Behind the scenes with Yuval Sharon’s opera company as coronavirus shuts down the show
The opera ‘Sweet Land’ was a success. Then came the coronavirus. How Yuval Sharon’s company banded together for one last show where cameras replaced the audience.
Like every show before it, this one began with a thrum of discordant strings, the singers, in costume, standing at attention, as they await their musical queues.
Unlike every other show before it, the seats are empty of spectators. For its final show, the Industry’s critically acclaimed new opera, “Sweet Land,” is being staged only for a trio of video cameras.
As the action unfolds, Derrell Acon, a bass-baritone singer dressed in red-and-white regalia in the role of Grandfather, presents a bowl of fruit to the open sky in the open-air theater in Los Angeles State Historic Park, where the opera is staged. On this evening, his deep melancholic notes sound especially mournful.
It is Sunday, in the hour before sunset, and as the cast pours its heart into what will be its final, improvised performance of “Sweet Land,” Mayor Eric Garcetti is preparing to announce the closure of bars, movie theaters and gyms and placing limitations on restaurants to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
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“This is the last day we could do something like this,” says co-conductor Jenny Wong, who also plays Totaa’ar, as she steps into the set with the other performers. “Just everyone stay 6 feet apart.”
With the opera’s remaining shows canceled — “Sweet Land” had been scheduled to close on March 22 — the video will be an attempt to offer ticket holders who haven’t demanded refunds an opportunity to see the show virtually. It’s also a last chance to get the show on tape. (KCET is producing a documentary.)
“I think of it a little bit like if a house was burning, and you had the opportunity to run in and save a piece of humanity,” says Industry founder Yuval Sharon. “That’s what we’re doing.”
The ongoing pandemic has led to a raft of theatrical, performance and other cultural cancellations over the past week. L.A.'s big three performing arts organizations — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera and the Center Theatre Group — had shut down by Thursday. Almost two dozen California museums followed. This has left actors and musicians without gigs and part-time visitor services associates who staff museum galleries without shifts.
And it has left small arts organizations like the Industry teetering on the brink.
“Other organizations may have the opportunity to postpone,” says Sharon, who also served as “Sweet Land’s” co-director. “We have no such structure.”
For one, the opera’s unorthodox scenic design means that it isn’t held in a theater but in a trio of temporary, wooden structures in a state park — not the sort of venue that can be easily locked up and reopened later.
Moreover, the company itself is tiny. (The core staff consists of just three people: Sharon, executive director Elizabeth Cline and music director Marc Lowenstein. The performers all work on contract.) And the budgets are, likewise, small.
During the periods in which it is developing an opera, the Industry’s budget might hit half a million dollars a year. The years in which it stages a production, such as this one, those numbers may rise to more than $1 million — not a lot given that “Sweet Land” has a cast and crew of 105 people. (The L.A. Opera, by comparison, has an annual budget of almost $44 million.)
This is the kind of organization in which a director can be found directing — as well as operating supertitles, getting performers water and putting port-a-potties in place.
“It’s a very glamorous shoestring,” jokes Sharon.
‘Sweet Land’ by Yuval Sharon’s the Industry, was being performed at Los Angeles State Historic Park until it was cut short due to the coronavirus.
Now that shoestring is fraying.
“We built a cash reserve for a rainy day,” says Cline. “But we don’t have a reserve for a pandemic.”
The performance cancellations meant the company lost ticket sales from a dozen performances. Grantors hit by stock market losses have emailed indicating that they may need to back out on grants because of force majeure. And the executive team has made a commitment to pay the performers for all of the performances, regardless if they were canceled. “We are an artist-driven company,” says Cline.
As of Sunday evening, the team hadn’t calculated all of the losses. But Sharon estimates that the coronavirus-related cancellations have ripped a $150,000 crater into the Industry’s modest budget.
“The cascade of effects is unreal,” says Cline.
Part of the plan for the video is to potentially help fill some of that gap. Though it will be made available to ticket holders of canceled shows for free, it will also be put online as a pay-per-view film and shared with a wider, internet audience. Sharon estimates they will get the footage edited and online by March 24. (The film will be available at stream.sweetlandopera.com. Find additional details at theindustryla.org.)
Cannupa Hanska Luger, the opera’s co-director, looks for the silver lining in this unexpected digital release.
