"How can I be a warrior for what's good in the world?"
Yuval Sharon asked himself that question hours before the announcement that he was a 2017 MacArthur fellow, winner of the so-called genius grant of $625,000, to be paid in quarterly, no-strings-attached installments over the next five years by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The foundation rewards individuals who have a track record of achievement and "manifest promise for important future advances," the organization said. Sharon's potential rested primarily on the work he has done in Los Angeles as artistic director of the experimental opera company the Industry, he said by phone Tuesday.
"I'm a director, not a standalone artist with a canvas," he said. "I feel so honored, because I get to be the representative of so many creative people who work with me. I'm excited about the spotlight this provides to the Industry."
Sharon rose to national prominence in 2013 with the Industry's "Invisible Cities," an immersive opera staged in downtown Los Angeles' Union Station. Singers mingled with harried commuters, bending accepted ideas about the sanctity of traditional performance halls. His next big act was in 2015 with "Hopscotch," an ambitious opera performed in 24 cars driving in and around downtown L.A.
Soon after, Sharon was named the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first artist-collaborator in residence. The three-year post set him free to curate nontraditional projects for the L.A. Phil in association with the Industry. This includes his forthcoming performance piece, "War of the Worlds," which uses the famous Orson Wells 1938 fake-news radio broadcast about a Martian invasion as a springboard for a project that involves piping music from inside Walt Disney Concert Hall to World War II-era sirens on city streets (and sounds from those same streets into the concert hall).
"I think it's very exciting to be doing something that feels like a direct response to our current social-political situation in a way that I think is very visceral and strong," he said of "War of the Worlds," which premieres Nov. 12. "We don't need to draw direct parallels, because the direct parallels are so clear and alarming."
Earlier this month, Times music critic Mark Swed noted how the venerable Cleveland Orchestra opened its 100th season by asking Sharon to direct "The Cunning Little Vixen," in which animation played on three screens surrounding the musicians.
Sharon had no idea he had been nominated for the fellowship, so the notification phone call in mid-September was like a bolt from the blue. He was driving at the time, and he asked if he could call back when he was out of traffic. He thought he was being contacted for a recommendation for somebody else.
"It was so surreal. They read back to me why I was selected — and I don't even have the words to describe what it felt like to hear," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, I guess that's what I'm doing,' but you get in the thicket of doing it, and with no warning, you get this bird's-eye view of the past 15 years."
Sharon is known for thinking in wide, zigzagging arcs — for conceiving ideas that seem too audacious to pull off.
The MacArthur money will allow him the freedom and time to reflect on where he's been and where he hopes to go, he said. He'd also like to write about his craft in the tradition of some of his favorite directors, including Bertolt Brecht, whose book "On Theatre" influenced him greatly as a young man.
In 2020, when he is free of all future work commitments, he will take a six-month sabbatical in Japan, most likely in Kyoto. He's never been there, but the country's music, culture, theater and literature have long appealed to him.
"Self-reflection is crucial to artistic work," he said. "It's so easy to get caught up in the machine of producing. The second one project is done, you're on to the next."
Taking time off will let him explore ideas at the forefront of his mind. He said that he feels genuine terror about the political age he's living in and that as an artist, he has a responsibility to respond.
"How can I intentionally right the balance?" he asked. "That's why the arts are so important. We have this administration that represents the worst in humanity and cultivates the worst in us, and the arts do the opposite. They are a calling to our highest and best selves."
MORE MACARTHUR STORIES: