Opera on Location
Jonah Levy, a thirty-year-old trumpet player based in Los Angeles, has lately developed a curious weekend routine. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, he puts on a white shirt, a black tie, black pants, and a motorcycle jacket, and heads to the ETO Doors warehouse, in downtown L.A. He takes an elevator to the sixth floor and walks up a flight of stairs to the roof, where a disused water tower rises an additional fifty feet. Levy straps his trumpet case to his back and climbs the tower’s spindly, rusty ladder. He wears a safety harness, attaching clamps to the rungs, and uses weight-lifting gloves to avoid cutting his palms. At the top, he warms up on his piccolo trumpet, applies sunscreen, and takes in views that extend from the skyscrapers of downtown to the San Gabriel Mountains. Just after 11 A.M., he receives a message on a walkie-talkie. “The audience is approaching the elevator,” a voice says. A minute or so later, figures appear on the roof of the Toy Factory Lofts, about a thousand feet away. Levy launches into a four-minute solo: an extended trill, rat-a-tat patterns, eerie bent notes, mournful flourishes in the key of B-flat minor. On the distant side of the lofts, a trombonist answers him. Then Levy sits down in a folding chair and waits a few minutes, until the walkie-talkie crackles again. He performs this solo twenty-four times each day.
Levy is one of a hundred and twenty-six musicians, dancers, and actors participating in “Hopscotch,” a “mobile opera” that is running in L.A. until November 22nd. It is the creation of a company called the Industry, which has drawn notice for presenting experimental opera in unconventional spaces. “Hopscotch” is its most ambitious production, and one of the more complicated operatic enterprises to have been attempted since Richard Wagner staged “The Ring of the Nibelung,” over four days, in 1876. Audience members ride about in a fleet of limousines, witnessing scenes that take place both inside the vehicles and at designated sites. Three simultaneous routes crisscross eastern and downtown L.A. Six principal composers, six librettists, and a production team of nearly a hundred have collaborated on the project, which has a budget of about a million dollars. It is a combination of road trip, architecture tour, contemporary-music festival, and waking dream.
The title “Hopscotch” is borrowed from Julio Cortázar’s 1963 magic-realist novel, which invites the reader to navigate the text in nonlinear fashion. The opera’s itineraries also jump around in time, and, because of a system of staggered departure points, each group of limo passengers experiences the work in a different way. Fortunately, the story is simple enough so that you can easily follow what’s happening at any given point. It is a modern fable, with overtones of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—and with the genders reversed. Lucha, an artist and puppeteer, marries a motorcycle-riding scientist named Jameson, who loses himself in esoteric research and disappears. Lucha hallucinates an encounter with him in the underworld. Unlike Orpheus, she overcomes her grief and finds happiness with Orlando, a fellow-puppeteer. In the Toy Factory Lofts scene, called “Farewell from the Rooftops,” Lucha achieves resolution. Jonah Levy is a fading image of the missing husband, his sombre costume identical to one worn by performers portraying Jameson elsewhere.
“Rooftops,” which has music by Ellen Reid and a text by Mandy Kahn, lasts about ten minutes. Upon arriving at the Toy Factory Lofts, you are greeted by Marja Kay, the singer playing Lucha in the scene, and by a violist. “I set you free, Jameson,” Kay sings, though restless viola patterns indicate lingering tension. (Nineteen women embody Lucha in the course of the opera, each wearing a yellow dress.) By the time you reach the roof, two French-horn players and a violinist have joined the group. Outside, you experience a thrilling expansion of visual and acoustic space: the ensemble mingles with the ambient rumble of traffic and helicopters. Kay points to the ETO Doors building, and Levy enters the fray, his music suggesting fanfares being pulled apart and blown away by the wind. Kay points in the opposite direction, cueing the trombone. Eventually, she bids farewell to the Jameson figures and descends the elevator in a buoyant mood. “I feel my powers now,” she sings. “This city is orchestral—I lift its baton.”
