L.A.’s most anticipated new opera takes place in cars — of course. Behind the scenes of Yuval Sharon’s audacious logistical nightmare, “Hopscotch.”
One evening last September, in a living room in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, Yuval Sharon stood in front of a diagram of the city addressing a group of writers and composers who had assembled for their first production meeting. He was in the midst of describing L.A. as a place “where people can just disappear” when the doorbell rang.
“I can’t believe it,” said composer David Rosenboom as he entered. He was clearly fatigued. “I left home three and a half hours ago to attend a meeting about an opera to take place in L.A. in automobiles? And we expect people to buy tickets to do this on purpose?”
“Well, people have been saying it’s the first car ride they’re looking forward to,” Sharon offered.
Wiry, warm, and gregarious, the 35-year-old opera director is curly-haired and cleft-chinned. He tends to punctuate sentences with an eyes-closed laugh — particularly when explaining the quixotic absurdity of his latest endeavor, Hopscotch, a new “mobile opera” that will take place inside 24 limousines driven around Los Angeles, stopping at iconic locations along the way.
Hopscotch is Sharon’s follow-up to Invisible Cities, a groundbreaking roving opera staged in and around Los Angeles’s Union Station in late 2013, during which the audience donned wireless headphones and wandered among the train station’s inhabitants to track the opera’s singers and dancers. Invisible Cities was nominated for four L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Awards and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in music and the subject of an Emmy-winning documentary. The Los Angeles Times referred to the production as a “herculean act of coordination.” Wired asked: “Is this the opera of the future?”
Sharon is now betting he can top it with Hopscotch, which his team of six writers and six composers (as well as numerous designers, choreographers, musicians, and architects) has spent more than a year mapping out. It is by far the director’s most ambitious and audacious project to date, one with infinite, uncontrollable variables (traffic, weather, and the Dodgers, just to name a few) that could scupper entire performances. Perhaps his biggest challenge has been explaining how the whole thing will work. “So, wait, this happens … inside a car?” is a question he’s fielded countless times.
For each Hopscotch performance, of which there will be three per day over three consecutive weekends starting October 31 (plus previews), attendees will be told to show up at their start time at an address along one of three colored routes. Once inside the limo, they will be driven, along with a handful of musicians, for about ten minutes. Throughout this approximately ten-minute “scene,” which, yes, takes place inside a car, a vocalist may sing along with a prerecorded track playing on the car’s stereo, or there could be two singers and an alto saxophone, or the car may drive by a quartet on the street and the sound will be piped into the limousine as it passes.
The audience won’t be cooped up inside a single limousine throughout the opera. (Most of the performers will, however — repeating their scene 24 times per day.) Instead, at the end of each scene, the car will arrive at a location where the group will disembark to witness the next scene, which will take place in a public space. Once that concludes, the group will be ushered into a different limousine, inside which the next scene will unfold. Every scene, whether it takes place inside a car or outside, comes with a host of potential pitfalls.
“Are we expecting the performer to learn seven different routes’ worth of pieces?” asked a befuddled composer at the production meeting.
“They are only ever learning one piece,” answered Sharon. “The cars just go back and forth.”
“If we have a scene in a car and the car gets stopped at a red light for an extra-long amount of time, what happens if the scene ends?” asked a composer.
“Vamping?” suggested another. Sharon advised that pieces be composed in a “modular” way to accommodate for unexpected delays, but there’s always the chance that a vehicle will get trapped in an especially nasty traffic jam like the one that ensnared Rosenboom.
“This will be an extremely complicated project,” Sharon acknowledged. “But won’t it be amazing when we pull it off?”
When he was 13, Sharon traveled from Chicago to visit his father, a nuclear engineer, in Essen, Germany, where they went to see his first opera, La Traviata. “I thought it was so boring,” said Sharon over coffee at an Echo Park café last fall. “Opera was a bizarre concert with costumes, and there was nothing theatrical about it. It was another language, another time.” He was, he said, “way more into the cheesy ’80s mega-musicals, like Les Mis, especially.”
