At 10:34 PM on a recent evening, passengers at Los Angeles’ Union Station scurried down well-worn linoleum hallways toward departing trains, running to catch the evocatively-named Coast Starlight (Seattle), Pacific Surfliner (San Luis Obispo), or Sunset Limited (New Orleans). Among the crowds was a man carrying a backpack, sauntering between the rows of chairs and singing to himself. The scene was far from unusual given the station’s diverse and colorful clientele, but there was something different about this singer – people were actually paying attention. An entourage of spectators, all wearing matching black headphones, traced the man’s path, hanging on every word.
A traveler humming a quiet tune to passers-by turned into a full operatic production for the headphone-equipped, voices joining with an orchestral score in swirling synergy.
This is Invisible Cities, a renegade new opera from The Industry, the LA Dance Project, and Sennheiser, which runs through early November in downtown Los Angeles. The work is based on Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel, which imagines a dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, describing some of the cities within the emperor’s vast holdings. Set to the music of composer Christopher Cerrone, the opera is a stark contemplation on culture, decay, and the ravaging effects of time on civilization.
Invisible Cities may be thematically timeless, but it represents the leading edge of operatic innovation – a bold effort to create individualized experiences within the context of a communal performance. “Everyone will miss something; everyone will have a perfect view,” explains director Yuval Sharon cryptically before the final dress rehearsal. “It’s an ambulatory experience; the audience is moving freely and having a highly subjective experience.”
In an age of personalized everything – from medicine to marketing – personalized performing arts is increasingly in vogue. Punchdrunk has taken immersive theater to new heights in London, while artists like Janet Cardiff create installations that cultivate distinctive experiences. But for an institution like opera, inextricably rooted in tradition, innovative modes of delivery can be a tough sell. “This is the invention of something new here,” says Stefanie Reichert, Sennheiser’s Director of Strategic Marketing, “cutting-edge stuff that European opera companies wouldn’t dare to do.” But after talking Union Station management into the idea, Sharon took The Industry – his opera company that intentionally leaves “opera” out of its title – into uncharted waters. “LA is a frontier of experiential creativity,” he claims; “it’s much harder to pull off this kind of thing where everything is already established artistically.”
The movement toward personalized performing arts accomplishes two goals, beyond opening new creative avenues to artists. Within the context of a choose-your-own-adventure performance, audience members are forced to make conscious choices rather than sit – and more than occasionally sleep – in their seats. As Reichert puts it, “with this type of delivery form, people pay more attention, and we do the artists more justice.” What’s more, the format is inherently piracy-proof; a bootleg recording of the performance would be about as intelligible as a shredded set of Ikea instructions.
To make this high-concept production a reality, The Industry linked up with Sennheiser, the German audio company with a proclivity for technical production challenges. The crisp sound coming through the headphones belies a complicated configuration of microphones, transmitters, and cables positioned around the repurposed performance space.
A live orchestra plays in an ancillary part of the station, and singers move throughout courtyards, waiting rooms, and ticket halls. Sixteen “floor” microphones are mixed with the orchestra’s output and beamed to the headphones through radio waves from four “antennae farms”.
Like the much-maligned local freeways, the airwaves over the country’s second-largest city are dense with traffic, as law enforcement and radio stations carve out sonic space. As a result, extraneous noise threatens to derail the contemplative, personalized experience at any moment. To minimize the chance of disruption, “the frequency is tuned in and adjusted before the show,” says Reichert; “it requires scanning and testing every night.” Actually, two different frequencies are identified; if an intruding transmission overruns the primary frequency during the show, singers can turn a switch on their transmission packs to start broadcasting in an alternate wavelength. The building itself – packed with sound attenuating metal in the walls and lead in the windows – didn’t make things any easier.
“We knew it was going to be difficult,” says Sennheiser technician David Missall, “and since the interference changes every night, we need to constantly monitor the area. It’s certainly harder than doing a football game or a Broadway musical.”
As the crowd collected in the grand ticketing hall for the final sequence, a headphoned Danielle Agami trailed behind, watching the performance with a particularly critical eye. After all, Agami is the show’s choreographer, and she’s not fully convinced her staging is quite right.
For Agami and the dancers, the unique set of Invisible Cities presents new challenges. “You never know what your spacing will be during the show,” she explains, “or what the setting around you will be. One night could be rough, one night could be lonely, one night could be claustrophobic.”
It was precisely because of these issues that Sharon tapped Agami for the job; as a veteran of the Batsheva Dance Company, Agami is an in-demand choreographer of the improvisational Gaga style (“nothing to do with the singer,” she offers preemptively). The dancers can hear the full sonic landscape through subtle earpieces, but without the visual cues of a conductor, Agami finds it easier to create a kinetic framework rather than dictate each flourish. “We have signals in the music, but we’re not moving completely in response to the music,” she says. “We’re using it as an envelope – it’s our background, our wallpaper.”
To Sharon, the sound transmission challenges are just the latest example of technological development in the service of artistic expression. In many productions, “technology was advanced mostly by artists who wanted new ways to tell stories,” he says, citing Wagner’s innovations in stage technology and lighting effects pioneered for his Ring cycle.
Sharon sees the headphone opera, with its personalized nature and disembodied voices, as the latest link in a long chain of operatic advancement. “When you can divorce the voice form the person singing,” he suggests, “the ear can watch and the eyes can listen, and the headphones are an ideal tool for that.”
“It’s a new way of creating an opera.”