The phrase is an apt motto for “Hopscotch.” Scenes unfold on the steps of City Hall, in Chinatown Central Plaza, in Evergreen Cemetery, and at the Bradbury Building, the Gilded Age structure whose darkly opulent iron-and-marble atrium appears in “Blade Runner” and many other films. The topography ranges from the verdant summit of Elysian Park to the bleak concrete channel of the Los Angeles River.
The limo scenes are quieter, more intimate. You might be joined by a pensive, flute-playing Lucha or by guitarists who evoke the character’s Mexican background. At one decisive moment, though, the exterior world rushes in. You find yourself riding with the actor-playwright Peter Howard, who is portraying a real-estate developer. While musing on gentrification, he lowers a window and addresses a black-clad motorcyclist who is riding alongside the limo. “Hey, your tail-light is out!” he yells. “It’s dangerous!” The motorcyclist yells back, his voice carried to the limo’s speakers through a wireless mike: “You know what’s really dangerous? Distracting a motorcyclist when he’s on the road.” The biker, performed virtuosically by Stephen Beitler, is another Jameson figure; he and the developer argue as you clutch the armrests. This is the rare opera that asks you to sign a legal waiver before the show begins.
The mastermind of this spectacle is the opera director Yuval Sharon, a thirty-six-year-old Chicago native, who moved to L.A. in 2010 and founded the Industry that year. He realizes that his current project, which took more than two years to pull together, could be seen as a daft undertaking. He told me, “An opera with a nonsequential plot that depends on cars arriving on time in L.A.? We’ve created a monster, but it’s alive.” He closed his eyes and gave an antic laugh.
Trim and curly-haired, and dressed habitually in jeans, a T-shirt, and a vintage Le Tigre track jacket, Sharon looks like a hip counsellor at a summer arts camp—albeit one who reveres Wagner and names Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” as his favorite play. (He plans to stage it on the beach in Santa Monica, beside a bonfire.) Tirelessly upbeat, he has a knack for charming his way through bureaucratic tangles. “Hopscotch” entailed conversations with the Department of Transportation, California Parks and Recreation, and the Army Corps of Engineers, not to mention the Toy Factory Lofts Homeowners Association. He persuaded city officials to have potholes paved over so that musicians would have a smoother ride. He has also had, so far, a fair amount of luck. Road closures and tieups have been minimal. El Niño, which is likely to bring drenching rains to L.A., has yet to arrive in earnest. No film crews have commandeered the Bradbury Building. And, the day before I attended a rehearsal, in mid-October, the Dodgers had lost to the Mets in the National League playoffs.
“I’ve never followed sports so closely in all my life!” Sharon said, laughing again. “My dad took me to games when I was young—I didn’t get it.” If the Dodgers had reached the World Series, they would have played at home on Halloween, the day that “Hopscotch” opened, and the opera’s routes would have been mired in traffic.
We were at the Los Angeles River site, a former Union Pacific staging ground called the Bowtie Parcel, now an art park. The performers were rehearsing “Hades,” the scene in which Lucha imagines Jameson in the underworld. “This is going to be the River Styx,” Sharon told me, looking down at the gray-green stream, which flowed past scattered rocks and masses of vegetation. More than twenty people milled about, among them the venerable experimental composer David Rosenboom, who is the dean of the school of music at the California Institute of the Arts. For “Hades,” he had composed a punchy, angular, R. & B.-inflected score, using an ensemble of three trumpeters and three percussionists. “Make it more rhythmically precise—more James Brown,” he said to the musicians.
Sharon and his team had found a ready-made seating area: a folly-like enclosure at the top of the embankment, constructed from rusted steel frames. He told three singers portraying Styxian women to surround the structure. “Reach through the gaps in the frames,” he said. “Icy fingers, grasping.” He turned to the bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell, who was playing the Boatman of the Styx, and said, “Reach out your arms to make yourself look taller—tower over us.” Rebekah Barton, who was this scene’s Lucha, practiced throwing a knotted rope down to Nicholas LaGesse, the Jameson, who was by the river. Sharon voiced Jameson’s feelings: “ ‘A rope out of Hell? Can this be?’ You should be doubting, unsure.”