Though he began playing piano at age 3, Sharon never thought music would be a major part of his life. Then, in college, while studying film at Berkeley, he started attending opera performances. After witnessing a particularly disappointing production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, he realized that it might be the presentation — rather than the genre itself — that was keeping opera from feeling relevant. He began studying theater and became interested in the work of experimental composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. He saw the potential for opera as an “emerging art form as opposed to an inherited, outmoded tradition.” He even came around to La Traviata.
Sharon spent four years working for VOX, New York City Opera’s contemporary workshop, and running his own company called Theater Faction before coming to L.A. in 2009 to work with Achim Freyer on his Ring cycle — an avant-garde, highly unconventional, extravagant production that reportedly cost $31 million and that many saw as ill-considered coming in the middle of an economic downturn.
Today Sharon is the artistic director of The Industry, a Los Angeles–based opera company he founded in 2011 to “expand the traditional definition of opera.” The Industry has quickly garnered a formidable reputation. Crescent City, its inaugural production, was called “weirdly exuberant and wonderfully performed” by the Los Angeles Times, which named Sharon a “Face to Watch” in 2012.
But the company really established itself with Invisible Cities, an opera written by Christopher Cerrone based on the book by Italo Calvino. The show transformed Union Station into a living set piece in which confounded commuters navigated a performance that included dancers atop defunct ticket counters and a mesmerizing processional led by the character of Kublai Khan. Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the L.A. Philharmonic, which just appointed Sharon to a three-year residency, described Invisible Cities as a watershed moment. “It was a turning point for me in thinking about how we interact with audiences, how we present music, our entire concert format. Professionally, it was very close to a life-changing experience.” The L.A. Weekly wrote, “Let’s hope more American composers and librettists challenge audiences with wonderful, new theatrical experiences — as Cerrone and Sharon did — instead of spoon-feeding them known commodities adorned with arias and pretty music.”
Invisible Cities encountered so many impediments — from persuading officials to allow them to mount transmitting antennae throughout the station to avoiding radio frequency interference to training the actors to deal with audience members who tried to sing or dance along with them — that at one point Sharon was convinced the production wasn’t going to happen. That’s when the idea for Hopscotch began to percolate. He tried to imagine something exponentially more complex, something that would make Invisible Cities seem comparatively simple. Jason Thompson, who designed projections for a number of Industry operas, suggested a piece involving driving. This immediately clicked with Sharon, whose performances have often used L.A. as an integral element of the audience’s experience. And what, Sharon reasoned, could be more L.A. than an opera that takes place in a car? Instead of just one location, what if it took place in multiple cars and at multiple locations? Oddly enough, realizing what a nightmare such a production would be freed him to go back to Union Station and, as he described it, “do the headphone thing.”
Sharon knew that rather than adapting an existing opera, as he did with Invisible Cities, Hopscotch would have to be written from the ground up with the notion of riding around L.A. in a limousine expressly in mind. “Partially that’s logistical,” he said. “It’s thinking about what kind of instruments really can fit in a car, or that if you hit a bump you’re not going to knock out the trumpet player’s teeth.”
Nearly every audience member’s experience of Hopscotch will be different — Sharon said that “everyone will miss something; everyone will have a perfect view.” As a result, the story of Hopscotch is intended to be both simple and abstract: It’s a love story centered on the stages of loss, using the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as a thematic springboard.
Each chapter of the performance has presented its own obstacles. Andrew McIntosh, one of the composers charged with writing the music for Hopscotch, said that he initially conceived of one scene using a Fender Rhodes keyboard, which he described as “a beautiful old instrument from the early ’60s to early ’80s.” It’s also very heavy. “There’s the issue of, is the car even wide enough to fit the keyboard? How to compensate for the possibility that the driver might slam the brakes? And what do you do with a 130-pound keyboard falling over on somebody’s foot?” He worked on the scene for more than a year — only to abandon it a few months before the premiere to “more or less start over from scratch” with an electric guitar.
