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A man with an extravagant costume looks out on an empty Los Angeles Union Station.
Kublai Khan (Cedric Berry) looks out on an empty Los Angeles Union Station. | The Industry

How 3 Unconventional Operas Taught Us to See L.A. Differently

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What does it mean to stage an opera in a city rather than on an operatic stage? When viewed through such a lens, how might that city look, sound and even perform differently? Who spectates? Who performs? Since its first performance in 2012, L.A.-based opera company The Industry has been asking just these questions through its site-specific and mobile productions. How though, have audience members, performers and creative team members understood the way in which the opera company has "staged" the spaces of performance — that is, the city of Los Angeles? And in turn, how might these productions simultaneously create a vision of the city and enable participants to strip away the façade of imagination to see reality in a new way?

Operatic performance beyond the traditional space of the opera stage concretizes new relationships between sight and sound, performers, spectators and onlookers. Taking a performance out of an institutional space and into a public one changes both the terms of engagement for the performance and the space. In other words, performers and audience members might listen in new ways as they see a ubiquitous space — like a parking lot — differently, but in turn, the parking lot as public space is also altered for the duration of the performance, and perhaps beyond. To put it another way, these performances ask everyone — including those who create them — to consider public space differently. This process of imagination, as we will see, can be both pedestrian and radical.

Men and women wearing headphones looking on as an opera is being performed.
"Invisible Cities" performers meld almost seamlessly into the busy Los Angeles Union Station. | The Industry

Take The Industry's 2013 production "Invisible Cities." Set in Union Station, composer Christopher Cerrone's interpretation of Italo Calvino's "Le città invisibili" was performed by an ensemble of mobile singers and dancers from the L.A. Dance Project. As headphone-wearing spectators traveled through the station, they encountered performers dressed in everyday clothes whose presence gradually became known through movement and sound. These performers, who sang into microphones that transmitted their voices into the headphones of each audience member, gradually transformed into the costumed characters of Calvino's narrative as the night progressed. "In [Union Station] it's like a whole layer of skin is taken off," said performer Delaram Kamareh. "People are around you, because the real stage was in the train station, so there are people coming and going not knowing an opera is happening."

No one could just go to ["Invisible Cities"] as if they were in a sealed-off room. You were directly connected to the life of L.A., including the side of L.A. that people are not giving attention to.
Yuval Sharon

Watch how Los Angeles becomes part of the narrative on "Invisible Cities."
Invisible Cities

During "Invisible Cities," a listener hearing a soprano's lilting melody sung through the headphones might consider rushing crowds of commuters, the historic marble and travertine halls or a breeze in one of the station patios differently. And this listener might also be faced with the growing number of unhoused people in L.A. and who find refuge in Union Station as all present hear the final words of the opera "Seek and learn . . . make them endure, give them space." In this scenario, our hypothetical spectator is invited to see reality as fantasy (the choreographed commuters) and a bitter social truth (the inequalities of housing in the United States, an issue that is at the top of Los Angeles' political conversation and agenda). Both "stagings" coexist at Union Station. This is not to say that, in this example, an unhoused person is no more than a piece of operatic scenery — although critiques in this vein are commonly made of site-specific performance. Rather, the goal is that, in their most ideal form, works like "Invisible Cities" have the potential to use fiction to invoke new ways of understanding reality — and ideally, provoke change through this experience. "No one could just go to ["Invisible Cities"] as if they were in a sealed-off room," said director Yuval Sharon. "You were directly connected to the life of L.A., including the side of L.A. that people are not giving attention to." Additionally, no one could perform in "Invisible Cities" as though they were in the "sealed-off room" of Sharon's example. As tenor Ashley Faatoalia observed, "It was one of the first times in my experience as a performer where I had no choice but to have the audience be a part of the performance . . . They don't know it, but they've become part of what I'm doing because they're there."

Dancers on the right side marching as audience members watch inside a busy train station.
Ashley Faatoalia wearing a red jacket performs in "Invisible Cities" as Marco Polo in the middle of a busy L.A. Union Station. | The Industry

As in the above example, staging opera in public space and public space in opera, can invoke potentially fraught social questions and sometimes new ways of understanding reality. "Hopscotch," The Industry's 2015 opera, multiplied these questions by expanding the narrative, musical and scenographic possibilities of "Invisible Cities." Created by ten composers and six librettists, "Hopscotch" asked spectators and performers to travel through the city to follow the character Lucha's nonlinear journey through love, loss and acceptance. Spectators attended one of three individual routes that wound through the city and/or watched the entire opera as livestreamed at the free Central Hub, a temporary gathering space at SCI-Arc. Scenes (referred to as "chapters") took place in places spectacular and mundane: in nondescript parking lots, within cars, along the L.A. River, and up and down the stairs of the Bradbury building. As performer James Hayden has explained, "I want opera to be something that feels alive and that doesn't feel constrained by the venue it is held in," and "Hopscotch" catalyzed this type of experience for many people.

