Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

In The City There's a Thousand Things

May 04, 2012

May will be a big month for opera in Los Angeles. And perhaps the most exciting operatic event in town will also be the most unexpected. It’s a wildly ambitious world premiere staging of an opera, Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City, that involves dozens of musical and visual artists coming together to create a performance that isn’t your everyday operatic experience. All of this work is the brainchild of director Yuval Sharon and his producing partner Laura Kay Swanson. Together they’ve formed their own, independent opera production company right here in Los Angeles under the moniker The Industry LA. The pair knows a thing or two about opera with Swanson having trained and worked as a professional singer and Sharon working with some of the biggest and best opera directors throughout Europe and the U.S. Sharon may be best known to local audiences for his work as right-hand man and assistant director to artist Achim Freyer throughout Los Angeles Opera’s multi-year Ring Cycle project which came to fruition in 2010. Sharon told me during a recent interview that his time in Los Angeles impressed him greatly even after having lived in both Berlin and New York. He claims he felt an openness here and a willingness to accept artistic experimentation here that wasn’t the case in other places he’d worked. Soon the idea of coming to L.A. as a home base settled in and the idea for a new kind of opera company sprang to life.

Sharon may have worked on numerous standard repertory operas, but he’s no stranger to contemporary music. His recent staging of John Cage's Song Books for the San Francisco Symphony was hailed across the country on the orchestra's recent tour. During his four years as Project Director for New York City Opera’s VOX new opera development program, Sharon was exposed to a large variety of composers and was the place he first came across some of the work of Anne LeBaron. Her newest work, Crescent City first came to Sharon’s attention not long after a prior incarnation of the work entitled Wet had its world premiere at REDCAT in 2005. And after a change in librettist and major reworking, portions of the piece received some smaller scale concert performances through VOX as recently as 2009. The story and music continued to occupy Sharon and Swanson who soon settled on it as a perfect fit for The Industry LA and began working towards the full-scale staged performances that will begin next week on May 10 at Los Angeles’ Atwater Crossing, a converted warehouse-cum-arts center north and east of downtown Los Angeles.

Sharon relates that there is much about the development and staging of Crescent City that may surprise viewers. The work, now with a libretto by Douglas Kearney, concerns an unspecified seaside southern city facing the tragedy of a second catastrophic hurricane and flood. LeBaron and her collaborators refer to the work as a “Hyperopera,” which Sharon describes as an interactive development process that is much more integrated than the typical approach to producing a new opera. Instead of starting with a completed fixed score and text with a single director and set design team, the Industry LA has brought in dozens of visual and musical artists as well as acrobats and other performers to be involved in the development process. The massive six-scene set has been constructed in the center of the warehouse space which each section designed by a different group of artists. The cast will move between various areas in the set from a hospital, to a shack, to a dive bar that will feature live performances from local art-rock collective Timur and the Dime Museum as part of the performance. Audience members will be able to either be seated in a stationary space or to walk around the perimeter of the set following performers as they move from place to place. Multiple monitors are placed around the outskirts of the set as well to allow more stationary audience members to catch any bits they might be missing via the live video feed generated during the performance. Some lucky audience members will even be able to sit in the dive bar portion of the expansive set or watch all the proceedings from a "skybox" above. As the rehearsal process has progressed, visual artists, vocalists, and others have all contributed ideas to LeBaron and Kearney who have made multiple large revisions of the score during the process in an act of collaboration with other artists as part of this site specific work. Sharon notes that while collaboration between artists has always been a hallmark of opera production, the level and integration of different artistic interests as part of the process for The Industry LA's production of Crescent City is unusual.

Lebaron and Sharon have assembled an exciting cast of 18 singers and an 16-member chamber orchestra that will perform under Marc Lowenstein in an elevated pit space above the set. The cast is mostly drawn from local artists including familiar faces such as Cedric Berry, although one exciting addition is Chicago-based contralto Gwendolyn Brown who’ll sing the starring role of a resurrected “Voodoo Queen” Marie Leveau. What’s more, The Industry LA is planning eleven performances of Crescent City starting on the 10th through the 27th of May with a capacity for several hundred viewers at each performance. It’s undoubtedly a big event, and support that Sharon and his Industry LA colleagues have been able to generate leading up to this presentation is making people take notice. What the company has put together so far is already drawing attention from press as far away as New York. But don’t take my word for it, you can check out all the photos on the “Building Crescent City Blog” Sharon has been keeping throughout the rehearsal process. This is a show a lot of people will be talking about so don’t miss out while tickets are still available.


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