MODERN OPERA THRIVES IN L.A.
For most of the twentieth century, Los Angeles was the only American metropolis without a full-fledged opera house. This turned out to be no bad thing for the city’s spirited, unpredictable modern scene. In bygone days, the moneyed classes of L.A. showed little interest in parading their finery in opera boxes, as the Morgans and the Vanderbilts had done at the Met, in New York. The all-powerful Chandler family, which owned the Los Angeles Times and controlled vast tracts of real estate, threw its weight behind the L.A. Philharmonic, which now has an annual budget of a hundred and twenty-three million dollars and remains, by far, the wealthiest classical-music organization in Southern California. On the other hand, when opera finally took root, with the founding of L.A. Opera, in 1986, it was relatively free of the entrenched conservatism that has hemmed in older houses. No American company of L.A. Opera’s size—the budget is forty-one million dollars—is more committed to new and unusual work. Its fall repertory included “Akhnaten,” Philip Glass’s saga of ancient Egypt, and “The Source,” Ted Hearne’s meditation on Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks.
This is not to say that L.A. Opera, which is housed primarily in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, disdains the past. Since 2003, its general director has been the ageless Plácido Domingo, who also sings in tried-and-true repertory once or twice a season. The split between Domingo’s fare and the contemporary offerings—which reflect the tastes of the organization’s C.E.O., Christopher Koelsch—can be disconcerting. It’s as if two distinct opera companies shared the same name. The first show of the fall season was Darko Tresnjak’s staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth,” with Domingo in the title role, continuing his effortful late-career transition to baritone parts. He lacked low-end menace, and Tresnjak overdid the witchy kitsch. What kept the production alive was the fluid, vital conducting of James Conlon, the company’s longtime music director. L.A. Opera has shown more nerve in presenting Barrie Kosky’s creatively jarring takes on “The Magic Flute,” “Dido and Aeneas,” and “Bluebeard’s Castle.” One can understand the caution: L.A. Opera is still smarting from the setback of Achim Freyer’s thirty-one-million-dollar “Ring,” which struggled at the box office in 2009 and 2010.
In “Akhnaten,” the disparate identities of L.A. Opera happily merged. Glass’s opera, a portrait of the heretical Pharaoh who tried to convert Egypt to monotheism, was first seen in 1984, and marks an evolution from the stripped-down radicalism of “Einstein on the Beach” to a more conventional orchestral language. “Akhnaten” attains an austere majesty that won’t sound entirely alien to ears accustomed to “Aida.” At the same time, its static, hieratic text, derived largely from ancient Egyptian and Akkadian sources, lies far outside the operatic norm, and makes most American librettos of recent decades look bland. To put it crudely, this work can hold the attention of blue-hairs and hipsters alike; at the première, both were out in force.
The production was by Phelim McDermott, whose paper-puppet staging of Glass’s “Satyagraha” entranced audiences at the Met in 2008 and 2011. McDermott, in collaboration with the set designer Tom Pye and the costume designer Kevin Pollard, achieved another wonder here: many tableaux played like cinematic reënactments of Egyptian friezes in motion, with surreal anachronisms intermingled. A squad of jugglers—inspired by a practice seen in Pharaonic art—enlivened Glass’s more loquacious ostinatos. Whenever the show threatened to get twee, it veered toward spooky grandeur: an assault on Akhnaten’s temple is headed by a Grand Guignol general wearing a top hat capped by a skull.
The superstar countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo took total possession of the title role. Inevitably, there was much chatter about the fact that, in Act I, he appeared stark naked, facing forward. (A patron was heard to explain, “Otherwise, we wouldn’t know it’s a man singing.”) Anatomical revelations aside, Costanzo embodied an otherworldly ruler poised between idealism and madness, his voice a prism of brilliant colors. J’Nai Bridges was no less glowing as Nefertiti, Akhnaten’s wife. The gifted young composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin, in the pit, emphasized Glass’s pearly instrumental solos; Ryan Darke, L.A. Opera’s principal trumpet, played gorgeously all night.
“The Source,” which L.A. Opera presented at the redcat space, underneath Disney Hall, is the undoubted winner of this year’s award for Acutely Uncomfortable Relevance. I arrived at redcat immediately after watching the final Presidential debate, at which Hillary Clinton mentioned apparent links between WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence. Within a few minutes, we were listening to Auto-Tuned vocalizations of classified military documents that Chelsea Manning gave to WikiLeaks in 2010. Such are the vagaries of news-driven art: when “The Source” had its première, at bam, in 2014, WikiLeaks still seemed heroic to many leftists, but it has lost its lustre in the wake of the 2016 election. Still, Hearne’s piece holds up as a complex mirror image of an information-saturated, mass-surveillance world, and remains staggering in its impact.
