When you imagine a traditional opera, a simple image comes to mind. It is most likely staged on a baroque set in some regal theatre. The actors are confined to the space between stage right and stage left. The voluminous orchestra plays in a bifurcating pit, a bergschrund between the audience and the singers. One composer will write the opera, so that it is usually called something like Mozart's "The Magic Flute" or Verdi's "Rigoletto" or Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo." Now forget all that, and strip opera down to its bare-boned elements: the music, the singers, and the story. Then add 24 limos. That's "Hopscotch," an ambitious new opera directed by Yuval Sharon and produced by The Industry.
It is set in 24 limousines and various locations around the North East and downtown neighborhoods of Los Angeles. It is as intimate as an embrace -- singing and playing can happen inches away from you in the cars -- and about as participatory in that viewers are tasked with holding iPhones as the opera is livestreamed to a pavilion in the parking lot of Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Each viewer sees nine of the 36 chapters, and the ones they do see are not in chronological order.
"Hopscotch" couldn't be more different from than the usual preconceptions of an opera.
On my recent "Hopscotch" journey, I climbed into a limousine underneath the L.A. River Viaduct, with a pair of strangers from Topanga Canyon, none of us knowing quite what to expect. The limo took off scooting around Chinatown while a woman sang a cappella, before stopping on Gin Ling Road in Chinatown, where a chapter involving a Roma fortuneteller took place. We then hopped into another limo, which curled up Elysian Park's wispy roads, where another chapter took place in an airstream trailer, and then an aria of four saxophones serenaded us at a point looking out over Dodger Stadium. Soon, we entered a limo outfitted with a Sennheiser wireless microphone system, and a motorcycle sidled up next to us, the rider having an intimate mic'd-up conversation with an actor inside the limo. This was the "Green Route" (there is also a "Red Route" and a "Yellow Route").
The story follows Lucha, a young woman who falls in love with a man named Jameson after hitting his motorcycle with her car. After Jameson disappears, Lucha marries her best friend Orlando, and the later chapters pertain to a maturing Lucha looking back at her life. During a press conference after a preview of the opera, Sharon pointed to a quote from Kierkegaard as a jumping off point: "It really is true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards."
This quote is a curious peg, especially with the knowledge that viewers may come away feeling the opera they just saw was a piecemeal version of a whole. Sharon says he isn't worried if the audience might be frustrated or confused. "I'm sure the audience is confused by a lot," he says. "I wouldn't be surprised. But I hope that the confusion is not one that is too perplexing, but actually that the challenge of the narrative structure I hope is one that's a pleasure. Because opera is very challenging. I hope that what we're doing is inviting people to draw in further and further into the piece."
Sharon says he likes that the structure allows audiences to decide how deeply they want to engage the piece. "An audience member that lets the music and story wash over them as they watch the world go by, and they're suddenly thrown into another musical universe and another emotional landscape, that connects to their own journey that they're going through," he says. "I love the openness of that. That's something that we've been looking at within The Industry is how to create these open matrices, that the operas that we're creating are not closed systems. Your participation as an audience member actually completes the work."
I jokingly told musical director Marc Lowenstein that I had a sense of "route envy" when I heard others discussing their experiences. He concurred that there was a certain inclination for an audience member to want to see the entirety of an artwork, but that the missing parts offer an interesting opportunity to engage with the rest of the work. "Opera is a nice realization that all art is imperfect," he says, "and that there is this general incompletion, so yeah, you do leave frustrated. 'What are the other chapters? I don't know.' But if you see the totality of any artwork, it's always, in its nature, incomplete. At its best, part of the art pushes you out into thinking about that incompleteness."
The incredibly layered and complex "Hopscotch" was gestated during another experimental opera, Invisible Cities, which was held during rush hour at Union Station to audiences that were provided headphones. Sharon and production designer Jason H. Thompson goaded each other into something even more perplexing than that production. "It was a challenge that we were daring each other: 'What's harder than 'Invisible Cities' that will make completing 'Invisible Cities' seem easy?'" Sharon says with a laugh. "We started thinking about driving. Fortunately, the idea really stuck. When we had an off day, and we were needing to clear our minds where the possibilities were still new, we would drive around L.A. and start thinking about sites that would seem appropriate for this project."
Sharon mentions that car culture in Los Angeles was a primary interest to him -- both in positive and negative ways -- and that the solitude that Angelenos experience every day stirred him. "The idea that in our isolated cars driving all around Los Angeles, maybe, hopefully, there's someplace where we all connect," he says.
But to drive around a city as a moveable opera is another story. Elizabeth Cline, the executive director of The Industry, credits the already mobile nature of the city, and its support for the arts as a major boon to the project. "I can't think of many cities where a small non-profit like ours can sit down with a city's department of transportation almost monthly to get advice on how to make an artwork," she says.
In all, there are over 120 singers, musicians, writers, and crew members making sure "Hopscotch" runs smoothly. "'Hopscotch' is a group of artists, a production team, and an audience making artwork in real-time [in] response to a city," Cline adds. "Because we're experience so many elements all at once, doing so many new things for first time, there was never a roadmap. We had to test everything out in the field."
Even the writing process was unique, a sort of exquisite corpse that somehow coalesced. "We got together and did a game, where we [worked] with different composers," says one of the six writers Erin Young, a young author who had never worked on an opera before. "[Yuval and Marc] said, 'Here's a setting. What would you do in this setting?' Then we all worked collaboratively on a theme, and then we broke off into composer-writer teams. And then we had a whole script, and then we went through and read it."
Lowenstein said that the story benefited from the broadly unique viewpoints. "We really wanted lots of independent voices in this kaleidoscopic mosaic telling the story of one person's life," said Lowenstein about how the writing fit into the theme of growing old and remembering the past. "If you look back on your own life, it's almost like you were a different person 20 years ago."
In the end, you are left with a vision so infuriating that it's beautiful; so disjointed, it somehow makes total sense; so vast, yet incredibly intimate. It's a production that not only couldn't be done in any other city, but stands up on an international level as an example of where opera might go in the future. And someday, we may all look back at opera, and see this as a point in time when the opera world began to change and offer performances that reflect our current time without pandering to it. And that could save what for many might seem like an anachronistic form.
It's a daunting task, but one that Sharon seems up for. "When I started The Industry five years ago, there were two primary missions," says Sharon. "The first was to expand the definition of opera with new work, and the second was to engage and excite a new audience for the art form."