We had just survived "Crescent City," our first production as an artist-driven new opera company called The Industry, when the sound designer Martin Gimenez approached me with a tantalizing notion: "What do you think about an opera on wireless headphones?"
Maybe he caught me at the perfect time, or maybe he had already figured out my manic love for creating impossible scenarios and discovering how to make them a reality. But his suggestion immediately provoked a process of imagining how wireless headphones could create a new operatic experience -- and maybe even expand the definition of opera. Now, a year-and-a-half later, that initial conversation is about to be realized as a performance of Christopher Cerrone's "Invisible Cities" -- a live opera using wireless sound transmission, to be performed in L.A.'s historic Union Station.
The Altered Reality of Headphones
Opera is exciting only when the eye listens and the ear sees -- that is, when the collision and confusion of your senses ignites your imagination. Headphones offer us this experience every time we use them: by detaching sound from image and confusing our sense of proximity, they offer us an altered view of everyday life. Separate from the physical world, the music that only we are hearing opens up a private doorway into reality. As you move through space, you are simultaneously somewhere else, in a cocoon of sound, supernaturally close to the source of the music. Suddenly the external space around you has transformed: a train station is a radically different place for the woman catching her train listening to Dies irae than for the man listening to "A Love Supreme." Any potential revelation or meaning they experience is no less truthful for being purely coincidental or different from their fellow commuter.
Beyond the ways headphones have changed our everyday engagement with music, I've had some unforgettable experiences with headphones as an artistic tool -- Janet Cardiff's haunting walk around Central Park, where pre-recorded memories co-existed with the present-day life of the park; Merce Cunningham's EyeSpace, where each audience member was given an iPod shuffle to hear a random selection of Mikel Rouse pieces while watching the same choreography; and Back to Back Theatre's play "Small Metal Objects," where a drug deal takes place among unwitting commuters. When you factor in the "silent disco" phenomenon, headphones have been disrupting trends in a wide spectrum of artistic genres for some time.
Now it seems like opera's time to be disrupted by this high-tech intervention -- and for a genre where the human voice is so essential, the possibilities opened up by wireless headphones are endless.
The next question became: If you no longer have to worry about acoustics and directionality of sound, where would you most love to stage an opera?
An Intersection of the City's Past and Future
All train stations have an air of romance about them; the best and most beautiful ones transcend their functionality and become an existential expression of life's transience. This is the case with Union Station, its grandeur defying any charges of irrelevance in the ultimate Car City that is Los Angeles. (It's not unusual to meet Angelenos who didn't know a train station even exists here.) Even with the convenience stores and Starbucks, going to Union Station feels like a trip back in time, and unlike the other LA landmarks built by John and Donald Parkinson -- City Hall, Bullock's Wilshire, and the Memorial Coliseum -- the station's beauty feels charged with nostalgia. It's easy to imagine yourself as a traveler from the East Coast in 1939, pulling into Los Angeles as if it were the end of the world, and having your very first impression be of arriving at a Shangri-la: Spanish architecture, vast space, palm trees. It was the city of the future, with the largest network of public transportation in the country offering its new citizens unbound freedom.
Visiting Union Station always reminded me of the title of the Cut Copy song: "nostalgia for the future." The optimism for what Los Angeles could become, as seen from 1939, still speaks in the tiles and archways. It's a perfect site to understand what the Italian author Italo Calvino meant in his novel "Invisible Cities": "Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches."
But Union Station is hardly an anachronistic hold-over; instead, on the cusp of its 75th birthday, it's use as a transit hub for local and regional travel is on a significant up-swing. Public transportation is becoming an increasingly viable option in a city that desperately needs an alternative to clogged freeways. Metro's plans for expansion, including high-speed rail, is bringing Union Station back to the forefront of the city's imagination. The station is not simply a relic of the city's past but a beacon for its future.
This puts Union Station in an important moment of transition -- reminding us that Los Angeles is also in a constant state of becoming. Cities are not fixed images but fluid entities that morph because of their inhabitants. We must believe that the time we invest in a city shapes its very geography, both in tangible ways, like building a house, a skyscraper, or a freeway; or intangible ways -- acts of kindness, crimes, fashion statements, or car accidents -- that over time result in something tangible. Spending time in Union Station allows us to meditate on and perhaps even perceive this phenomenon -- even more so, I believe, in a pair of headphones that force us to be alone with our own thoughts.
I now had a central character for the headphones experience: Union Station. But which piece would make sense to bring to life in this way? What is the content that would take this beyond the realm of high-tech trick?
The Perfect Novel
I used to believe a work of art was "perfect" only when it was inconceivable in another medium. "Invisible Cities" is a perfect book because its power is, I thought, purely literary -- not cinematic, not musical, but entirely dependent on the act of reading. So when I opened Christopher Cerrone's proposal for an operatic adaptation for the novel back in 2008, as Project Director of New York City Opera's VOX laboratory for new works, my snap judgment was severe: "This will never work."
In the novel, Kublai Khan hears stories of the cities in his empire by Marco Polo -- but the stories depict impossible cities, fantastical visions. The reader is offered brief descriptions of an invented city built on spiral seashells; or an unseen town built on long, thin stilts that stretch into the clouds; or the realm where the loved ones we lost are reborn but doomed not to recognize us. Calvino's cities reflect the architecture of the reader's own mind and heart. The imaginary travelogue is framed by a series of dialogues between the Mongol emperor and the Italian merchant, which Calvino depicts as philosophical and often cryptic musings on semiotics, the shortcomings of language, and a mistrust of external reality. The result is a book of limitless forking paths, concise like ancient wisdom but contemporary in its view of the world. It is a singular, perfect work.
