Yuval Sharon: Hyperopera Maestro

Crescent City.

If you haven't yet heard about the utter chaos taking place in a giant warehouse at Atwater Crossing, a new form of opera is blowing through the streets of Los Angeles. In fact it's so avant garde, its creators have coined a new name for it: Hyperopera.

The debut production from new Los Angeles company The Industry, Hyperopera Crescent City composed by Anne LeBaron, is a tale about the aftermath of a hurricane that devastates New Orleans and how its inhabitants struggle for survival. A mega collaboration bringing together artists from many different disciplines, the so-called hyperopera production features a cast of 18 who perform from different visually arresting stations scattered about the sprawling 25,000 square foot space. The 360-degree decentralized set created by six Los Angeles installation artists, shatters the traditional theatrical contract between audience and performer. The audience may choose from varying vantage points to experience the 2 ½ hour production, ranging from beanbag chairs mere inches from the performers to a broader birds-eye view from a makeshift balcony, or even walking along a catwalk that surrounds the stage.

<em>Crecent City</em> set.
Crecent Cityset

In short, it's not your grandaddy's opera house.

For Yuval Sharon, The Industry's artistic director, hyperopera represents a major milestone in his quest to find new artistic expression for the passion hidden in stilted performance conventions of traditional opera.

He and Industry partner Laura Kay Swanson are betting on what opera could be, minus the powdered wigs and the proscenium barrier, unleashing an operatic fury on LA audiences who Sharon says are "fantastically curious and excited about new and experimental works."

Crescent City Hyper Opera is The Industry's debut production and it's kind of redefining the theatrical experience for audiences. How did that shape the production? Was it an organic process or part of the initial intention?
It developed relatively organically as the production took shape. Active spectatorship is something I'm really interested in--how the audience views the story and how the audience gets into the story and perceives the story--and I knew that Anne LeBaron's unconventional music required unconventional ports of access for the spectator.

Alice Könitz swamp drawing.
Alice Konitz swamp drawing.

There's a quote by Marcel Duchamp I love: "The audience completes the work." Obviously he was referring to visual arts there, but I think in performance that sentiment is really key. There is a sense of an interaction when you talk about performance, even if it's not participatory, between what the artist is doing and what the audience is doing, especially a time-based performance like opera. How do you talk to a group of people over that course of 2 ½ hours? How do you build up that experience? It doesn't have to mean a pandering to an audience or talking down to an audience, in fact it's more of figuring out how to best bring the audience into this world and create an immersive environment that's nevertheless one of constant active perception.

It's an emancipated spectator viewpoint. The audience member is allowed to view the story however he or she likes and also has the freedom to realize there isn't just one way to look at the story. Every seat is an obstructed seat and every seat has the best possible view.

Would a New York audience embrace this as they have in Los Angeles?
It's hard to say. I really feel there is a special type of audience here in Los Angeles, and this is an experiment that functions very well for this type of audience, one that is very open-minded, that's willing to try new things. There's an excitement and curiosity that audiences in Los Angeles come to cultural events with that I find very refreshing and exciting.

A lot of your work seems to be the deconstructing of mainstream ideas. I'm thinking even your earlier works of Schoenberg's Erwartung, Shakespeare mash-ups, all exploring spaces in-between conventional boundaries. How did you arrive in this space artistically?
I think that I'm still in an exploration of what those boundaries really are. There's a lot of conventions in opera that are still very present in Crescent City; there's just a way of looking at them that's unique or that involves some other points of view. I mean I love opera, and I even love traditional opera because I love the works themselves. I'm a big Wagner fan. 20th century opera's been huge for me. Right now I'm big into the operas of (Claudio Giovanni Antonio) Monteverdi, they're so gorgeous. But there is often a disconnect between the core idea of opera and how opera is put on.

Brianna Gorton's cemetery model.
Brianna Gorton's cemetery model.

For me, opera is about a multimedia experience. It really was the first multimedia art form, putting together a composer and a poet, a scenographer and a choreographer to create something wholly unique. And it was something that didn't even have a definition, so they called it "opera" because what else could you call this weird hybrid of a project other than just "work?" Which is what opera means in Italian. When you think of it on those terms, opera feels like a very contemporary notion all of a sudden. It seems like something you can imagine artists creating today, not thinking they are making an opera.

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You've worked extensively with some of the leading opera companies in the world. Why did you choose Los Angeles to grow your company?
Crescent City and another work called The Rat Land are two pieces that NYC Opera audiences responded to but I didn't see a taker there. [The Rat Land is The Industry's next production.] I knew that if these pieces were to get done, they'd have to get done independently and in a way that was true to the individual spirit of the piece, rather than how a piece fits into a season at an opera house.

When I was working with LA Opera for the Ring Cycle, I looked around Los Angeles and saw that the landscape was full of groups doing fantastic work. Both the new music and visual arts worlds are thriving with fascinating artists, and that's been developing a really interesting audience base. And since opera is the merging of those two worlds, it seemed like a natural place to forge these experiments. I knew the audiences were here and I knew the artists were here who would be willing to try it.

How are you funded?
One major grant, the MAP Fund, a joint project of the Doris Duke and Andrew Mellon Foundation, helped us out tremendously at the start. The rest has been through individual contributions. This has been a huge community effort and the result of a lot of cultivation. It's been two years in development and building the network of contributors to make this happen.

