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."
"It's fantastic what Yuval's doing in Los Angeles," Vick continues. Companies like the Industry, Vick believes, herald an operatic future that's "more agile, more project-based, more flexible, more pop-up."
Sharon and a handful of creative fellow travelers started laying the financial and philosophical groundwork for the Industry in 2011. "Crescent City" was its Mardi Gras, its Dionysian debutante ball.
Staged in a 25,000-square-foot Atwater Village warehouse, it unfolds in a fantasia metropolis — part Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, part Sodom — as a kind of Brechtian-biblical fable, in which a quarrelsome group of voodoo gods pledges to save the flooded city if one good man can be found. The production played out across a skewed, sprawling assemblage set before audience members who were standing and sitting, a few in beanbag chairs in a dive-bar cabaret that was part of the mis-en-scène.
Marc Lowenstein, the Industry's music director, conducted the small orchestra from a makeshift scaffold that from some angles was partially or wholly invisible. The smashed-mirror aesthetic ensured that each viewer would become a de facto adjunct performer.
Audiences sold out the entire run. Critics were impressed. "We now have something that can genuinely be called L.A. opera," wrote Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed.
The production also brought together a number of artists who've begun to form the Industry's creative corps and are back for "Invisible Cities," including Lowenstein, production sound designer E Martin Gimenez and singer Cedric Berry.
"You can have someone who's a good artist with a great vision and can execute. And then someone who's a good manager. And then someone who's a good person," says Lowenstein. "Yuval's very rare in that he's all three."
Sharon says that "Crescent City" embodied one of the Industry's core tenets: that the audience's engagement "completes the work." The 70-minute, intermission-less "Invisible Cities," which like "Crescent City" had an early incarnation at VOX when Sharon was running it, will carry that idea even further.
"People have asked me, 'What would you advise people as they're starting a company?' " Sharon says. "My first piece of advice was, 'Listen to everybody.' It doesn't mean take everybody's advice, it just means listen to everybody, because everybody's got a point of view that's really valuable."
'Bored out of my mind'
Sharon descends from a family of listeners, as well as opera lovers.
The eldest of three children, he was providentially named after the first musician identified in the Old Testament, Yuval. His mother was a social worker and his father was an Israeli chemical engineer who migrated to Chicago. Years later he dragged his then-teenage son to his first opera, "La Traviata."
"I was bored out of my mind," Sharon says, laughing.
But one impression from the production stuck: After the ailing Violetta sang, "Farewell, lovely, happy dreams of the past," the chorus could be heard offstage, emphasizing the isolation of Verdi's tragic heroine. Then a carnival figure climbed through a window and slid, surrealistically, under Violetta's bed.
"Everything else about the opera I don't remember, but I just remember that visual moment really strongly," Sharon recalls. "Opera is this intersection of the visual and the musical and the textual. It's a crazy, unstable construction, opera."
Sharon went to UC Berkeley intending to be a filmmaker. Then he saw "Titanic" and realized he didn't want to fritter away his 20s as a production assistant on Hollywood smash-'em-ups. His fascination turned instead to avant-garde theater directors and choreographers like Heiner Müller and Pina Bausch.
He learned how to score good, cheap seats at San Francisco Opera. He spent a year teaching English in Berlin, where he slept with gloves on because he didn't know how to operate the Cold War-vintage stove in his tiny flat.
After moving to New York, Sharon finally began to implement and synthesize his ideas about theater: the notion that all art forms are converging due to technological innovation and globalization; the belief that art should foster both subjective individual experience and group dharma; the conviction that even the most cosmopolitan art must "resonate with a very specific community."
Of course, plenty of directors can talk a great concept. Making that concept come alive onstage, kicking and screaming, is another matter, and "Invisible Cities" may test the Industry's creative mettle like nothing before.
Back at Union Station, the rehearsal hurtles forward. Unsuspecting diners at Traxx restaurant converse quietly. Giant mechanical hands sweep across a clock face.
"Ensemble, try a different spot," Sharon gently instructs his crew. "Also, try not to scare the people too much."
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