A funny thing happened to Yuval Sharon on his way to a planned career as a film director. While studying at UC Berkeley, he decided to go to the opera. The production was Wozzeck by Alban Berg. To prepare, he listened to a recording at home and found his imagination fired by Berg's searing, atonal chromatic expressionism. Image after powerful image assailed him as he imagined the staging and what the performance would feel like sitting in the audience. Then he went to the opera house. Compared to his vision, the production seemed boring and bloodless, dispiritingly conventional.
The evening was an epiphany. Certainly such works deserved a better theatrical treatment than this. And he was just the man to do it.
Fast-forward to a recent, overcast morning at the Atwater Crossing complex, where Sharon stands in a raw warehouse he's transforming into the kind of opera house he imagined years before at Berkeley. It's no Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Crisscrossed by wooden ramps and dominated by seven towering, sculptural set pieces, it looks more like an art installation at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.
In fact, it is the stage for the new experimental opera Sharon is directing as the inaugural production of the Industry, the avant opera company he formed this year with his partner, producer Laura Kay Swanson. Now in the final stretch of rehearsals, the production will be a world premiere of composer Anne LeBaron and librettist Douglas Kearney's Crescent City, which Sharon fell in love with when he was programming New York Opera's acclaimed new-works showcase VOX.
“I love the way that she weaves electronics into the more traditional apparatus of the orchestra and how that interacts with the classically trained voice,” he says excitedly. “It's definitely an opera, and yet things like the electronics and unusual instrumentation and also extended vocal techniques all make it expand into new territories. … It's challenging music but it's also visceral — the minute that you hear it, I think it grabs you.”
It's apparently a work so musically challenging and formally groundbreaking that Sharon and LeBaron had to invent a new name for it — the “hyperopera.” Sharon laughs when asked to define the term. “You know, Anne's been developing the idea of hyperopera at CalArts for a while as something that is a highly collaborative art form.” Mostly, Sharon explains, the hyperopera is a departure from the Wagnerian idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the total work of art that is subsumed under one enormous ego.
Sharon and curator Brianna Gorton recruited seven L.A. artists to create Crescent City's immense and immersive set. “People who know the artists' work from previous practice will say, 'Oh, that's [installation artist] Katie Grinnan's,'” says Sharon. “Yet when they see it as part of the opera, it just feels totally organic and natural to the whole.”
During the performance, the audience will have the choice of following the eight singers through the expansive construction, which represents the various quarters of the opera's setting, a New Orleans-like city that has been wracked by a Katrina-strength hurricane.
Sharon is painfully aware of the risk he is taking by betting the future of his new company on such an ambitious and difficult work. But if he can advance the cause of experimental opera in Los Angeles, it will be well worth the gamble.
“I think there needs to be a home for that kind of risk-taking,” he says. And he thinks audiences will respond. “Experimental opera doesn't mean no narrative,” he adds. “It just means a different kind of narrative, a different way of telling a story based on how we view stories today, how we listen to stories and how we perceive stories. And the form has to change based on that, on us as a contemporary audience.”
Crescent City opens Thursday, May 10. Tickets can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets.