Why the World Started Paying Attention to L.A.'s Modern Opera Scene in 2016

Peabody Southwell in Anatomy Theater
Peabody Southwell in Anatomy Theater
Courtesy L.A. Opera

Inside the REDCAT theater in downtown Los Angeles this summer, a dead woman lay naked on a wooden bench propped upright under bright stage lights. Doctors removed her organs and examined them, one by one, in front of a rapt audience. Suddenly, the woman’s bloodied breast heaved as she awoke, inhaled deeply and released her powerful mezzo-soprano voice in a relentless melody. "My heart, my heart, my heart, my heart," she cried with slowly building intensity.

A month earlier inside a hot, stuffy warehouse in Boyle Heights, surrounded by an orchestra of bizarre atonal instruments, another young woman exploded into fitful spasms. Writhing and convulsing, she spun through tricky, angular melodies in a crystalline soprano voice, all as a Steadicam operator captured her performance in one take.

And just last month, in a packed club in Highland Park, a sexy, suave barber from Seville threw open the back doors of the space with gusto and weaved his way through a maze of cocktail tables. “Figaro, figaro, figaro, figaroooooooooo,” he trilled effortlessly as he flirted with women at the nearest table.

These are just a few of the many memorable moments that stuck with me after a year’s worth of seeing opera in Los Angeles. L.A.’s opera scene in 2016 was not like Venice’s in the 17th century or even New York’s in the 20th century; what’s happening here right now is not for the monocled, fur-clad elite.

Like its best food, L.A.’s best opera is diverse and frequently pops up in unexpected urban locations. And like the city’s most devoted, adventurous eaters, L.A.’s opera fans are not monolithic. They are old and young and white and black and brown. They crave the interesting and the different, and aren’t afraid to try new things.

“I like plays and I’m just into theater in general,” Alice Lyons said as she sipped a cocktail at a downtown craft distillery last week. A teacher from Pasadena, Lyons and a friend were drinking at an L.A. Opera holiday party for millennial and Gen X subscribers. She said she’s growing in how she views the art form and learning what she likes and doesn’t. “Now I can tell when it’s really great and when something’s off,” she said.

At the same party, law student Jonathan Jager said he goes to the opera for the music (he played clarinet in high school) and the drama. “Opera puts things in perspective,” he joked. “Nobody is dying of tuberculosis in my life.”

A couple weeks ago, The New Yorker’s classical music critic, Alex Ross, wrote that contemporary opera is thriving in Los Angeles. From what I’ve seen over the past 12 months, that is absolutely the case. In addition, innovative productions of classic operas by Mozart and Puccini are infusing a special kind of energy into the West Coast opera scene. Enthusiastic new audience members like Lyons and Jager are part of the reason opera is thriving in L.A. right now, as is this city’s deep bench of ambitious opera companies both large and small.

Going to see at least one opera in Los Angeles next year is easier (and more fun) than losing 15 pounds or finding a new job, so make that your 2017 resolution. To whet your appetite, here’s a rundown of some of the best opera I saw in 2016:

Anatomy Theater
Remember that naked, dead mezzo-soprano? She was the stunning Peabody Southwell playing the role of Sarah Osborne in L.A. Opera’s world-premiere production of composer David Lang’s Anatomy Theater. The work was part of the company’s Off Grand series and was produced, like so many important new American operas, in collaboration with Beth Morrison and Beth Morrison Projects.

Before her body was splayed on a table and examined, Southwell stood on a gallows in the gallery next to the theater, confessed to murdering her husband and children and was hanged, just feet away from riveted audience members holding complimentary steins of heavy craft beer and what was left of their bratwursts.

Anatomy Theater was an effective and timely examination of the often tense intersection between science and religion. Like most great theater, it pushed audiences to explore the grayer areas between good and evil. It’s one misstep was that it underutilized its most powerful vocal and dramatic asset (read: Southwell). Still, her pre-execution confession and that from-beyond-the-grave “Heart” aria made a lasting impression.

