New Yorker Review: An Open-Air Opera, Cut Short by Social Distancing

March 30, 2020
by Alex Ross for The New Yorker

In 2015, the Los Angeles-based theatre company the Industry mounted “Hopscotch,” an outdoor, mobile, multi-composer opera of staggering logistical complexity and transporting, almost delirious beauty. It unfolded like a magical-realist fable in which the experience of the observer becomes part of the story. Certain of its images—a trumpeter playing at the top of a water tower, with a trombonist on a distant rooftop answering him; a soprano, in a red dress, gliding along the cast-iron walkways of the Bradbury Building’s famed atrium; another soprano singing while riding in a Jeep along the Los Angeles River—will stay with me as long as I remember anything. It was a waking dream of a city, and I keep wishing I could have it back.

In February and March, the Industry presented a new opera, “Sweet Land,” its most ambitious venture since “Hopscotch.” The vibe was stranger and darker, bordering on nightmarish. The title has a bitterly ironic ring: the work tells of lands plundered, peoples murdered, cultures appropriated. My reaction was undoubtedly conditioned by the encroaching coronavirus pandemic, which soon shut down American public life. Yet “Sweet Land” would have been a punch in the gut under any circumstances. Chaotic, conflicted, implacably honest, it unfurled a narrative that dismantled its own ideological underpinnings and exposed its own lies.

“Hopscotch” and “Sweet Land” both emanated from the potent theatrical sensibility of the director Yuval Sharon, who founded the Industry, in 2010. He has a singular flair for staging work in open-air spaces, letting landscapes become part of the drama. The setting for “Sweet Land” was the Los Angeles State Historic Park—a patch of green in a concrete expanse, hemmed in by freeways, the L.A. River, and a light-rail line. During the performances, which began in the evening, trains would periodically clatter by, with perplexed commuters peering out the windows. The image of a train hurtling into the dark is an elemental trope of American myth; in “Sweet Land,” myth merged with the grimy routine of the everyday. As in “Hopscotch,” but in a much more unsettling way, the border between stage and city disappeared.

The program for “Sweet Land” included a “Land Acknowledgment.” Julia Bogany, of the Gabrieleno Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, wrote, “We, the Indigenous People, the Traditional Caretakers of this landscape, are the direct descendants of the First People who formed our lands, our worlds during creation time. We have always been here.” One aim of “Sweet Land” is to give voice to the Tongva people, who once thrived in the Los Angeles Basin. At the same time, the opera reserves its right to fantasize on historical themes. A cryptic prologue, titled “Contact,” portrays the first encounter between groups called the Arrivals and the Hosts—essentially, colonists and indigenous tribes.

Sharon and his co-director, the Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, chose not to let any one perspective dominate the proceedings. Two creative teams produced the music and the text: the Chinese-American composer Du Yun worked with the writer Aja Couchois Duncan; Raven Chacon, a composer of Navajo background, was paired with the poet Douglas Kearney. There are two distinct narrative components, “Feast” and “Train,” each ensconced in its own roundhouse venue. After the prologue, which takes place in bleachers overlooking the park, the audience is divided in half, with one group sent to “Feast” and the other to “Train”; only by attending “Sweet Land” twice could you see both. The structures were built for the occasion, under the direction of the theatre designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew.

“Feast” depicts what happens immediately after the Arrivals make their appearance. It is loosely based on the interaction between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and local peoples—an initial period of peace and mutual assistance followed by aggression on the part of the settlers. A warm, welcoming atmosphere, signalled by dozens of lit candles, dissipates when an Arrival named Jimmy Gin declares, “God gave us dominion over everything,” and threatens Makwa, a young woman of the tribe. Weapons are drawn, and the Arrivals seem to retreat. The second part of “Feast” is a kind of erasure of the first, presenting history as the victors tell it. Makwa is being married off to Jimmy Gin, alongside a Thanksgiving-style feast. She protests in vain as the ceremony proceeds. “Who wants seconds?” someone cries.

“Train” is a tale of industrialization and brutalization. The language of missionary conquest and Manifest Destiny—“The Word of God is the Hand of God”—intersects with scenes of animal slaughter, work-gang labor, and mob violence. Doors rumble back and forth on casters, conjuring a real, or metaphorical, speeding train. In the second part, that bloodshed is forgotten as the society gives in to consumerism and self-gratification. A percussion-heavy chamber orchestra is positioned at the center of the roundhouse, with the audience arrayed in a circle surrounding it and the performers racing around the space’s outer rim.

Du Yun and Raven Chacon, the co-composers, prove to be a good match. Both draw on a wide spectrum of musical techniques, from the folk-primeval to the experimental. Chacon brings to bear his understanding of Native American musical traditions: in the latter half of “Feast,” he creates a mesmerizing multicultural counterpoint, blending Makwa’s sorrowful arias of remembrance with the sinuous cantilena of Host spirits and blocky four-part hymns sung by the Arrivals. Shimmers and flecks of instrumental sound establish a wide-open atmosphere, as if the city had wafted away into wilderness. The sonic textures of “Train” sometimes become dense to the point of incoherence, but Du Yun provides a thunderous climax in the form of bulldozing drones, pounding ostinato, and blasts of electric-guitar feedback.

Between the two parts of “Feast” and “Train,” the audiences leave their venues to see an outdoor interlude called “The Crossroads.” A trio of singers evoke ancient spirits: Carmina Escobar and Micaela Tobin jointly played the trickster Coyote, and Sharon Chohi Kim was the monster Wiindigo. The costumes, designed by Luger and E. B. Brooks, combine folkloric and surrealist features: brightly colored woollen garments, masses of fur, animal heads. The music, partly improvised, wavers between unearthly ululation and piercing lyricism. Throughout the scene, a sprinkler system is operating in an adjoining field, and images of horses, deer, and buffalo are projected onto the spray of water—ghosts of the land as it once was.

At the end, the full audience reassembles in the bleachers to witness “Echoes and Expulsions,” a harrowing epilogue of protest and lament. Unseen singers tell of the dark side of L.A. history: stories of enslaved indigenous children, of the Chinese massacre of 1871, of a Latina woman undergoing involuntary sterilization. A youthful figure crawls around a construction site at the corner of the park—perhaps scavenging for food, perhaps digging for the truth. Trains trundle by; fire engines scream across the North Broadway Bridge, in the distance. A chill descends, and not just because it can get cold at night in L.A.

The coronavirus shutdown cut short “Sweet Land” in the middle of its run. Smaller, nonprofit groups like the Industry are already reeling because of the crisis; some may not come back. The Industry is trying to recoup lost revenue by offering a video of “Sweet Land” for sale online. Cameras cannot capture the eerie power of the event, but the zooming lens picks out details that I missed live: subtitles projected on billboards like spectral graffiti, the image of a deer flickering across the bridge. The video was made after the cancellation of the show, when the city was closing up. The last train that passes through is almost empty.

Published in the print edition of the April 6, 2020, issue, with the headline “Midnight Trains.”

Du Yun Gives Keynote Speech for Sounds Now