“It’ll be a different experience, but it will have a far larger reach,” he says. “I’ve had hundreds of people who apologized that the cancellation happened but were excited to throw down and see it online. These are people who wouldn’t have been able to see it otherwise.”
For the producers of the Industry — like the rest of the world — the rate at which coronavirus caught up with them seemed to happen at whiplash speed.
When I interviewed Sharon and Luger for a story on the opera’s design on March 3, they were both easy, relaxed, preparing to announce a one-week extension of the show after positive reviews in both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. (Previously “Sweet Land” had been scheduled to run through March 15.)
By Monday, March 9, just six days later, things began to change — rapidly.
Officials at various California universities announced that they would be suspending in-person classes and San Francisco announced it was canceling group events at city facilities. It quickly became clear that the week would not proceed as planned.
Originally, the Industry’s plan had been to film the opera on the final night of the show — March 22. But early on the morning of March 9, Sharon says they decided to move the shoot up to March 15 instead.
“We said, ‘Let’s call the film crew for this weekend, because who knows?’ ” says Sharon. “The original idea is that we were supposed to film it with an audience.”
That was when things really began to move quickly. “We were going hour by hour and trying to follow the outbreaks in Los Angeles County,” he says. “We decided to follow the guidelines of the health department in L.A. County.”
For a time, they held out hope that they might be able to proceed since the opera was held outdoors and the audience was small. (Only 200 people, compared with larger venues, such as UCLA’s Royce Hall, which seats 1,800.)
But after the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic on March 11, and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a recommendation that events of more than 250 people be canceled, it became clear that “Sweet Land” would have to close.
Even though the opera was just under the crowd limit, Sharon said it felt “icky” to proceed. “And people were asking me, ‘Why aren’t you canceling this already?’ ”
On Thursday night, he pulled together all of the opera’s available cast and crew on a Zoom video conference — “a mega Zoom,” he dubs it — to let them know that “Sweet Land” was shutting down.
With a creative team of Native, Chinese and African American artists, ‘Sweet Land’ revisits the founding of America through a different lens.
During that discussion, he raised the idea of a final performance for video.
The request was one he agonized over. “How do I possibly even ask people to come together under these circumstances?” he says. “Isn’t the right thing not to come together?”
They discussed it together as a group. “There was the risk of getting together,” he says, “And the risk of this being gone forever.”
Some cast members declined to participate. “And I completely understand their decision,” says Sharon.
The majority said yes.
On Sunday evening, they landed at Los Angeles State Historic Park for one final show.
The final performance of “Sweet Land” was a show that, in its process, couldn’t have been more surreal.
There were moments of strange normalcy: performers chatting idly about their favorite video games as they waited for a take to begin. Musicians tapping text messages into their cellphones between scenes. Women dressed as coyotes lounging in the wings. And there are moments of camaraderie and humor, of the kind shared by a cast and crew that have been rehearsing a show for weeks.
At one moment, Sharon volleys with the performers on various topics including coronavirus. Someone responds by suggesting he sell any of the production’s remaining toilet paper as a fundraiser for the Industry. Singers wearing bags on their heads all bob their heads in laughter.
But there are countless other points in which the reality of the outside world seeped through. Performers did their makeup in cars, parked just off site, so they wouldn’t have to jam together into the production tent. Members of the crew wiped down props with liberal amounts of sanitizer before each scene. Artists who hadn’t seen each other in a week or more greeted with awkward waves at a distance instead of customary hugs.
But when the director yelled “Action!,” what emerged were moments of incredible poignance.
“Sweet Land” is made up of a pair of abstracted, parallel narratives that evoke the history of U.S. colonization — a history that is not without its own pandemics — namely, the decimation of native populations from diseases imported from Europe.
“This is a story of survival,” Sharon reminds the assembled cast and crew in the moments before the shoot begins.
And when it does begin it feels as if it is with a singular purpose and determination. The musicians don’t miss a note. The choreography goes off without a hitch (even though the rain has left the exposed ground of the theater muddy). The singers attack their lyrics with fierceness and power. It’s as if the audience for this show is something greater than any one person or thing.
Micaela Tobin, an experimental voice artist who plays one of the mischievous coyote figures in the opera, says it’s an emotional farewell.
“All of my gigs have been canceled and this has been such a unique role,” she says. “To sing outside, under the moon, it doesn’t get better than that. I’m glad I get to see everyone one more time before a quarantine.”
Art can’t cure. But it certainly can soothe.
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