Inside Union Station, a robotic voice is barking out destinations for Amtrak's northbound Train 785, departing from track No. 9.
"Glendale, Burbank Airport, Van Nuys … Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Goleta! All aboard!"
Yuval Sharon smiles, pauses mid-sentence and brings the racing locomotive of his thoughts to a screeching halt. Twilight is settling over the downtown L.A. train terminal, where, on Saturday, Sharon and his 3-year-old opera company, the Industry, will stage the world premiere of "Invisible Cities," Christopher Cerrone's "headphone opera" based on Italo Calvino's memory-circumnavigating novel.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, strange things are happening in the station's cavernous Art Deco waiting room.
A young man, seated near a sleeping passenger, suddenly breaks into a hauntingly beautiful tone poem about a city named Adelma, filled with living people who resemble our dead acquaintances. Two female singers, weaving like swallows through clumps of harried commuters, elicit a puzzled stare from a passing security guard and a snaggletooth grin from a homeless man.
"For the audience, it should feel like they have a pair of goggles on, and that as the opera goes on they just get more and more and more in focus," says Sharon, surveying the existentialist-lounge-cum-artistic-intervention that he and his colleagues are rehearsing.
A gleeful expression lights up his eyes. "I can't wait for the Halloween night performance!"
Published in 1972, "Invisible Cities" is a lyrical 165-page rumination on the unquenchable longings and epic migrations of the human soul. It styles itself as a conversation in which the intrepid Venetian explorer Marco Polo is asked by the elderly emperor Kublai Khan to divert him with tales of the amazing cities he claims to have visited across Khan's disintegrating empire.
The operatic version, performed by eight singers, seven dancers choreographed by Danielle Agami and an 11-piece chamber orchestra, will take place in designated areas of Union Station (not including the track platforms). Roughly 200 audience members wearing wireless headphones will be able to hear everything and to choose which performers to follow in and out of rooms, creating a customized experience, all while interacting with the artists and some presumably puzzled passersby.
"Invisible Cities" is the Industry's follow-up to its wild and woolly inaugural show, "Crescent City," a "hyper-opera" by composer Anne LeBaron and librettist Douglas Kearney that opened in May 2012 at Atwater Crossing. "Invisible Cities" shares certain elements with that production, specifically with its site-specific, environmental design.
Yet, like Calvino's book, the opera's true domain is pure states of mind. "The beauty of the book is that it's such an open construction, and it's primarily about your own experience," Sharon says.
At home in L.A.
Calvino's artistic stratagems, subtle yet potent, could describe the influence that Sharon has had on L.A's performance landscape since he arrived here in 2009 to be Achim Freyer's assistant director on L.A. Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. At that time, the native Chicagoan had been overseeing New York City Opera's VOX, an annual workshop that under Sharon's direction became perhaps America's most influential test lab for new opera.
After only a few weeks of immersing himself in Southern California's open-minded atmosphere, Sharon felt he'd found a home for the unconventional, interdisciplinary work he wanted to do.
"L.A. still feels like a frontier, where anything is really possible," says Sharon, who is slight-framed, radiates low-key Midwestern amiability and turns 34 this month. "But there's also the amazing audience that's been built here because of the great work of so many other institutions."
Like Peter Sellars, another avant-garde opera director who began migrating to L.A. three decades ago, Sharon has been winning friends, influencing L.A.'s creative classes and generally shaking things up. Peers say that his low-budget, itinerant company has been an important addition to L.A.'s maturing operatic ecosystem of large, medium and small producers and presenters. Local audiences who've already experienced their fourth or fifth "La Bohème" now have other options.
Meanwhile, his work is reverberating beyond the Left Coast. Last March he directed Jessye Norman and Meredith Monk in John Cage's "Song Books" as part of San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks Festival. In January he'll be directing John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" at the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany.
One of those watching his work here with approving interest is Graham Vick, the founder-artistic director of Britain's experimental Birmingham Opera Company, one of Sharon's models for the Industry.
"He's bright, creative and fearless, endlessly cheerful, resilient," Vick says of his protege, whom he mostly recently worked with on Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Mittwoch aus Licht."