Yuval Sharon sees music in unusual ways.
In the past few years, the opera director has staged several striking, one-of-a-kind fusions of art and sound for L.A. Philharmonic, both inside and around Disney Hall. He cast aloft Nimbus, a performance installation of vibrantly colorful, cottony, music-emitting clouds that loomed above the escalators in the hall during the orchestra’s 2016-2017 season, in a collaboration with sound designer Rand Steiger and artist Patrick Shearn.
Later, Sharon set loose an invasion of robotic Martian creatures who prowled ominously on gigantic, tripod-like limbs at several downtown parking lots during a 2017 multisite performance of composer Annie Gosfield’s strangely enchanting operatic science-fiction fantasy War of the Worlds. And last November, he was the ringmaster of L.A. Phil’s elaborate version of John Cage’s Europeras I and II, an insanely manic operatic pastiche that unfolded like a 10-ring circus/fever dream of nonstop motion and constantly shuffled stage scenery as a small army of singers in mismatched costumes satirized the entire history of opera while roaming across a set at Sony Pictures Studio.
But his greatest achievement yet might be a new production of composer Meredith Monk’s rarely seen avant-garde work Atlas: An Opera in Three Parts, which will be performed this week in Disney Hall by L.A. Phil New Music Group and conductor Paolo Bortolameolli, in the final production of Sharon’s three-year run as artist in residence with the orchestra.
“I see it as one of the milestones of my career. I don’t want to jinx it,” Sharon, 39, says by phone while on his way to a rehearsal of the opera at Disney Studios in Burbank. “I’ve always planned for Atlas to be the final project of this residency. It’s the biggest and deepest work I’ve done with L.A. Phil. Atlas is the culmination of all my projects at L.A. Phil. I feel very fulfilled; it’s been three years of enormous support and encouragement.”
Somewhat inspired by the life of the Belgian-French anarchist-explorer-writer Alexandra David-Néel, Atlas proceeds as a series of atmospheric, wordless songs mixed with spoken-word text that drift across an austere landscape of haunting new-music sounds and ghostly vocal exhalations. The world premiere of Monk’s opera took place in Houston in 1991, and the original production was performed over the course of the following year in Europe and North America, but it hasn’t been fully staged since then.
“That’s the piece that inspired me to do what I do,” says Sharon, who was exposed to the experimental opera in recordings and in school while attending UC Berkeley. “I fell in love with opera because of that piece. It felt like being struck by lightning when I heard it — it was a complete revelation.”
Although the original production utilized Monk’s choreography for the piece, Sharon’s version will feature choreography by Danielle Agami. “The choreography is all new,” he says, adding that the opera’s 18 singers will also perform as dancers. “Music and movement are completely fused together. The sense of movement carries the story.” He has worked with Agami about a half-dozen times in the past. “She’s a natural fit for this piece, [by] not imposing movement from without but freeing the physical bodies.”
Sharon says that Monk approves of the changes in his interpretation. “This is the first production of it since Meredith’s original,” he says. “We’re not just doing it with Meredith’s blessing but also her involvement. … She’ll be in the audience, but she’s not performing the piece. We cast the piece together; from there, she’s letting me put my own spin on it. She’s very interested in seeing what the piece is like. It’s purposefully a different visual world than the original production by Meredith.”
Monk and Sharon previously worked together when the director presented his adaptation of John Cage’s Song Books in 2012 and 2013, which spotlighted performances by Monk, Joan La Barbara and Jessye Norman. The duo also have another thing in common — they have each been selected in the past for MacArthur Fellowships, the “genius grants” awarded by the MacArthur Fellows Program. “When I was awarded the fellowship, she gave me really amazing advice about her experiences. She was so complimentary and gave me guidance about what it all means. It’s nice to have an additional bond to share with her.”
Sharon’s new production involves an ambitious stage set by designer Es Devlin augmented with lighting designed by John Torres. “It’s a big, very big visual manifestation of this piece,” Sharon says. “There’s a sculptural element — a 36-foot-diameter sphere on the center of the stage. In each cell, there’s a universe that moves from the micro to the macro. The sphere of consciousness is a simple geometric idea that conveys what the piece is about. … You’ll just have to be there in this space to really experience what the work is.”
When asked if he has been experiencing sadness about the end of his residency with L.A. Phil, Sharon says, “It hasn’t dawned on me yet because Atlas is in full swing right now. … It has been six weeks [of rehearsals]. It’s a lot for L.A. Phil. It needed a lengthy rehearsal period. We’re in the haul of it; we’re in the weeds. We’re getting into the last nitty-gritty in that last stage.”
Beyond his collaboration with L.A. Philharmonic, Sharon is best known as artistic director of The Industry, the local company that has staged operas in parking lots, warehouses, and even in a series of taxi cabs and other vehicles. His next production for The Industry will be Sweet Land, an opera by composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun and librettists Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney, which will be presented at L.A. State Historic Park in February 2020.
But for right now, Sharon’s focus is on Atlas. “I think the music just has this essential, intuitive ability to talk to anybody,” he says. “To me, the music is so sheerly beautiful. It’s luscious, warm, not afraid of the darkness and yet also absolutely radiant. I’m jealous of those audience members who are hearing it for the first time.”
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown; Tue.-Wed., June 11-12, 8 p.m., & Fri., June 14, 8 p.m.; $32-$164. (323) 850-2000, laphil.com.
WATCH the Atlas set coming together at Disney Hall.