Composer David Rosenboom has been working on a chapter during which audience members will don headbands with “brain-sensing technology” made by Canadian company InteraXon. Different sounds will be generated based on the audience members’ mental states and then played over the car’s audio system. A laptop will juggle the multiple Bluetooth connections — which hopefully won’t be affected by the jostling of a moving car.
One particularly daunting scenario Sharon conjured involves an intricate, eight-minute trumpet solo performed on top of a three-story tower atop a six-story warehouse downtown. “I need safety gear and a whole belay system just to get up to my spot,” the trumpeter, Jonah Levy, told me. Beyond that, there’s the feat of playing a difficult solo many times per day over an extended period. “You’re holding a 4-pound piece of metal, and it’s touching your face in the most sensitive tissue area on the whole body.” Levy added, “I’m about to go risk my life to get into position with my trumpet and be stationed up here in the beating sun of L.A. for five hours. It’s crazy! There’s absolutely nothing easy about any of this. That goes for everyone involved.” Hopscotch has so many moving parts that he said he often feels overwhelmed. “Honestly I don’t know how this whole thing is going to come off. I’m just a small cog, and the company’s called The Industry, so it kind of makes sense. I’m just a worker in this giant machine.”
On a cloudy day in early May of this year, Sharon arrived at a barracks-like building just north of the intersection of the 5 and 10 freeways to review the production’s intended routes with the L.A. Department of Transportation. Inside, standing at a conference table, he took out a large piece of paper with a hand-drawn, kidney-shaped line representing the opera’s green route, along which he placed toy cars and multicolored Hello Kitty erasers to represent the audience and limousines. (“I got these in Japantown,” he said.) Aram Sahakian, the imposing-looking man who oversees special traffic operations and emergency response for the city of Los Angeles, peered over a pair of reading glasses to watch as Sharon began moving pieces.
“So at 11 a.m. it starts, and these guys do this,” explained Sharon, holding a purple eraser. “And then at the ten-minute mark … they switch.”
“They switch vehicles?” Sahakian asked.
“Yes, but the performers stay in the vehicles. Are you with me so far?” Sharon continued moving pieces. “And then we switch until this purple guy who started over here, he’s done a full round.” Each route has eight scenes, five or six vehicles, and three sites. Stops along the route, explained Sharon, will serve as either a location for a scene or a transfer point where audience members will change cars.
“I will need to know the transfer points,” Sahakian said — it would make a difference if it was a public right of way, a parking lot, or curbside.
Throughout Hopscotch’s development, Sharon worked with close to a dozen city agencies, including the Department of Cultural Affairs, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, and the Army Corps of Engineers. He attributes their support, at least partially, to the success of Invisible Cities, which he said was “always on the brink of being shut down.”
But not everyone has been cooperative. Since the project’s inception, Sharon had envisioned a scene wherein participants get out of their limo and walk into Dodger Stadium, which would be empty save for a lone cellist playing on the pitcher’s mound. Sharon lobbied the Dodgers organization vigorously, but ultimately they denied him access. “It was just very hard for them to wrap their brains around this project,” he conceded. Part of the problem was the stadium’s security requirements, which he said amounted to tens of thousands of dollars per day. There’s also the possibility that the Dodgers will make it into the World Series — which would introduce another set of traffic issues. “If there’s a Dodgers game, one whole route is screwed,” he lamented at a production meeting. He held off on completing the details for that route until the latest possible date in order to “give the Dodgers plenty of time to not get into the World Series. They can win next year!” he quipped.
Over lunch in Japantown nine weeks prior to Hopscotch’s inaugural limo journey, Sharon appeared uncannily relaxed. “A lot of people think of directors as control freaks. I’m the exact opposite,” he said. “I love when the chaos blows your plans away and makes you scramble to figure out how you salvage it. That to me feels very theatrical. You watch people in real time, and it doesn’t feel like a staid ritual that’s repeated endlessly.”
Still, some details do keep him up at night. Recent news of an impending El Niño storm system doesn’t bode well for an opera that requires people to get in and out of cars all day. “If it’s really severe weather? Who knows,” he mused, admitting he’d always just assumed that the odds of rain would be low because of the current drought. Nevertheless, he and his team are working on “some serious plan B’s” should El Niño materialize.