Hearne, a thirty-four-year-old Chicagoan who now teaches composition at U.S.C., is acutely attuned to the intricate clash of pop, technology, and politics. “The Source,” based on a libretto by Mark Doten, is a mesmerizing and disquieting collage of vocal, instrumental, and recorded sounds. Four vocalists are heard singing excerpts from Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, some of them chillingly poetic in isolation: “We called for illumination”; “A young boy released pigeons.” Passages from Manning’s Internet chats unfold against a channel-surfing montage of Clay Aiken singing “Mack the Knife” (“Oh, the shark bites”), the N.B.A. finals, “The Bachelorette,” Stephen Hawking talking to Diane Sawyer, and so on—the noisy veil of pop-culture distraction. Manning’s transgender identity comes into play: “I behave and look like a male, / but it’s not me.”
All this is arresting in itself, but the production—which is by Daniel Fish and Jim Findlay, in conjunction with Beth Morrison Projects—is something else again. (It travels to the San Francisco Opera in February.) Hearne’s soundscape is accompanied by closeup video images of a diverse group of people, who react to unseen events with dismay. A greenish reflection in one woman’s glasses gives an inkling of what is happening. At the end of the work, the music falls silent, and we see what they were watching: eleven minutes of WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video, documenting a 2007 strike on a Baghdad suburb. That footage became instantly notorious because of its casual cruelty: “One small child wounded. Over”; “Roger. Ah, damn. Oh, well.” WikiLeaks was later accused of tendentious editing, but the clip would be shocking in any guise. I have never seen an audience more dumbfounded than the one at redcat: for at least a minute, no one moved or made a sound.
Opera has gained traction elsewhere in the Los Angeles area. Long Beach Opera, which was formed in 1979, has presented everything from John Cage’s “Europeras” to John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The Industry, a company established by the visionary young director Yuval Sharon, has abandoned conventional venues and staged work in warehouses, in L.A.’s Union Station, and, in the case of last year’s “Hopscotch,” in limousines roaming the city. Sharon has also launched a multi-year collaboration with the L.A. Phil, and is preparing a production of Lou Harrison’s “Young Caesar,” for June. Early signs of Sharon’s infiltration of the orchestra were evident this fall, when patrons ascending from the Disney parking garage saw cloudlike sculptures over their heads and heard a sound installation by Rand Steiger—a piece called “Nimbus,” evoking rain, wind, and other weather phenomena.
The L.A. Phil has itself long moonlighted as an opera presenter, usually offering several concert or semi-staged performances each season. In 2004, it introduced one of the most celebrated productions of the new century, Peter Sellars and Bill Viola’s engulfing “Tristan und Isolde.” In 2016, it has offered Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” in a luminous performance under Esa-Pekka Salonen; the world première of Louis Andriessen’s apocalyptic drama “Theatre of the World”; “Tosca,” at the Hollywood Bowl, under Gustavo Dudamel; and, just before Thanksgiving, the first performance of Gerald Barry’s “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.”
In “Alice,” composer and subject are uncommonly well matched. Barry is an exuberant anarchist who traffics in polystylistic delirium. His latest score begins with strident arpeggios in and around C major, as the fearless soprano Barbara Hannigan, in the title role, tries frantically to keep pace: “D-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-down!” It goes on, in helter-skelter fashion, for just under an hour, incorporating music-hall songs, Victorian hymns, the “Ode to Joy,” and settings of “Jabberwocky” in French, German, and Russian. A similar frenzy propels Barry’s adaptation of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which had its première at the L.A. Phil in 2011, and appeared at the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial last spring. That opera seems almost at war with the debonair wit of its source. “Alice,” by contrast, channels the topsy-turvy spirit of Lewis Carroll to an uncanny degree. Thomas Adès, a part-time Los Angeles resident, led a host of singers and L.A. Phil players in a shrill, chaotic, relentless, and altogether wonderful performance.
Such activity does not come about by accident. For decades, L.A. has had an unusually strong culture of new-music patronage: locals take pride in supporting the L.A. Phil’s new-music initiatives, longtime series like the Monday Evening Concerts and newer projects like the Industry, wasteLAnd, and wild Up. The modest titans of the scene are the philanthropists Lenore and Bernard Greenberg, who helped to fund both “Akhnaten” and “Alice,” and who, decades ago, had important roles in founding L.A. Opera. You see them at events large and small, where they are inevitably waylaid by grateful composers. They and others have done far more than emblazon their names on buildings: they have fostered an atmosphere in which new work can germinate and thrive.