What's been the reception in L.A. for The Industry? Is there room for you here?
There is definitely room. Opera America, a service organization in New York, put out a survey about cities in which there are more cultural events happening, and if that means the pie shrinks and more people are fighting for the same slice of pie or if it means the pie expands. Actually they found that the more opera there is in any given city, the more the audience grows for opera. What we're doing is so different from what LA Opera does in every way. I love LA Opera but I think there's room for this kind of work too, and I think they see that and they've been incredibly encouraging and supportive. And that's actually very specific to LA. In New York everyone does fight for the same donors and same audience and inches in the newspaper. Here I found it to be a very open, supportive community who has really welcomed me with open arms.

You're fluent in German and have translated operas professionally. How did that influence your career?
While I was at UC Berkeley I started getting really interested in the cultural landscape in Germany when (German choreographers) Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz came to Cal Performances. I started to realize there's some really interesting stuff happening there.

I saw The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht) and it was such a fascinating performance and production that I thought to myself I'd really like to see what's happening in Germany first-hand. And I was falling in love with (German composer) Richard Wagner's operas, and I thought to myself that between Brecht and Wagner I really wanted to learn German so I didn't lose anything in translation. I knew I wanted to work very closely with the materials from those two authors in particular.

I decided to live in Berlin and study German for a year; I soaked in the rich cultural landscape there, which was an enormously formative experience for me artistically. So many of the artistic concerns I am grappling with began during that year in Berlin. More practically, if it wasn't for learning German, I would have never got the job here on the Ring Cycle. So everything really flows together!

Where you brought up around opera?
My dad always took me to the opera beginning when I was 13. It was something my dad was interested in and something we did together, so it was a fun father-son activity, but I was actually bored to death.

I studied piano as a kid so I have a musical background, but I didn't understand what opera was; it wasn't a concert, and it was too dull to be theater. Opera was something in between that I didn't understand or like.

But the opera bug bit me after a while, and I started falling in love with the traditional repertoire. All the same, I believe brand new stories speak more powerfully to a contemporary audience.

Mason Cooley's Good Man's Shack model.
Mason Cooley's Good Man's Shack model.

Will you be developing anything specific to LA?
I don't think that I'll be creating pieces about LA in a literal sense, but every production will all have LA audiences in mind. Crescent City is about a mythical city, based on New Orleans but not about New Orleans. Allowing it to be abstract allows the opera to be just as much about Los Angeles as it is about New Orleans. The piece is about humanity in general, and allowing it to be free from one time and place leaves it open to interpretation on the part of the audience. Not a history lesson about what happened after Katrina in New Orleans. Crescent City is a fictional city that's been hit by a hurricane, and presenting it as such allows us to be speculative about what could happen. It could be LA after an earthquake. How would we treat each other after that happens? To spend 2 1/2 hours of meditating on that and seeing examples of how this particular not-so-model city deals with all those problems, not without its own exuberance and joy, can give us a lot to take into our own lives from the experience.

What's been you biggest challenge so far in launching a performing arts company in Los Angeles?
There have been a lot of challenges. Nothing of high quality comes easy. Funding is a challenge because there's no roadmap for us, but it's a challenge you need to overcome to create the work.

We used every dollar for this production, and the process has to start all over again for the next opera. This isn't necessarily discouraging, because we don't want Crescent City to be a one-off, but for the production to launch a company that keeps an audience.

The entire process has required a perspective shift because of the sprawling nature of LA. There isn't one central location for information to spread the word about what we are doing. But that also means interesting things can grow out of crevices and corners, and I think the cultural landscape here has been much richer because of the peculiarities of the geographical landscape. So the lack of center in LA can be a positive thing, which has had a major influence on the production of Crescent City. It's a piece without a center or fixed focus. There are lots of things to look at and you choose the way you experience it, and that's how my experience of LA has been.


Hyperopera Crescent City
Thursdays-Sundays at 8:00pm
Through May 27, 2012
Running time: 2 hr. 30 min with one intermission

Crescent City CREDITS
- Composer - Anne LeBaron - www.annelebaron.com
- Librettist - Douglas Kearney - www.douglaskearney.com
- Director - Yuval Sharon - www.yuvalsharon.com
- Conductor - Marc Lowenstein
- Producer - Laura Kay Swanson
- Curator - Brianna Gorton - http://briannagorton.otherpeoplespixels.com/home.html
- Set Designer - Sibyl Wickersheimer - www.sawgirl.com
- Costume Designer - Ivy Chou
- Lighting Designer - Elizabeth Harper - www.eharperdesign.com
- Sound Designer - Martin Gimenez
- Video Designer - Jason Thompson
- Technical Director - Eric Nolfo


Cast -
The cast of 18 includes:
- Marie Laveau - Gwendolyn Brown - http://www.gwendolynbrown.com
- The Good Man - Cedric Berry - http://www.cedricberry.com/Cedric_Berry/Home.html
- Deadly Belle - Timur Bekbosunov - www.theoperaoftimur.com
- Homesick Woman - Lillian Sengpiehl - http://tinyurl.com/Robert-Gilder-L-Sengpiehl
- Jesse - Ashley Faatoalia - http://www.ashleyfaatoalia.com
- The Nurses - Maria Elena Altany and Ji Young Yang
- The Cop - Jonathan Mack - http://www.jonathanmack.la/


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Top Image: Crescent City.

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