The opera has encountered no small difficulty obtaining insurance — which is not too surprising, considering that the show has so many distinct features to insure. (Levy’s trumpet-in-the-tower scene alone requires about $5 million in coverage.) Funding has been another ongoing concern. While Sharon is confident that tickets for Hopscotch will sell out quickly, he was both surprised and disappointed that it hadn’t secured corporate sponsorship as of early September.
It’s always a financial challenge to put on performances outside of traditional opera halls. Acclaimed British opera director Netia Jones, who frequently works on site-specific productions, told me, “Inevitably you’re limiting the amount of audience that can actually experience the event — which makes it very special for the audience that are in that lucky select few, but it does become a little perverse in terms of what’s going into it and who’s going to witness it in the end.” In total, only about 3,000 people will get to experience Hopscotch as ticketed audience members. This doesn’t bother Sharon, who suggested that part of the essence of theater is its ephemerality. “It’s there, and then it’s gone. Then it becomes almost like a legend of, Who saw it? What did you think? And what went wrong the day you were on the route?”
Participatory performances like Invisible Cities and Hopscotch are part of a recent boom in the popularity of immersive, experiential art. From interactive theater like Punchdrunk’s long-running Sleep No More in New York to the spiral slides at Carsten Höller’s recent Decision at London’s Hayward Gallery, audiences are frequently becoming participants. Jones said that while site-specific operas may be in vogue, they’ve been happening “since the beginning of the art form.” The notion of having a large audience sit politely while performers deliver lines from far away is, in fact, a relatively recent development. For centuries, plays have been mounted on carts rolling through towns, or in outdoor spaces and gardens. Alexander Scriabin, before his death in 1915, even planned a massive multimedia performance of his Mysterium at the base of the Himalayas. “But every age,” said Jones, “slightly reinvents it. We use the tools and technologies that are available to us at that time.” Many of the recent works are fueled partially by new technology — Invisible Cities, for example, relied on Sennheiser, which provided the wireless audio. Hopscotch incorporates multiple technologies, including video feeds, smartphones, the brain-sensing headbands, and, of course, cars. Sharon said that he thinks of the cars — and the city itself — as protagonists, and in many ways the show is about technology, about how it shapes our experience of our urban environment.
To overcome the problem of the audience being so limited in number, Sharon worked with faculty and students at the Southern California Institute of Architecture to build a central hub in which thousands of people will be able to witness a transmission of the opera for free. (L.A. is often maligned as a city without a center, and Sharon acknowledges the irony of his attempt to create one.) A video feed of each scene will be livestreamed via 24 screens. Smartphones mounted inside each limo will capture interior car scenes, and at each location an audience member will be handed one of the phones and asked to shoot streaming video — thus experiencing the scene as so many people now see performances: via smartphone. At the conclusion of each day’s third and final performance, all the cars, the audience, the musicians, and other players will converge at the central hub for a synchronized grand finale — barring any major incidents, that is. Any Hopscotch scene that takes place in a public space will also transform its random passers-by into an unwitting audience, and Sharon believes that engaging a wider community in this accidental way has the potential to expand the audience for all of opera.
Taken as a whole, Hopscotch pushes Sharon’s concept of opera — as a complicated coordination of parts — to its limits. Of the art forms, he argued, opera is “the most hybrid, the most interstitial, it’s the one that really does merge the arts in such an unusual and unstable and exciting way.” His latest production may seem, in the words of Levy, “extreme,” but he emphasized that all operas are a “bizarre collaboration from all of these people that came together: the composer, the poet, the scenographer, the choreographer, the singer.”
The risk in all this is that there is so much going on, and so much attention paid to the logistics, that the story and music — the “work,” as opera is defined — get lost. Some critics may label Hopscotch gimmicky, or find it a struggle to follow the fractured story line. But the basis of Sharon’s concept for contemporary opera — one that engages a new, younger audience — is that the experience itself is narrative. “The search for a larger meaning is the whole fun,” said Sharon. “It’s the whole point.”