It's 10:20 p.m. on a Friday in November when Kevin walks into Union Station, pumped for his bus ride home and a little buzzed from beers with dinner. That's when he stumbles upon an opera.
The show, Invisible Cities, involves 175 audience members wandering the station, following singers and dancers as they weave around unsuspecting travelers.
Kevin joins the crowd standing in the south patio courtyard, eyes wide. The audience, clad in fancy jackets to ward off the chilly night, paid up to $75 to be there. Kevin stands out in a white T-shirt and white sweatpants. He's tall and burly, with a hard-edged, rectangular face framed by a gray backward cap, mustache and goatee. Not a guy you want to mess with.
One performer, a large bearded man with a backpack, strolls as he sings: “I must go to another city. I must go where I find another past awaits me.”
“You ever experienced the term 'surreal'?” Kevin says. “I think this is the first time I've ever seen a surreal moment in my entire life.”
A young woman dancer starts gyrating amidst the hedges.
“I was wondering if I was going to watch some TV and occupy the next hour of my life,” Kevin says, “but now I'm sitting here at Union Station watching this chick walk around. I'm like, oh my God.
“Does the station put this on, or is this just something people do for fun?” he asks. Told it's a theater group working with the station, he says, “OK, it's like modern art. My idea of modern art is when Billy Bob gets creative with the Krylon. Krylon. Spray paint. That's modern art where I come from. Somebody gets tweakin' with a blowtorch. Makes some kind of modern art sculpture, a bird flippin' off God or something. … I'm like, I just want to get home to Bakersfield.”
It's the first time Kevin's ever seen an opera. The closest he's come was listening to his friend's Phantom of the Opera CD at age 16.
“This is like Phantom of the Opera meets L.A. Hollywood freak show,” he says.
Headphones allow audience members to hear a mix of the singers and the orchestra, which performs in a separate room. Strangers keep coming up to Kevin and putting their headphones over his ears.
At one point, Kevin's friend Albert turns to him. “I'm in The Twilight Zone,” Albert says.
If the opera is surreal, hanging out together is perhaps more so. About four hours earlier, both men had been released from state prison in Norco, in Riverside County.
Albert, like Kevin, is dressed in white, in a T-shirt and shorts – the clothes they were given by the prison on their way out. Albert looks friendlier, but not by much. He's a head shorter and just as muscular, with hair shaved so short you can just barely tell it's receding.
Kevin was in for eight months for driving with a suspended license. Albert was in for failure to report – for probation or parole, he doesn't say.
They never talked to each other in prison. “Inside, if we met, we would have to beat the living crap out of each other,” Kevin explains. Albert is a Norteño, the term associated with Latino prison gangs from Northern California. Kevin is part of a white-supremacy gang in Central California called the Peckerwoods.
Albert was in a separate part of the prison, for people who didn't want to be affiliated with gangs anymore. He had been gangbanging since the 1980s, and had done plenty of time. At one point he was in prison with his son.
“That killed me,” he says. “To be behind walls with your son, it's bittersweet. It's good because you got him in there, you can keep him safe, but what kind of example are you setting? It's the worst thing you can do as a father.”
In prison, the men had to stay 10 feet away from each other, with guards in between. But once they were on their way out, they got in a van together, which took them to a bus station in Claremont. They took a bus downtown, on their way to catching another bus up north – Kevin to Bakersfield, Albert to Northern California.
They found a restaurant – they forget which one. Twenty bucks for a pitcher of beer seemed a bit steep, but they sucked it up because the place had pulled pork barbecue. They chatted about how the barbecue sauce was good, and how they should call the cell block – the guys back in Norco would get a kick out of them hanging out together.
After dinner, they walked back to Union Station to catch their bus. That's when they came upon the opera.
Invisible Cities, which ended its run two days later, is based on Italo Calvino's 1972 novel, in which Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of the fantastical cities he says he's visited. Director Yuval Sharon staged Christopher Cerrone's opera in Union Station to highlight its themes: coming and going, the mystery of travel, the relationship between our thoughts and geography.
Watching passersby stumble on the show often was more interesting than the performance. Some people just tried to scoot by. Others engaged, their faces more reactive than those of the stoic, paying crowd. At the earlier performance that Friday, one man got excited and started asking what was going on. Another applauded when a dancer finished a set of moves. The most interesting question the show raised was: What did they think of all this?
After the woman stops gyrating in the courtyard, Kevin wanders into the main station atrium, following the performers. He races off to buy a beer, watching the opera as he drinks, before heading back to find Albert. He needs to stick with Albert – Albert knows how to find the bus.
As the performance moves into its final scene, in the historic ticket area, only paying audience members are allowed. Kevin and Albert get turned away.
Outside, Kevin has a smoke, standing several feet from where the orchestra is wrapping up.
“For the past four hours I'm going around with an individual that is from a rival group,” Kevin says of his new friend. “He's looked out for me more times – talking about 'Calm down, quit talking so loud – '”
“'Let's cross the street, watch out for the cop,'” Albert adds.
“He's looked out for me more than half the guys on my cell block,” Kevin says. “By the time we get to Bakersfield, I'll have his number, he'll have mine, and if he ever comes to Bakersfield and needs a place to stay he can let me know.”
They've bonded over their shared prison experience, the microbrews and the pulled pork. But the opera helped, too. Site-specific performances can blur lines – between you and a stranger, between the watchers and the watched, between those who can afford to buy tickets and those who can't.
Eventually, Kevin and Albert head back inside to find their bus. Once they go back to their families, they don't know if they'll be able to explain what they experienced.
“Never in my life before would you have thought that I would be standing there watching an opera with this individual,” Kevin says. “I was waiting for the candid cameras.”