One of opera’s biggest rule-breakers will shift his coveted bandwidth in an unexpected direction: Yuval Sharon will serve as Long Beach Opera’s interim artistic director and dream up the 2021 season, the company is expected to announced Thursday.
Sharon will curate the arc of the season — selecting the operas and artistic teams. Equally intriguing for those who have followed his career, Sharon also will direct one of the season’s productions, which could mean that Southern California gets to see one of the unconventional, sometimes controversial productions that he has staged in Europe.
“Any other opera company in America would be completely blindsided by the projects that I’m proposing,” Sharon said over the phone with mischievous glee. “Every other opera company would turn ghost white at the thought of this kind of season. I think it’ll be great.”
Sharon, a MacArthur fellow, already leads his own avant-garde L.A.-based opera company, the Industry, which has brought audacious thinking to how and where opera can be made and consumed. His first grand foray into site-specific work here was “Invisible Cities,” a 2013 opera that took place amid the chaotic commuter environs of L.A.'s Union Station. He followed that up in 2015 with the critically acclaimed “Hopscotch,” staged in 24 cars driving around downtown Los Angeles, navigating very real traffic.
One director’s logistical nightmare is Sharon’s call to action, and he has since gone on to stage events as Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first artist-collaborator from 2016 to 2019. Among them were “War of the Worlds,” which took place simultaneously inside Walt Disney Concert Hall and on the streets beyond, where towering aliens rubbed tentacles with passersby; and “Atlas,” the first revival of Meredith Monk’s 1991 opera for which he brought a 36-foot sphere into Walt Disney Concert Hall. Sharon also became the first American director at the venerable Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 2018, and a recording of “Lohengrin,” which he directed there in 2018 and 2019, was nominated for a Grammy on Thursday.
He directed a wild Frankfurt Opera production of Olga Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway,” based on David Lynch’s impressively opaque 1997 film. Times music critic Mark Swed wrote that it is “a near-operatic scandal” that “Lost Highway” has never been produced in L.A., and Sharon at the time speculated that the Industry might try to take it on.
Sharon wouldn’t say whether he will bring “Lost Highway” to Long Beach or if he might serve up a version of the modern manga-inspired mash-up of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that he staged in Berlin this year.
“We’re going to announce the season in March, and there will absolutely be a project of mine that nobody has had an opportunity to see in this area,” he said, adding: “I definitely have two really clear favorites.”
Sharon said the Long Beach offer was immediately tantalizing because when he relocated to Los Angeles from New York, Long Beach Opera had a reputation as a place for nontraditional experimental opera under the artistic leadership of Andreas Mitisek, who after 17 years will be departing the company after the 2020 season. Mitisek is only the second artistic director in the company’s 42-year history, taking over from Michael Milenski, who stepped down in 2004.
“They’ve done an extraordinary job of establishing themselves as unconventional,” Sharon said. “They were pushing the boundaries in a way that is obviously something I was drawn to when I first came out here.”
Long Beach Opera’s executive director, Jennifer Rivera, worked with Sharon at New York City Opera when they were beginning their careers. She says Sharon will serve as an ideal bridge while the company searches for a permanent artistic director. Sharon’s leadership will give the company the breathing space it needs to do a bit of “soul searching” about where to go next, she said.
Last season Long Beach Opera focused on themes of social justice, including a production about the Central Park Five. This season finds the company staging operas in unexpected locations that tie in thematically with the works. Peter Maxwell Davies’ “The Lighthouse” will take place at the Aquarium of the Pacific, for example, and Gavin Bryars’ “Billy the Kidd” will unfold at Sunnyside Cemetery.
As for what you can expect from Sharon, Rivera joked, “You definitely won’t see ‘The Barber of Seville.’” That oft-performed staple was one that she and Sharon worked on together in New York in the early aughts, and she distinctly recalled that even back then, it wasn’t Sharon’s thing.
“We are a $1.5-to-$2-million opera company,” Rivera said. “We have to work within our means, but he’s a big thinker and that will definitely be represented. He’s also a collaborative artist. He’s thinking about what kinds of art he’d like to see presented and performed, but also what people who go to LBO would like to see.”
“I really care about opera in this region thriving,” he said. “I see it as part of my commitment to Southern California, and I’m so honored.”
Sharon previously announced a yearlong sabbatical in Japan, scheduled to begin in early 2020. He has no plans to cancel his journey, and he said his absence will not hinder the implementation of his agenda for Long Beach’s 2021 season.
“This is a chance for them to think about their internal dynamics while I advise them about the artistic projects,” Sharon said. “I think that interested them as well. I’ll be advising and putting together the cast, but because I’ll be in Japan, I won’t be part of the day-to-day operations.”