So why turn this most book-ish of books into an opera? Before reviewing Chris's score, my prejudice against the idea already imagined a cheap musical pastiche, where each city was set to a different style like jazz or '80s rock, and cheesy plastic sets were wheeled on and off on wagons to illustrate each city.
To my amazement, and as a testament to Chris's deeply felt treatment of the novel, his score aspired to capture the book's very evanescence. Chris does not try and graft a traditional operatic structure onto the novel; instead, a serpentine musical structure became the drama of the piece. Chris employs resonance and sonic decay as a poetic realization of the book's atmosphere. He prioritizes experience over narrative, and evocation over illustration.
So my snap judgment was completely wrong, and I selected the piece to be included in that year's workshop presentation. But that didn't solve one of the piece's primary challenges: how do you bring such an inward-looking work to life theatrically? Depicting the cities, materializing them on a stage, would be the death of the piece. When I called him again last June, after many years out of touch, Chris was in despair about the opera and had given up on any possibility of it being staged.
I jumped right in with a rather unorthodox question: "How would you feel about an audience hearing the work entirely on headphones?" For many composers, that request would have resulted in an abrupt dial tone on my end of the phone. But Chris responded: "It's funny, I've been thinking of myself more and more as a composer for headphones." I was relieved -- but not surprised: the haunting beauty of Chris's writing depends on an intimacy beyond what theaters can achieve; in Chris's setting, you want Kublai Khan and Marco Polo to be whispering in your ear. The detachment of sound from image offers a great solution to the problem of representing the cities -- like the book, the cities can truly live in the audience's individual imagination. And you could hardly select a location more philosophically appropriate for the piece than a train station -- especially Union Station.
We now had what every concept truly needs: an alignment of form, content, and expression. The process of articulating and realizing that vision over the intervening year-and-a-half was like a roller-coaster that was being built as we were riding it: moments of despair, when it seemed like the whole project was doomed to stay a figment of our imagination; moments of elation, most significantly when Sennheiser came on board as our sound sponsor and made this concept technically and financially realizable; and moments of wonder, which must accompany any journey of creating something out of nothing.
"The Audience Completes the Work"
The performance at Union Station will be as close to immaterial as opera can allow while remaining a live experience. You will be offered a pair of headphones and move through the station -- which is not closed to its everyday traffic. The singers and dancers will be all around you, but you may not ever see them. The headphones and Sennheiser's wireless technology will always keep you connected to the story, so what you hear will be the same as everyone else; but what you see will belong to you alone. The performance will become your experience, with no wrong choices: everyone will miss something, and everyone will have a perfect view. There will not be anything to explain.
The opera, then, should feel like an invisible layer of reality, always there among the everyday life of the station. A "dematerialized opera" feels like a new exploration, and yet I feel anchored in the historic work by LA-based artists who explored the notion of the invisible so far as to question the need for an actual art object: conceptual artists like Michael Asher, Robert Barry, and Chris Burden almost made "invisible art" its own genre. Marcel Duchamp feels like the beginning of the conversation, with his radical shift away from the artist and towards the spectator. "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone," he said; "the audience completes the work." I don't know how well Calvino knew Duchamp, but it's impossible not to see a connection to Calvino's beautiful reformulation of Duchamp's statement in "Invisible Cities": "It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear."
If there is one overarching theme among the labyrinths in this production of "Invisible Cities," it would be that concept: It's not about appreciating the message but about the act of interpreting that message. The hope is for the audience to go beyond that idea as a purely aesthetic conceit and realize that the interpretive act of the spectator is the process we all undergo everyday; it's how we make sense of the world and realize our own individual attitude to life. The voices you will hear in your headphones act less as traditional operatic characters and more as guides to creating your own experience. And that experience, like the cities described in the novel, can be a tool to get us closer to ourselves: the past, present, or future version of us, which, like the city we live in, is in a constant state of transformation.
After all, even at the core of Calvino's most formal experiment, If on a winter's night a traveler, is an unforgettable life lesson: "You are always a potential You."
Read more about Invisible Cities:
Invisible Cities: The Science of a Silent Opera
Sound designer Martin Gimenez explains the challenges of getting wireless technology to deliver the extraordinary sonic experience that befits the unconventional opera.
Invisible Cities: Composing an Opera for Headphones
In composing the music for "Invisible Cities," Christopher Cerrone created many levels of orchestral detail that would evoke the elaborate and fantastical places that Calvino
Invisible Cities: The Choreography of Union Station
Dancers in "Invisible Cities" execute an array of moves in Union Station that range from rigorous solos to improvisational and hip-hop-like explosions, to glacially slow stances.
Union Station is an ideal place to realize the opera "Invisible Cities," an adaptation of Italo Calvino's book about relationships between built environments and social and economic life.
Invisible Cities: The Finale
Here's a roundup of Artbound's behind-the-scenes features examining "headphone" opera "Invisible Cities."
Artbound Special Episode 'Invisible Cities'
Artbound presents a one hour special focused on the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities."