct engagement with the production. The same could be said of Chris Kallmyer‘s Soft Structures, almost a festival in itself.
In total, the day included more than twenty separate programs, and it would be impossible to speak to each set individually. But parsing the experience into discrete parts would betray the atmosphere the LA Phil took such care to create in the first place; Noon to Midnight is a monument of local music that generates all the electricity and none of the pomp of the traditional concert. The music, performers, spaces, drinks and food all embodied an LA personality that manifested in every detail. Having spent most of my life in Silicon Valley, what strikes me most since moving to Los Angeles is the physicality of the city: people don’t just philosophize about things, they make them. There is a reverence for the man-made and the hand-made: What the east side lacks in blooming nature it replaces with colorful graffiti, what towering buildings of Hollywood obscure from your view they replace with blinding LEDs and enormous marquis. In a field of new music that can all too easily slip into intellectualism, this combining of upstart and established groups alike was a heartening account of the range of artists getting their hands seriously dirty making art. It is clear that music here is being made not only in pristine halls, but also in aged, mixed-use buildings with shoddy plumbing. And so, rather than hanging the the local art on a white wall, standing back and rubbing its beard to pontificate, Noon to Midnight was instead an invitation to come together, wash hands, and admire the buildup of dirt in the sink. A glorious, silver sink in the middle of downtown.
While that particular fantasy didn’t quite happen, War of the Worlds did manage to blast through my rather high expectations. It is in many ways the most fully realized version of Yuval’s unique brand of opera theatre, a project perhaps more deeply connected to Los Angeles than even Hopscotch. Rather than take the essential Wells/Welles story/broadcast and stage it, the new libretto (by Sharon himself) engages with contemporary LA life, politics, and a lot of sci fi fandom. Its layers of metacommentary on cultural life in 2017 are a joy to unpeel.
Let’s begin with the premise. Audiences were seated both inside the concert hall and at three “siren sites” around LA. The opera began with Sigourney Weaver as a guest celebrity host for an LA Phil concert, which was broadcast to the three sites. For the first performance I was at site one, where a pair of scientists were listening to the broadcast on the radio while doing some experiments, and for the second I was in the hall. Before we go any farther, let’s think about the setup. The Industry’s other productions, as ambitious and wild and creative and postmodern as they are, often run into a fourth wall problem. In Hopscotch, for instance, yes, you were in a car with the singers and actors, but it still felt as if they were performing for a large audience, or for a camera, as if it didn’t matter that you were there.
That’s not exactly a knock on Hopscotch or its performers, but it was definitely odd to be sitting two feet from someone singing their heart out but not actually interacting with you. The fourth wall is a tricky thing, though – break it too obviously and it can completely ruin the narrative, like the remote scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Such breaks have to serve the story rather than spice it up. In the cases of Hopscotch, Invisible Cities, and Crescent City, I think Yuval was right in his avoidance of dealing with the fourth wall in the drama, much as the staging might make it seem like the obvious device to manipulate.
That the actual plot of War of the Worlds included a concert broadcast being interrupted, however, finally gave Yuval the legitimate justification to start playing with that fourth wall. It’s normal to have a bunch of celebrities show up and hang out at LA Phil concerts — hell, it’s almost a marketing device — so having Sigourney Weaver show up and participate brought the opera’s narrative into our normal experience as LA Phil concertgoers. It seemed to say “this is actually happening to you,” rather than “watch and listen to this thing we are performing,” and it was convincing.
The choice to cast Weaver as the all-knowing person in a science fiction situation itself is a trope we’re also familiar with. It’s almost a requirement for a self-aware sci fi film these days to give her a cameo or have her show up at the end to explain to the characters what is actually happening. This casting decision further brings War of the Worlds into our world, and isn’t lost on Yuval’s libretto, with the scientists (read: lovable nerds) at site one geeking out over getting to talk to Ellen Ripley. Sitting at site one and listening to an LA Phil broadcast is what both the audience and the scientists are doing, so it makes perfect sense that they would interact. And interact we did, with Professor Pierson and his assistant (perfectly portrayed by actors Hugo Armstrong and Clayton Farris, respectively) bantering with the audience before the concert, and Professor Pierson developing a celebrity crush on Weaver.
When the music and story get rolling, though, the metanarrative helps the opera to get real, and real important. Jorge Luis Borges once pondered,
Why does it disturb us that…the thousand and one nights be [included] in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.
I believe that with War of the Worlds, the inverse is true. As the sirens around Los Angeles wake up from their machine slumber to coordinate the martian attack, mayor Eric Garcetti himself walks onstage to tell the audience that – paraphrasing – “these things have been hiding in plain sight for 70 years, and that we’ll fight them to defend our way of life in Los Angeles.” In case it wasn’t clear that this is an opera about America and LA in 2017, when the Mexican shop owner portrayed by hometown opera hero Suzana Guzmán gets asked about the aliens, she immediately launches into a panicked defense of her legal immigrant status. It’s not that we, the audience, can be fictitious, but that the fiction can be fact.
Sometimes with Industry productions it can feel like the music, while important, takes a backseat to the setting. While the narrative structure and libretto are integral to War of the Worlds, in this case it is clearer than ever that they are in support of Annie Gosfield’s score and the performers. Yuval has said that gathering a community for artistic purposes can be a form of sociopolitical action, and the mere premise of this opera is that we’re getting together to listen to a piece of music. That literally happens here, as being at a concert, with a tongue-in-cheek name check to Frank Gehry’s silver building, ends up saving the listeners from the invasion.