The director lowered himself to the riverbed to confer with LaGesse, who was holding a battered suitcase containing a speaker that was supposed to transmit his voice to the audience above. “It’s kind of muffled,” Sharon said. “What if we drilled holes in it?” The show’s production designer, Jason H. Thompson—who gave Sharon the idea for an opera partly set in cars—began perforating the suitcase. The percussionists tried out sounds, running drumsticks along a barbed-wire fence. Barton practiced throwing the Boatman’s oar. Ash Nichols, the production manager, and Casey Kringlen, the assistant director, spoke with the limo driver, who was doubtful about navigating a narrow, bumpy access road. Twenty-six drivers, all from Wilshire Limousine Services, were rehearsing as carefully as the musicians.
By the time I saw “Hades” in performance, it had become a tightly structured episode. The Boatman wore a white suit and a gold lucha libre mask, and the river women wove around him in flowing black costumes. The percussionists and the trumpeters were outfitted with gray suits and sunglasses, like members of Hell’s marching band. The problem of the access road had been solved: the driver, Bob Gezalyan, now commanded a Jeep, which handled the bumps and troughs with ease. Barton stood in the back of the vehicle, singing into the onrushing air, “How do I start over again?” A man fishing on the river whistled as we sped by. The scene is brief but intense, like the kind of dream one has after hitting the snooze button.
Sharon’s father, an Israeli nuclear engineer named Ariel Sharon, failed to interest his son in sports, but he did instill a love for opera. In the seventies, Ariel studied at Northwestern University, and he eventually settled in Chicago with his wife, Mali, a high-school social worker. “My dad took me to see Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ at the Chicago Lyric Opera when I was thirteen,” Yuval said, at a café in Echo Park, near where he lives. “I remember enjoying the first two acts, with the sword and the dragon, but the third act was horrific—a man and a woman screaming at each other about love. Now that’s my favorite part of the ‘Ring.’ My dad got into Wagner in the course of travelling to Germany for work. Talking about Wagner is sort of the German equivalent of golfing.” Ariel Sharon died in 2011, just before his son began to develop a reputation as an opera director. Yuval strongly felt his father’s absence last year, when he directed a heralded staging of John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic” in Karlsruhe.
Sharon attended the University of California at Berkeley, studying literature and dramatic arts, and he was contemplating a career in film when he happened to see Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” in San Francisco. “I’d studied the work beforehand and was prepared for this amazing, visceral, powerful experience, and it was so lame and so flat,” he said. “I looked around at the audience and thought, Nobody cares. They’re just relieved that it’s going to be short. I realized that it was the production, not the age of the piece or the nature of its language, that was keeping the gates closed. And I wondered, What would happen if you treated this as actual theatre?”
After graduating, in 2001, Sharon served as an assistant on several productions in Germany and Austria. In 2003, he took a job at New York City Opera, and later ran its new-opera workshop, VOX. In 2009, the L.A. Opera invited Sharon to assist the German director Achim Freyer, a Brecht protégé, on a staging of the “Ring”—a bold and costly undertaking, dominated by giant puppet figures, that left many operagoers baffled. Sharon, though, felt that the response was warmer than it might have been elsewhere, not least at the Met. He let go of Hollywood-centered images of L.A. and set about exploring the city’s chaotically intersecting cultures. Fascinated by the great European emigration to Southern California in the period of the Second World War, he made a pilgrimage to the Villa Aurora, the former home of the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, where Brecht socialized alongside Charles Laughton and Charlie Chaplin.
“There was a deliberate irony in calling our company the Industry,” Sharon said. “It’s an alternate version of the local reality.” From the start, the company’s productions stood out for their daunting complexity. First came a staging of Anne LeBaron’s “Crescent City,” a phantasmagoric story of post-Katrina New Orleans. Within a cavernous warehouse, audiences chose their own paths among multiple stages. In 2013, the Industry presented Christopher Cerrone’s “Invisible Cities,” an adaptation of the Italo Calvino novel in which Union Station became the stage: performers made their way around unsuspecting commuters as audience members listened on wireless headphones.