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The Source
Another L.A. Opera Off Grand production at REDCAT, Ted Hearne’s The Source felt as much like immersive installation art as opera or oratorio. Individual performances by the four singers embedded in the audience are not as memorable as the overall effect of this politically charged, affecting piece that tells a nonlinear version of Chelsea Manning’s WikiLeaks intelligence dump story.

Throughout the piece, the singer’s voices were processed in real time through computers (think Auto-Tune) while massive, up-close video shots of human faces were projected on 360-degree screens. The impact of this piece was not in actually watching the atrocities these men and women were observing in the videos but in the intimate, extended observation of the witnesses’ facial expressions as they grimaced and their eyes welled with tears, the images of people dying in war zones on screens in front of them reflected, ever so faintly, in their eyeglasses and pupils.

Coming up next in this series (in June) is another politically poignant work, this time by composer Kamala Sankaram. Thumbprint explores gang rape and justice in Pakistan. Like The Source, it is yet another Beth Morrison Projects production.

Invisible Cities
I didn’t live in L.A. in 2014, so I missed the Industry’s much-lauded premiere of Invisible Cities, a complex performance that took over Union Station and was performed live for audience members wandering the station wearing headphones. But I did go down to San Pedro this fall to see a beautifully produced film of the piece shown in a historic movie theater.

Composer Christopher Cerrone’s melodies were haunting and sensuous and protagonist Kublai Khan’s story was eerily pertinent. While the innovative format of this piece was its most defining characteristic, like any good opera, beautiful, intricate music is what sustained it even outside of its original setting. I left that theater engrossed in a magical sound world that settled around me like coastal fog and stayed with me for hours.

The screening I saw doubled as the announcement event for the Industry’s next project. (Its last was Hopscotch, the nomadic 2015 opera that took place literally on the streets of L.A.). In 2017, the Industry will produce a new operatic adaptation of Brecht’s Galileo. According to Yuval Sharon, the Industry’s artistic director, who teased the upcoming project before the San Pedro screening of Invisible Cities, the company is still working out the details for next fall’s “Galileo,” which may or may not involve a bonfire on the beach and/or a helicopter entrance.

Vireo
This opera is yet another radical experiment in form. It’s the world’s first streamable, binge-able opera, and it won’t be available in its entirety until spring of 2017. The brainchild of composer Lisa Bielawa, Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser is a wild, imaginative exploration of young women’s mysterious experiences with hysteria and visions throughout history and the powerful male figures (doctors, priests) who have sought to explain them.

One of its 12-minute episodes was produced in a Boyle Heights warehouse earlier this spring, and I snagged a free ticket to the filming. Standing in a cramped corner behind an atonal instrument of giant, hanging glass vessels, I was impressed by both the complexity of Bielawa’s vision and the improbable seamlessness of its execution. The opera’s star — 17-year-old Rowen Sabala from Orange County — is a smart musician and actor whose young age and extreme dedication to this role heightens the entire work’s impact.

Pacific Opera Project’s innovative takes on the classics
From Captain Kirk belting out Mozart as he battles Klingons in the Hollywood Hills, to a bearded lady’s appearance in a modern telling of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress at Occidental College, Pacific Opera Project’s fresh takes on the classics are consistently affordable, hysterical and terrific fun. I wrote about what makes this company so special last month, but my favorite POP memory from this year was watching my sister and brother-in-law experience their first live opera at the company’s recent “Barber of Seville” at the Ebell Club in Highland Park. Featuring a ridiculous set, simple piano accompaniment and talented cast, this production was campy and over the top, and we laughed until we cried. POP’s next performance — of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in February — also will run at the historic Ebell Club. You can snag tickets and a table for four (with a bottle of wine and a spread of snacks) for $120. Not a bad way to accomplish your Los Angeles operatic New Year’s resolution.


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