The experimental and forward-thinking LA opera company The Industry just completed a 22-show run of my friend Christopher Cerrone’s opera Invisible Cities. I had performed Chris’ solo percussion and electronics piece Memory Palace on a preview event for the opera back in October and they were kind enough to invite me back to perform on closing night as a memorial for William Weaver, the man who originally translated Italo Calvino’s novel that inspired the opera.
The gist of the production: it was set in LA’s historical Union Station and the audience heard it completely through a pair of high-quality wireless headphones. The orchestra (mic’d by 24 wireless microphones) was in one room and the singers and dancers (16 wireless mics/15 wireless in-ear monitors) were spread throughout the many rooms and gardens of the station. (all of this audio gear was generally donated by Sennheiser USA for the performances) The audience began by watching the orchestra perform the overture, and then was invited to walk throughout the station as they liked. You could follow the performers or sit down. You could go where the action (and the crowd) was, or find your own interesting facet of the production. I can’t tell you how many times I veered away from the main event, only to find a dancer or singer removed from everyone else, completely occupied and engrossed with their own set of tasks or movements. It was a spellbinding experience.
How did LA react to this? Every single show was completely sold out. They extended the run multiple times, and each additional show they added sold out in a matter of hours. They featured a couple special free shows for the community, and the lines to get in started hours before the shows started. Last night, the audience pushed 200 (compared to a normal full house of around 150) simply because the organizers couldn’t bear to say no to all of the people who wanted to get in.
I don’t think you can overstate how much a success for opera and contemporary performance in general this is. How many times have you heard of a brand new piece of art being performed 22 times in a month in the same city? Not often. Of those times, how many of them were 100% sold out, with tickets becoming unavailable with near pop-concert speed? I think I can guess your answer.
This was a perfectly planned and perfectly executed combination of great music, great choreography and an incredible vision for the piece. Throw in a successful Kickstarter campaign and a tremendous PR effort, and this is the result you get. I’ve seen this opera performed in various forms – from initial sketches and readings that I performed in to a fully-staged version in Manhattan a few years back – but after seeing this new production, I cannot imagine experiencing Invisible Cities any other way. This opera was made to be heard through headphones.
They are already talking about bringing the production to other cities across the world, as well they should. This is the kind of experience that will bring in a far more diverse audience than a typical contemporary performance.
It was a good month for opera. Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing the closing performance of the other big name in contemporary opera these days – Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera. Another great production and another really good piece. The whole time I was sitting there, I just couldn’t get over the fact that I was watching a 21st-century piece at the Met.
If this is what the future of opera looks like, it’s brighter than we think!