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From the Queen Mary to the Cemetery: Operas In Unconventional Spaces

"Hopscotch" opera
Trumpeter Jonah Levy and soprano Delaram Kamareh were cast members of "Hopscotch," a mobile opera staged in 2015 by The Industry. | Photo: Dana Ross.

Artbound episode "Hopscotch: An Opera for the 21st Century" explores visionary director Yuval Sharon's groundbreaking opera "Hopscotch," which unfolded in cars zigzagging throughout Los Angeles, telling a single story of a disappearance across time. Watch the show's debut Tuesday, June 7 at 9 p.m., or check for rebroadcasts here.

Opera, the 17th century art form that has often been considered an elite entertainment, has, in the late 20th and early 21st century, been coming out of the closet, so to speak, and taking to the streets -- or at least surfacing in unconventional spaces in and around the City of Angels.

One of the leading proponents of off-site performances -- or offbeat venues -- has been Long Beach Opera, the little company that could. Founded in 1979 by Michael Milenski and under the artistic and musical direction of Andreas Mitisek since 2003, the troupe’s mission has always been to not only present unconventional works, but to perform said works in a variety of local theaters and alternative spaces. Some of the operas include the 2007 production of Grigori Frid's "The Diary of Anne Frank," which was staged in two parking garages, and about which the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed said in a recent phone conversation, “The atmosphere was unpleasant enough to suit the material.”

"Orpheus & Euridice" opera
Long Beach Opera's 2008 "Orpheus & Euridice," directed by Ricky Ian Gordon, was staged at the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach. | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/Long Beach Opera. 

LBO’s 2008 performances of Ricky Ian Gordon’s "Orpheus & Euridice" was performed around -- and in -- the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool, with Swed recalling that avant-garde composer John Cage had made use of a swimming pool at UCLA in the mid-1930s. Writing in the Times in 2012, Swed pointed out: “For an aquatic ballet, Cage came up with the idea of dipping a gong into the pool so the swimmers could hear it underwater.”

And that was a decade before Esther Williams began splashing around in a number of chlorine-soaked MGM extravaganzas. While Cage’s work may not have been operatic, it was decidedly an early site-based work. Also marine in scope: LBO’s 2009 staging of Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” and Carl Orff’s “The Clever One,” which took place in the hull of the Queen Mary.

Last year David Schweizer directed the 1990 Allen Ginsburg/Philip Glass opera, “Hydrogen Jukebox” in a 6,600-square-foot warehouse at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. Also an LBO offering, the work had the audience of some 360 semi-immersed in the production. Schweizer, speaking by phone from Philadelphia, where he is workshopping a new, “Sweeny Todd”-type opera, is no stranger to working in quirky sites.

"The Emperor of Atlantis" opera
Long Beach Opera's 2009 production of "The Emperor of Atlantis," by Viktor Ullmannopera, was staged aboard the Queen Mary. | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/Long Beach Opera.

“Frankly, I’m offered this kind of thing a lot because of my background, my level of experience, combined with my willingness to do new things, otherwise you aren’t able to cope very well with all the obstacles coming up,” said Schweizer, who also directed LBO’s 2012 production, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," which was performed in a warehouse/slash showroom for wholesale furniture. 

“Sometimes there are problems with power, with lights. That’s part of the game and you have to be willing to go along with that,” the director noted. “You come up with solutions to the physical obstacles of not performing in an equipped theater that are often very magical in themselves.  

“With 'Hydrogen Jukebox,' it gained a wonderful kind of spirit lift from being in that space. I was gratified by that and proud of that.”

"Hydrogen Jukebox" opera
Long Beach Opera's 2015 production of "Hydrogen Jukebox" was staged at Crafted in the Port of Los Angeles. | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/Long Beach Opera.

Because of the enormity of the venue, the singers had their own set of challenges. Soprano Jamie Chamberlin, who was seen in the 2014 U.S. premiere of Gavin Bryars' "Marilyn Forever" with LBO, as well as singing Cunegonde in the company’s 2016 production of “Candide,” performed in last year’s “Jukebox.”

“The sheer size of the warehouse adds a completely different dimension,” explained Chamberlin. “You [face] cardiovascular requirements as a singer. You’re running from one side of the warehouse to the other, and singing is such a cardiovascular event anyway. The feeling was that the show was getting us in better shape.”  

In keeping with its idiosyncratic tradition, Long Beach Opera presented the world premiere of Tobin Stokes’ “Fallujah,” that was performed in a National Guard armory in March, and in just last month the company staged Francis Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” in what was once a bank vault and is now the Federal Bar's Underground Club. 

"Hydrogen Jukebox" opera
Long Beach Opera's 2015 production of "Hydrogen Jukebox," was staged at Crafted in the Port of Los Angeles. | Photo: Doris C. Koplik/Long Beach Opera.

Another troupe presenting opera in unusual spaces is Pacific Opera Project (POP). A recent arrival on the scene, the company was co-founded in 2011 by Josh Shaw, its artistic director. To date they have done 18 productions, several in far-flung places, including a 2014 staging of “Tosca,” set in three different locations of St. James United Methodist Church in Pasadena, and a 2015 mounting of “Falstaff” atop Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, with Act III performed under an enormous tree.  

The latter was POP’s first fully staged outdoor performance, complete with an orchestra and a chorus of fairy adults and children. Explained Shaw: “The challenges are unlimited. You never know what your problems are going to be and it’s different every time in different locations. Power is often a big problem [when] doing things that weren’t designed to have lights and stuff. And even in Southern California, weather can be a problem.  