Christopher Rountree’s muscular but agile conducting style was a perfect match for Gosfield’s synth-laden orchestral score with occasional dips into popular idioms. Furthering our theme of music-as-community here, one got the feeling that not only did most of the people in the hall actually know Rountree from around town, but that he was having a blast being exactly who he is, even getting to act a little with the sound guy, “Dave,” in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At least one other critic wrote that he was hoping for an orchestral suite of movements from the opera; I’ll second that request. And coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann’s portrayal of La Sirena, or the wordless, musique concrète instrumentale of the alarm sirens – broadcast through the actual alarm sirens – was utterly stunning.
Making art together in a diverse community is our hometown’s calling card. The Industry’s past productions have done that splendidly for their audience. With War of the Worlds, the LA Phil and The Industry do it with their audience. To live in LA is to be a part of this story and project.By embracing that, War of the Worlds becomes not only engrossing and entertaining as hell, but a vital piece of opera theatre.
Disclosure: the author of this review is friends with some of the subjects, and sometimes works for The Industry. Rather than pretending this is some piece of unbiased writing in the name of journalistic integrity, I think being actively involved allows for deeper insights while writing. Make of that what you will.
All week we’ve been interviewing the composers for wild Up and The Industry’s First Take 2015, taking place tomorrow (February 21) at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Today, in the last interview of our series, we’ve got The Industry’s Artistic Director, Yuval Sharon.
Before we get into it, I want to publicly thank both Yuval and wild Up’s Christopher Rountree, and all of the musicians and staff of both organizations, for putting First Take together. What you guys do for composers ,and for the music and arts community in LA, is amazing, and inspiring. Thank you.
First off, congratulations on the Götz Friedrich Prize and the numerous other awards and nominations you’ve been receiving. You’ve been getting more and more attention internationally, and that must come with invitations to collaborate and create. Has it been challenging to balance that with what you want to do with The Industry?
Thank you! I feel so fortunate that the work I have been doing has been recognized so widely for opening up new possibilities for opera. I have to say no to a lot of projects now based on the all-too-limited amount of time in a day, and that is sometimes hard. But dedication demands sacrifice, and I am so devoted to the mission of The Industry that there’s no regret on my part when I have to pass on opportunities that would keep me from The Industry. The ones I do take on are selected very carefully and with an eye first and foremost towards my artistic goals with The Industry. On the other hand, as the company is growing, I am starting to have a stronger support structure that can help me focus mostly on the artistic aspects of The Industry, and this is an enormous benefit. Hiring Elizabeth Cline as Executive Director last November is a major step in that direction, and I am so excited to see where we steer this company together in the years ahead.
In addition to providing composers a place to try out new ideas in opera, what goals are you pursuing with First Take?
First Take gives me so much hope for the future of opera. The six projects we are showcasing this year are astonishing as singular expressions, but the cumulative effect of all six is overwhelming. I want that excitement transmitted to our audience, and also to each of the composers on the program, to show them how much their work matters and how strong it is. Composing must be such a lonely exercise, especially when you are still finding your voice, or trying something that doesn’t fit in a standard operatic box.
Beyond that, the composers will receive high-quality audio and video documentation of the performance to assist them in getting their works fully produced. These are essential tools for composers; I hope, too, that as the First Take program continues (we expect to continue a biannual schedule) that it becomes more and more of a stamp of approval for other companies.
What’s your musical background? Did you come to opera through theatre or as a musician?
I studied piano for most of my childhood and teenage years, and I sang in high school choruses. I stopped playing or singing when I went to UC Berkeley, but that’s when my love for opera really developed, as well as an interest in musicology and the interpretation of music. Now I only sing in the car — but I love doing that!
Even though I had that musical background, it wasn’t until I thought of opera in relation to theater or cinema that I finally got into it. My dad took me to the opera in high school and it just seemed like a weird, outdated ritual, happening too far away to have any visceral impact on me. It was a fun night out with my dad but not something I could take seriously. When I went to school, I started missing the experience and started thinking about opera’s theatrical possibilities.
What is it about LA that made you decide this was the right place to found your company? Have we lived up to your expectations?
Finding a creative home is a highly personal choice and depends more on your own goals and aesthetic concerns than external factors. For some people, New York feeds their creative spirit; for others, it’s Detroit, or Seattle, or Miami. I had a hunch that the artists and audiences that make up LA’s community would be the right one for the work I wanted to create and foster. I am constantly astonished by how easily The Industry has managed to establish itself in the cultural fabric of the city. The community here is one I feel completely aligned with and excited to create work for and with. That’s a powerful feeling that gives me the faith to push to ever new limits.
Got any new tidbits you can share with us about Hopscotch?
Only that it is the craziest adventure I’ve ever undertaken, and I am both terrified and exhilarated by the last year-and-a-half of development. It’s also the most incredible experiment in collaborative creation I’ve experienced, and I am pretty sure the composers and writers would say the same. We can’t say a lot right now, but there will be a LOT to say come October. Basically, you just can’t miss it.
He’s right about the just-can’t-miss-it-ness of both Hopscotch and First Take. Come on out tomorrow. Full details are at theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php. For more on Yuval, visit YuvalSharon.com.