Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Town Without Pity

May 12, 2012

Gwendolyn Brown as Marie Laveau confronts revelers in Anne LeBaron's Crescent City Photo: Dana Ross 2012
Crescent City is neither Istanbul nor Constantinople. No, the titular setting of Anne LeBaron’s new opera, which premiered on Thursday in Los Angeles, is a futuristic, flood ravaged, pre- and post-apocalyptic New Orleans in all but name. I know that description sounds somewhat complicated, but then again, that’s very much in the spirit of this hugely ambitious and promising world premiere from a new-found opera company that may have changed the face of musical theater in this city overnight. That company, The Industry, is the brainchild of director Yuval Sharon and his producing partner Laura Kay Swanson. Sharon first came into contact with LeBaron’s music during his time as Project Director for New York City Opera’s VOX program for new operas. And after he found the audiences of Los Angeles particularly open to experimentation during his tenure as Assistant Director to Achim Freyer at Los Angeles Opera during their recent Ring cycle, the notion of setting up shop for new operas right here was hatched and LeBaron’s Crescent City appeared to be the ideal substrate for a spectacular chemical reaction.

The show’s story is as elaborate as the production designed around it. There’s one character from real-life, Marie Laveau, a 19th century New Orleans Voodoo queen whose been resurrected in the wake of a near devastating hurricane that has left Crescent City in ruins. But there’s a second one on the way, if you believe the visions people are having, and neither the many inhabitants of the city, nor Laveau’s Loa, spiritual voodoo emissaries to the gods, seem quite certain that it's all worth saving. She enlists her spirit guides' begrudging and uncertain help anyway to salvage the city if just a few souls worth saving can be found.

The scope of the show is enormous for a first-time production from a new, independent company. The three-hour performance takes place in a recovered warehouse art space called Atwater Crossing sandwiched between Glendale and Griffith Park right along the Metrolink tracks. In addition to LeBaron and her librettist Douglas Kearney, the company enlisted a huge cadre of artists. There’s an orchestra of eighteen under music director Mark Lowenstein that includes the members of local band Timur and the Dime Museum. There are eight principal members of the vocal cast, as well as six non-singing “revelers” who play some of the street denizens of Crescent City and perform a variety of acrobatics including managing most of the video cameras used to project in-performance video feeds throughout the show on large screens about the space. Furthermore, six separate visual artists were brought in to design each of the opera’s physical locales, which fill the space, including a cemetery, swamp, dive bar, junk pile, house, and hospital. These locales are separated by two crossroads and the audience is seated around and within the performance area. Ticket buyers have a number of options: there’s a single row of seating around the perimeter, a “skybox” area to watch it all from above, and walking admissions where audience members can move around the outskirts of the space to catch the ever-mobile action. And for the not camera adverse, there’s seating available in beanbag chairs on the floor of the dive bar set to bring you right into the action. The orchestra was situated above the action on a balcony to the side. All of the sound is amplified and supertitles are provided with the video feed. Considering there’s no chorus, it’s a mammoth production team for this type of project, and that they’ve managed to produce something so attractive and professionally done right out of the gate is cause for celebration.

The principal singing cast was exemplary and surprisingly good for a production this size. There are new faces like the contralto Gwendolyn Brown who plays Laveau, with a rich, beautiful tone that galvanized attention throughout. The wonderful bass/baritone Cedric Berry plays The Good Man, a homesteader basically hanging on for what little sanity is left for him in the wake of the devastation of his family. Then there’s veteran tenor Jonathan Mack who is a constant, steady cop providing the last fantasy of order in the town. And atop the tongue-like stage, at the Chit Hole bar in a dress of red condoms, there’s drag queen Deadly Belle (named after the first hurricane), played by Timur Bekbosunov, whose expressive broad range served him well in scenes of both deprivation and redemption. There are several other characters and cast members including a returning homesick woman played by Lillian Sengpiehl, a ghost cop partner, Jesse, sung by Ashley Faatoalia and a pair of twin spirits/dominatrix nurses sung by Maria Elena Altany and Ji Young Yang, all a pleasure to listen to. With a few exceptions, all of the vocalists play both residents of Crescent City as well as various Loa figures, both good and evil across the evening.

There are several beautiful and haunting images in the show. Often the most striking ones involve the most basic theatrical techniques including Marie’s concluding aria as she floats on her boat through the swamp talking to the Loa. There’s not a non-commanding image or uninteresting moment in the show. However, that isn’t to say that the show itself is a complete success. The Industry has called Crescent City a “hyperopera” indicating that its development occurred through an unusually open collaborative process. LeBaron is said to have even rewritten some of the music based on ideas presented by the scenic artists during the design process. This interactivity produces both the positive and negative upshots you might imagine. Crescent City is always visually imaginative and often quite surprising, from the video elements through the physical performance through LeBaron’s use of a plethora of American folk music styles and traditions. However, the show also seems unwieldy at times and in need of a bit sharper eye toward editing and consistent narrative structure.

The show is hard to follow and the projected subtitles are difficult to read much of the time. Though poetic, the libretto is often far more obtuse than it need be. Despite reading the detailed synopsis in the program there are many scenes that seem to go nowhere even if they do so beautifully. With so many characters and storylines in such a small space, many great resources were squandered for the sake of inclusion of ideas that while interesting, don’t actually move the show forward as a unified whole. For instance, why Marie Laveau spends nearly the whole show in a hospital bed outside of her commanding introduction and finale is a mystery. (Just as it is a mystery as to why she’s come back from the dead, what she thinks of this, or why she’s so concerned about saving Crescent City in the first place.) There are several roles that come off as placeholders for ideas more than dramatically involving characters. Just as the individual artists sets hold many wonders in their variety, the overall effect can also veer towards something that looks like the concluding episode of America's next Top Opera Set Designer. LeBaron’s music can be evocative at times and dizzying with electronic elements in contrast to its more vernacular styles, but it lived almost independently of the stage action neither moving it forward nor providing perspective on events. The acoustics of the space weren’t attractive even with the amplification.

Still, Crescent City is quite a funhouse and even with multiple exposures would likely offer up different and changing perspectives. Not everyone might agree - there was a significant drop off in Thursday’s audience size after the intermission which is a shame considering all there was still to see. Most importantly, a band of Los Angeles based artists have come together to produce a huge, elaborate work right here without just emulating a pattern developed elsewhere or with imported elements from whatever worked out of town. One hopes this is only the beginning for The Industry, because with them the future of performance in the city looks decidedly brighter. Crescent City runs for a total of eleven performance through May 27th.

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I was ready to leave at intermisssion
but didn't. It was worth
staying to the end to hear
the duet between Cedric Barry
and Ms. Brown and
Ms. Brown's final aria.
Thanks for the comment Vina. This is exactly what I was talking about. There are some great things here, but there is too much stuff competing with the best of it to make it cohesive from beginning to finish. That final duet and aria is probably the best part of the show. Why can't the whole thing be just like it, is my question.
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