“During 'Falstaff,' it just poured one day. Everything was soaked, the set, the lighting instruments, but most of them survived. The rewards are also unlimited,” added Shaw. “You can’t manufacture the feeling of being in a location that really speaks to the action. You can’t fake being under a huge tree no matter how much money you have in a theater.”  

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Schweizer says he looks for certain things when presenting site-based operas: “Mostly the criteria are that the space adds a level of excitement and immediacy to hearing the piece, that whatever inconvenience you suffer from not having a well-equipped theater -- an orchestra pit and all the things that have been worked out for centuries -- if you just discard all those, the alternative needs to really bring some kind of fresh excitement. 

“It’s not just enough,” maintained Schweizer, “to not be in a theater. At best, there must be a conceptual relationship between what’s going on and the material itself. That’s why ['Hopscotch'], the car piece, was so exciting for so many people.”

Ah, “Hopscotch,” last fall’s bar-raising feat of logistical wizardry that was conceived and directed by Yuval Sharon of The Industry. By all accounts, it was a huge success and decidedly the hottest ticket in town. Swed, however, said that the 24-limousine work was not the first opera to be staged in cars.  

"Hopscotch" opera routes
"Hopscotch," a 2015 mobile opera by The Industry, was mounted in limousines that traveled around Los Angeles. | Image: Courtesy of The Industry.

In his review of “Hopscotch,” the critic wrote that “mobile opera” and “city pieces” have been around for a while, adding, “In 1969, Robert Moran's '39 Minutes for 39 Autos' transformed San Francisco into a massive performance site with 100,000 performers, and for a while staging something in a car became a Bay Area thing.”

Indeed, Swed recalled taking part in the Moran work on that August day in 1969: “You drove around while listening to KPFA and KQED. Speakers were put outside of [house] windows and people were told when to [honk]. We all did pieces for stuff in our cars back then. It was a little music department fad. That’s when I had my old Porsche that needed to be pushed. The person who was pushing it,” said Swed with a laugh, “was also playing a flute.”

And where there are cars, there are also car lots. O-Lan Jones, a composer, librettist and actor, is the artistic director of Overtone Industries. Her latest work, “Iceland,” will be presented in a concert version at the Ford Amphitheatre October 7. In 2010, Jones directed “Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands,” which incorporated the work of 11 composers and 21 librettists (including Jones), into a mixed-media performance art spectacle that unfolded in a 25,000-square-foot vacant car dealership in Culver City.  

"Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands" opera
Overtone Industries' 2010 production of "Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands," directed by O-Lan Jones, unfolded in a 25,000 square foot vacant car dealership in Culver City. In this shot, musical director David O rehearses with the orchestra-on-wheels. | Photo: Christina House/L.A. Times, courtesy of Overtone Industries.

Divided into 21 performance areas (imaginary lands), the audience traveled to them either on a train (towed carts with benches) or by picking up one’s chair and following the train. Jones, who also staged “The Woman in the Wall,” in Culver City’s Masonic Lodge in 2012, said that when she was putting “Songs and Dances” together, she didn’t know it was going to be in an unusual environment.  

“But the nature of it -- once I was seeing it -- I had this sense that some lands [should be] up close and personal, others are ephemeral where you should only catch a glimpse. When I started looking at it in those terms, what was the proper relationship to each land and where you were in the midst of it -- were you far away from it, did you chance it just going by -- that dictated the form.”

Jones added that the space, which is now a mall, was basically, “in the rough,” meaning there was considerable clean-up needed to make it performance-ready. “We had to power wash it like crazy. There were pigeons that had lived there for generations and they were roosting. We found a humane pigeon catcher who was leaping by with nets to catch these pigeons during rehearsals.”

"Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands" opera
Overtone Industries' 2010 production of "Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands," directed by O-Lan Jones, unfolded in a 25,000 square foot vacant car dealership in Culver City. Audiences were transported "from land to land" in trains during the opera. | Photo: Christina House/L.A. Times, courtesy of Overtone Industries. 

As Los Angeles teems with exotic and unusual locales, it’s no wonder that directors are vying to come up with new concepts. In 2013, LBO mounted “King Gesar,” an opera by the late Peter Lieberson. It was staged with the audience seated on folding chairs and facing a makeshift outdoor stage in Long Beach's Harry Bridges Memorial Park.  

As part of his review, Swed noted: “In the world of postmodern opera production, setting 'Carmen' on a cruise ship or 'La Bohème' on a submarine is no longer considered eccentric.”

And so it isn’t, with Schweizer adding, “Now, because everyone’s feeling like opera in alternate spaces is freeing, that it’s freshening the medium, even more conservative opera companies are doing one piece in an off-theater site in their season.”

Swed weighed in, as well: “I think environmental art can be great, and interesting stuff brings in audiences. It’s something that I think is wonderful if you do it well and if you have reason for doing it. It can also be total BS,” he added, “which is probably most of the time. But when it works, there’s nothing like it. I love the idea of it.”

"King Gesar" opera
Long Beach Opera's 2013 production of "King Gesar" took place in Long Beach's Harry Bridges Memorial Park. | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/Long Beach Opera.
"King Gesar" opera
Long Beach Opera's 2013 production of "King Gesar" took place in Long Beach's Harry Bridges Memorial Park. | Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/Long Beach Opera.​

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