This kind of thing has, of course, been done before. Sharon cites, as models, the happenings of Allan Kaprow and the Situationism of Guy Debord, who devised wayward city tours in search of the “liberation of everyday life.” The Industry’s productions also owe much to the site-specific theatre of recent decades, such as the Punchdrunk company’s “Sleep No More,” in which theatregoers roam multistory spaces. There have been taxi plays, elevator plays, subway plays. And there have been site-specific operas, though nothing on the scale of “Hopscotch.”
“Some people wonder why we’re still calling this opera,” Sharon told me. “They say, ‘Why not just ditch that word, since it’s your biggest baggage?’ People hear it and think inaccessible. But people need to realize that what we’re doing is an extension of this very old layering of word and music and image. We may be pretty far from Mozart and Verdi, but we’re certainly connected to the avant-garde tradition of Cage and Partch and Stockhausen.” At the Birmingham Opera, in 2012, Sharon served as an associate director for Graham Vick’s grandly surreal production of Stockhausen’s “Mittwoch aus Licht,” which requires a string quartet to fly in helicopters.
“And, yes, there’s a little bit of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk,” Sharon went on, wincing at the word, which drops clunkily into so many discussions of unconventional theatre. “The inspiration from that tradition is: instead of being cautious, instead of taking on some idea for a new opera that’s been cooked up by a marketing roundtable, let’s make it bigger, gutsier, more audacious, more borderline impossible.” In rehearsals, he quoted a slogan associated with the artist Banksy: “It’s not art unless it has the potential to be a disaster.”
“Hopscotch” is, beyond everything else, a feat of logistical planning. The three routes for the audience are labelled Red, Yellow, and Green; each lasts ninety minutes and is given three times a day. Viewers circulate according to an ingenious scheme that Sharon and Elizabeth Cline, the Industry’s executive director, worked out one night with an array of toy cars bought at a Little Tokyo market. Cline told me, “Like every element of ‘Hopscotch,’ we figured it out through conversation, testing, discovery, iterating.” The audience for a given route is divided into eight groups of four, half moving clockwise and half moving counterclockwise. Performers repeat their scenes as groups rotate in and out; the limos shuttle back and forth, trading passengers with the next car in the chain. Most viewers go on only one route; in theory, you could see all three in succession, but it would be an all too Wagnerian experience.
Sharon and his team arranged the scenes so that the viewer is in a state of perpetual transition. One moment, you’re cooped up in a limo with blacked-out windows, listening in claustrophobically close quarters; the next, you’re in a wide-open landscape, sound cascading from all directions. Each route has at least one awe-inspiring moment of emergence. On the Red Route, it is “Rooftops”; on the Green Route, it is “Hades.” The tour de force of the Yellow Route takes place in the Bradbury Building. It is another of Lucha’s hallucinations, one in which she pictures Jameson with a Lady in Red. Veronika Krausas, an Australian-born, Canadian-raised composer who teaches at U.S.C., pays homage to the building’s cinematic associations with a seductively noirish, jazz-tinged score, including a violent drum improvisation and seething lines for an ambulatory saxophone. You ride the Bradbury’s open-cage elevator to the top level of the atrium, whereupon Lucha—here portrayed by the Iranian-born coloratura soprano Delaram Kamareh—makes her way down five stories of stairs. Dancers from a local company, Ate9, dart up and down, fleshing out the surreal image. Toward the end, a sensuous guitar song floats through the reverberant space.
Repeatedly, the staged action merges with the life of the city. Tourists who have been admitted to the Bradbury’s ground floor gaze up at the cryptic doings above, filming the performers on their mobile phones. Customers at Burgerlords, in Chinatown, attempt to digest what they are seeing as they nibble on their fries. During a scene set in Hollenbeck Park, a young woman who had just been married, in a flamboyant purple dress, wandered into the background, seeming at first glance to be an extra. Sometimes, though, a bystander turns out to be a player in the drama: at Hollenbeck Park, a man at an ice-cream cart turns into a percussionist. The composer Marc Lowenstein, who wrote a raptly lyrical score for that episode and also served as the production’s music director, commented, “Everything that happens is part of the scene.”
