In spite of the seemingly hopeless terrain in which classical musicians attempt to carve a life, there is a faint but steady glimmer of hope trying to gain momentum in southern California.
It takes the form of an opera company, though an unorthodox one at that, called The Industry. It launched last March, and, about a week ago, had its Visual Artist Launch at Los Angeles' iconic Barnsdall Art Park.
The company’s first production, composer Anne LeBaron’s "Crescent City," and the company itself seem inextricably linked: the essence of Ms. LeBaron’s term "hyperopera" is an instance of the nature of The Industry’s infrastructure and vice versa, says director Yuval Sharon, who worked as assistant director on L.A. Opera's mammoth "Ring Cycle" last season.
“At the heart of The Industry is a belief in opera as the first and ultimate interdisciplinary art form," Mr. Sharon said. "Each of our productions will aim to investigate the process of creating productions with a maximum degree of openness to new artistic disciplines.”
Hyperopera is a postmodern resuscitation of Wagner’s grandiloquent Teutonic notion that he called Gesamtkunstwerk. What Wagner meant by Gesamtkunstwerk, and what he wanted to achieve in producing his epic mega-operas (think heavy vibrato, German ladies, and Viking gear), was a synthesis of all art forms -- that is, the theatrical, the visual, and the musical. He believed the sum of these parts would exceed the potential of any solo effort. Hyperopera works largely under the same pretenses but, as you can imagine, the gamut of available arts to synthesize and ways to synthesize them is exponentially bigger and more complex than in Wagner’s day.
Also, if truth be told, Wagner’s notion was not entirely democratic, and this is where LeBaron and The Industry come in.
“In hyperopera, we are still after the total experience, but we go about it in a way that strives to maintain the autonomy of the individual artist," Sharon, who seems to have a deep understanding of the meaning of opera and his goals for the Industry, says. "The process is less hierarchical and more collaborative than the traditional sense of Gesamtkunstwerk, but we are after a similar unification of the disparate arts at play.”
Wagner would have preferred if everything were synthesized in service to the music, but in hyperopera, the expectation is that everybody involved -- musicians, fine artists, choreographers, actors, etc. -- has their eye on everybody else, and together, something truly formidable is produced.
This is definitely the case in The Industry’s flagship production "Crescent City," a post-Katrina New Orleans (going by its nickname Crescent City here) fantasy in which Marie Laveau, the infamous voodoo priestess, is desperate to save her city.
Everybody involved in this project is either from or currently stationed in L.A. (with the exception of Gwendolyn Brown, the superb contralto in the title role of Marie Laveau). Composer LeBaron, director Sharon, producer Laura Swanson, music director Marc Lowenstein, librettist Douglas Kearney, all six visual artists (yes, six), the orchestra, and the singers all come from extremely diverse backgrounds and, in a very L.A. way, exist in accord to serve this locally grown project, particularly when you consider the auxiliary talents of each of them. Both Mr. Lowenstein and LeBaron have won New York City Opera’s Vox Competition for new opera, and Ms. Swanson is a terrific, classically trained singer.
The event last Monday “launched” the visual artists to a crowd of about 300 patrons and art hounds alike (former composer-in-residence at the L.A. Philharmonic Thomas Adès was poking around).
What is unique about this project, and the reason the artists needed their own launch, is that for this opera the set is divided into six parts, one for each artist. They design and install each piece (among them is a dive bar called the Chit Hole) for the gallery that is Crescent City. By day the set of the opera exists as an exhibit in the familiar white wall, art gallery context. But for performances, the pieces come together as the set. This is just one of many aspects that push this opera into hyperopera territory. Others are seen in the musical styling, which is ripe with electronics and a diverse array of sonic material, from jazz to the most aggressive contemporary music.
This production’s personnel and what they’ve come up with are demonstrations of what Los Angeles, hyperopera, Gesamtkunstwerk, and the Industry are all about. In light of my own experience as a Los Angeles native, as a musician and opera enthusiast, and certainly after this experience with The Industry, I’m starting to gain some insight into the nature of cross-pollination and its potential.
"The Industry really aims to be a vital part of the already fantastic musical community of Los Angeles," Sharon says. "But The Industry fills a gap for new opera, which I think is a national problem, but which the unique landscape of Los Angeles is perfectly suited to address. The curiosity and open-mindedness of the audience here and the ability to accept and support unconventional ideas makes it a perfect place to foster new forms of music-driven performance.”