It's 11 a.m. and the October air breathes the chill of fall. You wait with a friend and two strangers in front of a loft building on the industrial outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. It has been raining all night, and the streets are shark-back slick. Pouty cumulous clouds threaten a fresh outburst when a black limo pulls up. A woman in white gloves opens the back door and gestures to get in. You do, even though you have no idea who she is or where you're going.
This isn't a dream. It's the first public preview performance this week of the new mobile opera "Hopscotch," which takes place in 24 cars on the roads of Los Angeles. Staged by the avant-garde opera company the Industry and directed by artistic director Yuval Sharon, "Hopscotch" is the follow-up to the group's critically lauded 2013 opera "Invisible Cities," which transpired inside bustling Union Station while visitors listened on wireless headphones.
FOR THE RECORD: In the Oct. 8 Calendar section, an article about "Hopscotch," the opera performed in moving cars, included a general Southern California Institute of Architecture address for the viewing "hub" on campus. A more accurate location for the hub entrance is 350 Merrick St., Los Angeles.
Inside the "Hopscotch" limo sits a young Latina woman dressed in yellow. Her name is Lucha, and she's clearly distressed. She holds the receiver of an old-school rotary phone to her ear listening to a strange voice croon a riddle about her future. Wild instrumental music blares from speakers. Occasionally Lucha harmonizes a reply to the voice. She sings of loss and longing. She has lost so much in her short life, at least so she tells you. This is just the first chapter, so it's hard yet to grasp the plot of this strange tale.
The limo drives on, past bodegas, police cars, taco stands, lavanderias, panaderias and bus stops. You are in Boyle Heights, on the east side of L.A. The limo stops at red lights, and when it does you see the pedestrian routines of a Sunday morning. Couples stroll hand in hand holding hot coffee, old men walk dogs, and children breeze past on scooters. They are unwitting performers in the show.
You transfer from limo to limo at the silent behest of more mute, white-gloved chauffeurs. The nonsequential chapters of the story play out — some with live singing and instrumentation, others with recorded music and still others in complete darkness. It's disorienting. Have you already passed this freeway entrance? Have you gone through this underpass? Traffic is picking up on the I-5, its monotonous buzz cutting through the music inside the limo.
You end up in a car with a much younger Lucha. You are learning the story of her early life in Los Angeles. She is 15 and celebrating her quinceanera. The cup holders are overflowing with Starburst candy, and the sink is flush with ripe oranges. Two guitarists play an upbeat tune as you exit Mariachi Square while mariachis not in the show sit at outdoor tables eating menudo, staring with interest as the car drives away.
"Ahora, soy una mujer" ("Now, I am a woman") the young Lucha sings. You think of all the sorrow she will experience later in life, and you suddenly feel like crying. But before you can, you're shepherded down a path at Hollenbeck Park, where two lovers serenade each other and an ice cream vendor plays percussion on his humble cart. Men in dapper blue suits blow on a saxophone and a tuba beside the lake where the lovers first kiss. An angry goose on the water honks its contribution to the scene.
At an early rehearsal for "Hopscotch" last month, Sharon gathered the cast of 123 musicians, singers and actors to explain the project. It has 24 live chapters, performed in groups of eight over the course of 90 minutes along one of three routes. A projector behind him displayed a hand-drawn thematic map of the show featuring intersecting bubbles leading to one central bubble labeled "Love."
"Hopscotch" is about the search for a center, Sharon said — in life and in Los Angeles itself. It is about understanding existence as a "continuous and disjointed experience."
The same can be said of the audience experience of "Hopscotch," which lulls its participants into a fantastical trance-like state in which dramatic possibilities are as plentiful as musical notes and trumpeters take their places on downtown rooftops to play mournful ballads from afar. Where plywood cars collide with plywood motorcycles, their drivers frozen in a tableau of fear and regret, while little boys bike by and homeless men push their carts past, unaware of the operatic drama.
"Where else are you going to perform an opera?" one bystander asked wryly while watching a "Hopscotch" rehearsal earlier this month in a vacant lot strewn with broken glass.
This is "asphalt opera," costume designer Ann Closs-Farley said at the four-hour rehearsal, the only time this particular chapter was run through before the inaugural dress rehearsal last Saturday and the first preview performance last Sunday.
"Knock on wood, it seemed like it was totally impossible," Closs-Farley said of the show's premise. "Turns out it's totally possible."
That's because Sharon doesn't ask why. He only asks, "Why not?"
Why not wire 24 limos with cameras and audio equipment? Why not live-stream the action to a central hub outfitted with 24 screens in the round, so the public can watch for free? After all, with only four audience members inside each limo, tickets to this immersive extravaganza, which officially opens Oct. 31 and runs weekends through Nov. 15, are pretty limited.
Sharon is a bit like Peter Pan, a mischievous boy who despite spearheading one of the country's most daring opera companies and recently being appointed artist-collaborator to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has never grown up. He laughs all the time, he hugs his actors, he makes goofy jokes in the middle of rehearsal. He pulls out toy cars and maneuvers them on hand-drawn roads on white school paper to demonstrate the complicated pickup and drop-off routines for the show. "Vroom" is his favorite adjective, noun and verb.
"I can't believe this. This is so cool!" he exclaimed the first time he watched Chapter 2 unfold from a limo window while beat-boxing harpist Phillip King played the score on the seat beside him.
Then, like a precocious child, Sharon suddenly turned serious and wise.
"This show is about the practice of life," he said after a cast member's microphone shrieked feedback and cut out. "Life throws things at you all the time."
The key to making "Hopscotch" a success is to roll with any technical glitches that arise and to literally drive on.
"I would say that it's more common for things to go wrong than for things to go as expected," production manager Ash Nichols said of rehearsals. "The show is a living, breathing thing, and you have to treat it like that. It has its own temperament, personality and tendencies."
Nichols' point proves true during the first public preview last Sunday, when it's clear the problematic microphone from rehearsal still has not been fixed. This time instead of feeding back, there is no sound at all.
But if audience members didn't know better, they would just think that they weren't meant to hear the exchange between characters who fight over the cause of a car crash and ultimately fall in love. The harpist in the car fills your ears, and the wailing of a real ambulance nearby is a fitting — and happy — accident.
The remaining scenes flow together like poetry from the Greek myth of Orpheus and his lost wife, Eurydice, upon which this modern fairy tale in based. But it won't do to list them all. The Industry has worked hard to protect the details of the three "Hopscotch" routes and the chapters they contain. Mystery is the mechanism that best spins the wheels of the story.
As Sharon told his cast during the first rehearsal, quoting a favorite Irish poet: "May the road rise to meet you."
Where: Live performances in vehicles driving three routes through downtown and the east side of Los Angeles (meeting points given with purchase of tickets). Live-streaming monitors on view at Central Hub, in a parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, 960 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles
When: 10:45 a.m., 12:45 and 2:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Oct. 31 through Nov. 15. (Previews Oct. 11, 24 and 25.)
Tickets: $125 for a vehicle seat in the 10:45 or 12:45 performances; $155 for a vehicle seat in the 2:45 show, which includes a grand finale at the Central Hub. Admission to the live-streaming monitors at the Central Hub is free and limited to 180 people, first come, first served.