You always return to the limo, gazing through tinted glass. There “Hopscotch” takes on a more melancholy, alienated tone, as the music becomes the soundtrack to whatever you glimpse through the window: gasping joggers, barking businesspeople, homeless people pushing grocery carts, gleaming boutiques, a toilet inexplicably shattered on the side of the road. By design, you feel uneasy as you move around the city in vehicles associated with fame and wealth. Getting in and out, you are gawked at, until people realize that you are not famous.
“This piece is basically in love with L.A., but we didn’t want it to be all rainbows and Disneyland,” Sharon told me. “We don’t want to hide the darkness of the city—the way people can, yes, disappear. And we want to include a sense of the isolation of driving—the emotional distance it can create. The plot aside, the piece is really a story about life in cars. What we’ve done is remove the sense of a destination—the tunnel vision that takes hold when you’re trying to get somewhere. That completely transforms your experience of the street. All these new perceptions flood your system.”
Before “Hopscotch” rehearsals began, I drove to El Sereno, east of downtown, to visit Andrew Norman, another of the six composers who created the main part of the score. All are based in Southern California, but only Norman grew up in the state. His father, an evangelical minister, led a church in Modesto; one of Norman’s early musical experiences was playing keyboards in a church youth band. At the age of thirty-six, he has become much in demand for his furiously churning, finely structured orchestral pieces. For “Hopscotch,” Norman had been asked to compose the Finale, which was to unfold at a central location called the Hub. At the end of each performance day, the limos would converge there, and musicians would emerge to perform together live.
Norman, who is blond and pale and given to wearing flannel shirts, composes in a converted garage next to the house that he shares with his partner, Alex Birkhold. A worktable was strewn with pieces in progress: he was in the middle of sketching the piano part of “Split,” a concerto that Jeffrey Kahane and the New York Philharmonic will introduce in December. “My process involves a lot of nail-biting,” Norman told me. “I get spells of writer’s block, and there are periods where I sketch gobs of material that doesn’t cohere, and then, if all goes well, at the last possible second it all kind of—” He made a plosive sound and crunched his hands together. The works themselves often follow the same progression: atomized figures swirl about in a state of near-anarchy and then coalesce into solid, soaring forms.
Norman grinned in relief when he opened up a “Hopscotch” file on his computer. In place of the precise demands that accompany a major orchestral commission, the assignment here was almost absurdly open-ended. “Usually, I’m told, ‘Twenty-two minutes, same instrumentation as a Mozart concerto,’ ” Norman explained. “In this case, the duration depends on traffic. Yuval has been driving around, trying to see how long it will take for every limousine to get to the Hub. He says that it might last anywhere from seven to twenty minutes. Also, it has to be simple enough that performers of various musical backgrounds can memorize it.” Norman had decided to base the entire Finale on a scale of G major. As in Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece “In C,” modular melodies would harmonize with one another even as they traced separate paths.
The “Hopscotch” composers had to be comfortable with uncertainty. Ellen Reid, a native of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who moved to L.A. in 2009 to study at CalArts, told me, “You’re always trying to hit a literally moving target. Each piece has to be both coherent on its own terms and also flexible enough to fit shifting conditions, and you don’t even know in advance what kind of flexibility will be required. At the last minute, a location or a route changes, and everything is different.” In rehearsals of “Rooftops,” Reid found that the sustained tones and trills she had written for Jonah Levy were getting lost in the rumbling soundscape, so she encouraged him to add figuration that scampered up and down in register.
