L.A.'s Crazy Opera Inside a Fleet of Moving Limos
Hopscotch mobile opera singer Maria Elena Altany rehearses in a limo.
Photo by Jason H. Thompson
"Everything goes. Everything happens. ... Things mess up, but the motion keeps happening. The project has a momentum. Nothing stops."
Production manager Ash Nichols embraces the chaos of Hopscotch, L.A.'s new "mobile opera." During the two years of planning, it had two previous production managers. They didn't survive.
"You just have to accept it's a different thing," Nichols adds. "It tells you what it wants."
On an October morning in the hot SCI-Arc parking lot, Nichols is overseeing tech rehearsal for Chapter 12 — one of 36 in the show. The cast gets into costume as crew members prep the stage, which in this case is a limo. Nearby are a few shipping containers, for storage. A half-mile away is the Little Tokyo office where the company, The Industry, has been plotting the controlled anarchy that will take place between Oct. 31 and Nov. 15. The Industry produced 2013's Invisible Cities, a dance opera in Union Station that now, by comparison, seems like a finger-puppet show.
Here's how Hopscotch works. Please take a deep breath.
You buy a ticket online. You get an email telling you to report to a certain intersection, in or near downtown. Four audience members show up at a time. For the first chapter you'll probably get in a limo. Inside, as it drives, singers perform, a musician plays. Or you might have a non-limo experience — in a building, a park, a plaza. Or you might have on your head a sensor reading biofeedback, so that your mood determines the type of music you hear. (Rejected ideas includeed iPads and drones.)
You'll experience eight 10-minute chapters along a circular route. One ticket is good for just one route, but there are three — red, yellow and green. Ten additional chapters are short films online. Chapter 21 doesn't exist — on purpose.
If you were to experience the chapters in order — 1, 2, 3... — you'd watch, chronologically, the tumultuous life of Lucha, a puppeteer from Boyle Heights. But you won't. You'll actually experience, say, 14, 2, 17, 32, 4, 8, 24 and then 33. That could be enough for you, or you can see another route, or watch the animations online. Or you can go, for free, to the Central Hub, where screens will broadcast all 24 live chapters as they're happening. Or read the upcoming book.
The Industry founder Yuval Sharon, center, with executive director Elizabeth Cline, left, Hopscotch production manager Ash Nichols and musician Jxel Rajchenberg
Photo by Jason H. Thompson
"One of the key elements of this whole project is a sense of disorientation," says Yuval Sharon, the director-conceiver. On that front, he has already had success.
Chapter 12, on the yellow route, is Lucha and Jameson's wedding day. Lucha gives Jameson a notebook as a gift. But he sings a mournful tune. "Time is not a river, but a web."
This particular chapter has two versions. Take another deep breath.
Along each circular route, some audiences travel in one direction, some travel in another. So some go from chapters 6 to 12 to 7 and some go from 7 to 12 to 6. (Caution: spoilers ahead.) For chapter 12, one foursome watches Lucha and Jameson enact the scene before their wedding, in a limo driving from an Arts District warehouse to City Hall, and then watches the couple run up the stairs to get married. Then that foursome leaves the limo and another foursome, traveling the route in the opposite direction, gets in. They see the couple run down the
Production manager Ash Nichols and guitarist Jxel Rajchenberg rehearse.
Photo by Jason H. Thompson
steps of City Hall, having just been married. Then they see a slightly altered limo scene and Jameson's same aria.
The actors travel in the limo, back and forth, performing the same scene again and again.
The show was written like a TV series — writers gathered in a room over snacks and wine to break the story, based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Eventually, six librettists and six composers split up the script.
"It was a wild mishmash at first," says Sarah LaBrie, who co-wrote the libretto for Chapter 12 and came to observe today's rehearsal (and is a former L.A. Weekly intern). "You'd never have guessed this could be a real thing."
Sharon and his team originally mapped out the routes using plastic figurines, like a neon green cat and a yellow school bus, on paper. Eventually they switched to Google Maps. They got permits to go into parks, and met with the Mayor's Office and L.A. Department of Transportation, but weren't shutting down streets and didn't feel the need for a filming permit.
Ashley Allen, who plays Lucha, wears a white wedding dress with patches of yellow floral lace, along with a yellow veil. Nineteen people play Lucha. They all wear yellow.
"I work with a lot of artists who don't have their shit together, but they're very creative. Or you have a lot of money, but they're very shallow," Allen says. "It's incredible to find a company that has both of those."
Nicholas Deyoe, guitarist
Photo by Jason H. Thompson
And, she adds, "Wrapping your head around this entire project is insane."
Nichols chose this kind of limo for Chapter 12. The bench that faces backward doesn't connect to the side bench — allowing room for the guitarist and a music stand. The audience sits on the side bench. The actors are in the back, facing forward.
"Each limo is a unique snowflake," Nichols says. "I spend a lot of time talking about limos."
The guitarist, Nicholas Deyoe, plays while the limo drives. Plus, he says, "I've got all these high harmonics." Meaning that rather than pushing the string all the way down to the fret, as you usually do, you lightly touch the string as you pluck. "Every little bump — it's really challenging."
During prep for rehearsal, the crew tapes black plastic on the outside of the side window. Test audiences got too distracted by the scenery behind their heads. And the limo is wired, to broadcast the chapter to the Central Hub screen. There's a tiny Sennheiser microphone on the ceiling, and the camera is a Samsung Galaxy phone mounted on a side window.
Eventually, the cast, the guitarist and Sharon pile in. There's an assistant stage manager for every chapter — she sits in the front passenger seat. A stage manager oversees each route. Some chapters have up to four production assistants. For each chapter, the cast and crew have designated places to park and go to the bathroom.
(Everyone gets paid, including 123 performers and 90 crew members. The budget for this nonprofit effort is around $1 million — a third each from foundations, individual donations and ticket sales.)
Nichols rides behind the limo with Rita Santos, the yellow route's stage manager. At one point Nichols is wired to a walkie-talkie while holding a personal LG Cosmos to send texts, a Samsung Galaxy S6 to see the Livestream feed of the rehearsal, and another Samsung Galaxy S6 that died.
Some drivers from the Wilshire Limousine Company show up off-book — with their turns memorized. Today's driver did not. As the actors perform, the limo is headed to the Spring Street side of City Hall. But it misses a turn. Downtown's one-way streets are unforgiving. The limo has to go around. And around. The actors' dialogue ends.
"We're way off the route," Sharon says. "This would have ruined the whole show.
"You'll have to roll with the punches," he tells his performers. "Observe the street life."
Allen spots a quinceañera dress displayed outside a store. "My dress is way better that that," she ad-libs.
Sharon laughs. Exactly.
"There's always another route," he mused earlier that day. "It's what the practice of life is about."
HOPSCOTCH | Various locations | Previews Oct. 24-25, performances Oct. 31-Nov. 15 hopscotchopera.com
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