People gather with headphones on to participate in an opera performance.
A gathering location at SCI-Arc places all the audience members together for "Hopscotch." | The Industry

Watch "Hopscotch," which unfolded in cars zigzagging throughout Los Angeles, telling a single story of a disappearance across time.
Hopscotch - An Opera for the 21st Century

How did this episodic journey shape participants' views of L.A., though? As audience member Elizabeth Drummond noted, "'Hopscotch' helped me think about how these different parts of Los Angeles — and very different landscapes and cityscapes — are connected to each other, both geographically and in the lives of the people who reside in and pass through them." As Drummond's comment conveys, it was the imaginary narrative of "Hopscotch" coupled with the literal performance through the city that precipitated a new way of staging not fiction, but reality. Drummond's journey took her through the Green route, where different natural landscapes such as Angel's Point in Elysian Park (Chapter 9) and the L.A. river (Chapter 29) were juxtaposed against the "vibrant setting of Chinatown [Chapter 14]." "[We] were side-by-side not just with the performers and other audience members, but all the other people who just happened to be passing through that space." As Drummond summarized, the route she traveled "simultaneously [juxtaposed] and [connected] rather isolated natural landscapes with central urban spaces," drawing the two together. Operatic performance in non-traditional spaces can evince a form of estrangement and discovery, perhaps especially in spaces — or through practices like riding in a car — that initially seem familiar to many Angelenos but, in operatic form, are experienced in new ways.

Women in pink dresses flank a woman in a yellow dress as musicians play on in a Chinatown background.
One of the journeys that "Hopscotch" takes audience members is through the L.A. Chinatown neighborhood. | The Industry
Two performers wearing black pants and suspenders perform on a balcony setting with ornate grills.
Two performers of "Hopscotch" at the Bradbury Building. | The Industry

The Industry's 2020 opera "Sweet Land" pulled apart that which is familiar to many —whitewashed versions of U.S. history — by thematizing the process of mythmaking itself. Created by librettists Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney, composers Du Yun and Raven Chacon, and directed by Cannupa Hanska Luger and Yuval Sharon, "Sweet Land" uses iterations and repetitions of two central U.S. myths: the first Thanksgiving and westward expansion to confront audiences with the violence of colonization. Performed in L.A. State Historic Park, "Sweet Land" might be understood as a form of excavation. "Invisible Cities" and "Hopscotch" interwove fantasy into reality. "Sweet Land," on the other hand, trades in reality, bringing forth the literal histories of L.A. to create a space of operatic fantasy that is all too real. As co-director Cannupa Hanska Luger put it during a panel on "Sweet Land": "one of the main characters in this opera was the environment itself." The land that Hanska Luger was referring to is resonant for many L.A. communities, as environmental activist Robert Garcia has observed. Located near the site of the Tongva village, Yaanga, the space is also where the "Zanja Madre" or "Mother Ditch," brought water from the Los Angeles River into Pueblo de Los Angeles. Just blocks from the park was the location of the 1871 Chinatown Massacre in which seventeen men and boys were murdered. Mexican Americans, many of whom were U.S. citizens, were rounded up and eventually deported from this location during the Great Depression. These echoes of history intensify the opera's staging of settler-colonialist violence.

.. performing in "Sweet Land" made [me] aware of a thriving culture I was unaware of before.
Fahad Siadat
pbs-the-industry-presents-sweet-land-rfwmpl.jpg
Perfomers of "Sweet Land" use the outdoor space as their stage. | The Industry

Performer Lindsay Patterson Abdou said "Sweet Land" gave her a "new appreciation for the land Los Angeles is on," acknowledging the Tongva people and Yaanga's location. Similarly, performer Fahad Siadat described the way "Sweet Land" "radically changed [his] perception of Indigenous culture(s) in L.A," describing how performing in the opera "made [me] aware of a thriving culture I was unaware of before." It was not just individuals' views of the city that were "un-staged," or reconfigured, through "Sweet Land." Performer Jehnean Washington, a descendent of the Yuchi, Shoshone and Seminole nations, emphasized the ways in which "Sweet Land" was significant for the genre of opera: "not often in history has there been such an invitation extended to include Indigenous American thought . . . sound and [voices] within the world of opera."

Learn more about "Sweet Land," an opera that recasts this nation's story through the eyes of immigrants and the Indigenous
Sweet Land: The Making of a Myth

What is it then, about the operatic nature of these works that makes their interventions into reality particularly effective? After all, as Washington references, opera is a form with a complex history that has traditionally excluded many people. What does an art form with such a history have to offer understandings of public space and individual interactions? First, I would offer that the operatic voice itself might be understood as a kind of unfamiliar and familiar site or "place" for listeners. While many people have heard stereotypically "operatic" sounds through popular media like commercial soundtracks and even cartoons, hearing this type of voice in an unexpected space as a spectator or onlooker can be an experience both intimate and overwhelming. Like public space, the operatic voice is simultaneously egalitarian and fraught with historical tension: every individual has a voice, but traditional operatic technique is cultivated through a process of Eurocentric training and enculturation. Works like "Invisible Cities," "Hopscotch," and especially "Sweet Land" though, put these rich vocal techniques in dialogue with equally compelling techniques drawn from other musical genres and traditions. Vocal maps of access, style and sound thus expand. Secondly, as scholars commonly note, the operatic genre brings together a constellation of different signifiers — voices, bodies, text, music, images, costumes, staging — all of which work together and exist in tension with one another. "Invisible Cities," "Hopscotch" and "Sweet Land" reveal how these relationships — and histories — proliferate in site-specific works like those I have discussed. In Sharon's words "the tension between [fiction and reality] is what motivated all three of these projects." Through this proliferation of realities and myths, perhaps then, there is room for new ways of seeing, hearing, and staging Los Angeles, and the spaces beyond.

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