Sharon sought a range of styles, not omitting the city’s sizable musical underground. Andrew McIntosh, a thirty-year-old composer and a Baroque violinist who grew up in a small town on the edge of the Nevada desert, is one of a number of L.A. musicians who pay heed to the twentieth-century avant-garde, resisting stereotypes of the city as a domain of movie-score bombast. McIntosh co-owns a new-music label with the ironic name Populist Records; his first solo album is titled “Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure.” He was assigned a crucial pair of scenes in which Lucha and Jameson consummate their love and are married. In other hands, this material might have elicited lyrical effusions; McIntosh’s spare, rarefied sonorities, which tilt away from traditional tunings, give an air of mythic otherness. His music for a quartet of saxophones has been wafting out from Angel’s Point, in Elysian Park, and settling over the city like an invisible mist.
Some of the “Hopscotch” previews had wobbly moments; limos ran late, scenes were curtailed. By opening day, though, the routes were operating smoothly. As at a theme-park ride, one audience would emerge from a limo and another would step in seconds later. Sharon spent most of the day at the Hub, which occupies a corner of the parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, in the Arts District. Here, as if things weren’t tricky enough, a new feature was being added: twenty-four video screens had been set up, each, in theory, carrying a live feed from a “Hopscotch” scene. The images came from audience members who had been handed mobile-phone cameras. Using technology provided by the Sennheiser company, visitors to the Hub could connect to audio channels and listen on headphones.
On the first day, many of the feeds had technical problems. The signal from the “Rooftops” scene cut out every time the party entered the elevator, and so a tape of a preview ran instead. (The second day went better.) But the Bradbury Building was broadcasting without interruption, and its performers were in high spirits. Kamareh threw herself exuberantly about the space and embellished her coloratura runs with whoops and shrieks. “I could almost tell them to rein it a little, but I won’t,” Sharon commented. “It’s out of my hands now—all these scenes have taken on a life of their own.” The audience cinematographers were adding their own touches. Some dutifully followed the principals; others indulged in panning shots, closeups, and other filmic gestures. One person seemed concerned mainly with keeping a handsome companion in the frame. Repeatedly, there was an abrupt pan down to a pair of feet. Having handled a camera in one of the previews, I recognized this as the moment when the excited documentarian realizes that if he doesn’t watch his step he could plunge down the stairs.
The on-site performances ended at four-thirty, and the limos began collecting at the Hub. They pulled up one by one, in lanes on either side of the audience. As passengers emerged, they resembled arrivals at a Hollywood red-carpet event, except that the celebrities here were emissaries from the “Hopscotch” realm. Various Luchas stepped out, including the singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked, who, on the Yellow Route, evoked Lucha’s final happiness. Jamesons and Orlandos also mingled. All were singing or speaking phrases on the theme of mundane daily tasks: “Still needing to go to the market, to change the sheets, to do the dishes, to feed the cat.” Thus began Andrew Norman’s Finale. For a while, modular fragments swirled in a pleasant haze, but once all the limos had arrived a stronger compositional mechanism took over, moving toward a culminating idea: a pattern of intervals contracting on both ends, from a tenth to an octave to a sixth to a fourth to a second. The figure enacts in musical terms the idea of finding a center. Norman has supplied a gentle, mystical ending for a work that, amid its many moments of pure elation, is as disorienting and disquieting as the world in which it moves.
The metaphor captures the brazenness of “Hopscotch”: its way of impinging on daily life in an organized citywide assault. Many passersby react to the opera with a momentary perplexity that seems to fade as they walk on. Others become curious and ask questions. By the end of the run, thousands of Angelenos will have joined the piece’s accidental audience, which may turn out to be the more important one. Whatever the reaction, “Hopscotch” triumphantly escapes the genteel, fenced-off zone where opera is supposed to reside.
Ellen Reid came over to congratulate Levy on surviving another marathon and to marvel that the entire improbable scheme had come to pass. “The thing about Yuval is that he’s created his own reality,” Levy said. “He’s kind of our Walt Disney.” Levy left the party early in order to drive to Long Beach, where he had a gig playing in the pit band for a production of “My Fair Lady.” The next day, he was back on his tower, an assassin of the ordinary.
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