A Mystifying Work That Asserts a Sense of Place While Challenging Notion of Opera
March 12, 2020
by Gordon Williams
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With their latest production, The Industry proves once more why they’re a major reason to consider LA a vital center of opera.
“Sweet Land,” directed by The Industry’s founder Yuval Sharon and Cannupa Hanska Luger (also the designer of stunning costumes), and with words by Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney and music by Raven Chacon and Du Yun, premiered at Los Angeles State Historic Park on February 29, and continues again next weekend. Once more, an Industry production – clearly arising from operatic milieu – raises questions about the nature of opera, the extent to which it is always a “gesamtkunstwerk” drawing on all the arts, and the expressive balance of its constituent parts.
Asking Questions in 5 Parts
Essentially “Sweet Land” tells of the coming of white folk into this land, their disruption of indigenous society and what remains. However, the white folk are called Arrivals and the original inhabitants Hosts as one of the ways in which this production moves the tale onto a more mythic, archetypal level. It’s “not an opera about Pilgrims and Indians. That was just the cover of the book to get some of you audience in the door,” says composer Raven Chacon from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation in a program-booklet conversation with fellow-composer Shanghai-born Du Yun.
There are five parts to the presentation. In “Contact,” the Arrivals immediately bungle protocol, but the Hosts agree to treat them as guests. Half of them are taken to a Feast and the other half are taken into the land to be “taught the ways of the community.”
At this point, the audience is divided in half and walks from the opening scene’s theatrical space through gangways to different performing areas – one in which a “Feast” takes place (shades of Thanksgiving), the other called “Train (the Arrivals will obviously appropriate and industrialize and embitter the land they’re meant to understand).” The audience reconnects at “The Crossroads” – where improvised singing from Wiindigo (Sharon Chahi Kim) and Coyote (Carmina Escobar) connects the audience with “the now” – and then divides again for Feast 2 and Train 2 before returning to the original performance space to witness “Echoes & Expulsions,” the reverberating effects of America’s past. I was assigned to Train. Perhaps an audience-member is meant to yearn for and regret the part they missed out on.
The venue for an Industry production is frequently a major part of the attraction. “Invisible Cities,” back in 2013, took place at Union Station. Audience-members walked through the peak-hour rush listening through wireless headphones to the singers interspersed among the commuters. You could watch 2015’s “Hopscotch” on monitors in a pavilion in the Arts District called The Hub, but really the best way to experience the different scenes of the varying storylines was to get in and out of 24 cars traveling three different routes around town.
In the “Sweet Land” program booklet and pre-show literature, much is made of the fact that LA State Historic Park where this performance takes place sits roughly where the Native American Tongva village Yaang-na and its cornfield once lay – an area replete with memories (many tragic) close to Downtown and the original pueblo. This area up to present-day Lincoln Heights station on the Gold Line was an important source of water in the early days of Los Angeles. It is thought that Gaspar de Portolá forded the river in 1769 at a point near today’s North Broadway-Buena Vista Bridge.
What is Opera?
What is “Sweet Land” like as an experience? Significantly that’s a question to consider before evaluating the work as an opera. Attendees wore snow coats, mittens and beanies. It was cold. The towers of Downtown glistened in the distance and trains running between Azusa and East LA roared past, adding their music. There was still a sense of pre-colonial nature, even acknowledging the exotic eucalypts up on Chavez Ridge.
The temporary performance structures gave off a beautiful fragrance of timber, and the moon glimpsed through the circular opening of the “Train” performance-structure evoked (for me) Jefferson’s account of a speech by the great Cherokee chief, Outassate – “The moon was in full splendor”. Surely, given the tentacles of meaning reaching out from this work and the lack of a dramatic plot’s gravitational pull, the creators want audience-members to loop in and out of their own thoughts?
A significant portion of watching “Sweet Land” is taken up in moving between locations. “Train” audience-members had to get to their viewing structure past performers humming while they “worked.” The act of traversing was important. How might Sharon go in Australia devising an opera based on the songlines, those epic Aboriginal chants that criss-cross and map the country? The prospect seems ripe with promise.
Clearly, an audience member needs to prepare to get the full benefit of this experience. Co-director Cannupa Hanska Luger says he wants the audience to work. “How do we,” says the multidisciplinary artist raised on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation in printed conversation with Chicago-born co-director Sharon, “become, rather than teachers, reference librarians?”
This openness accounts for a welcome lack of didacticism. But does The Industry reverse opera’s traditional hierarchy of meaning? With them, it seems, it’s place, structure and design first, with sound, poetry and music following. And does that blunt meaning and impact? And, of course, does that matter if the audience is meant to do half of the work? For Sharon a key feature of opera – perhaps its ethical virtue – is a behind-the-scenes one, beyond gesamtkunstwerk, collaboration: “I actually feel like what we are undertaking is a mode of leadership that the world could use most right now.” But also, then, collaborating with the audience.
How Does it All Fit Together?
But it’s hard to decipher text, apart from scattered phrases that stand out, because so much is going on and there’s little traditional plotting or musical profile to help support the meaning and sustain an audience member’s (or at least this audience member’s) attention.
It’s when reading the libretto as an act separate from sitting at the performance that important points jump out, eg Kearney’s “An arrow stitches distance – / Doesn’t fly so much as bind. / As you kill you carry – / A burden dragged behind.” Only by reading the libretto, do you know that the Captain of the Arrivals (Jon Lee Keenan) makes a mistake of protocol by mistaking the Father (Babatunde Akinboboye), not Totaa’ar, the Mother (Jenny Wong), as the leader of the Hosts. Otherwise, all you see – and you might miss it – is one guy walk up to another who gestures.
The graphic of a falling woman projected onto the cloth at the beginning is meant to evoke the story of “Sky Woman Falling” but if you haven’t read this story in Aja Couchois Duncan’s Introduction to the program booklet, you’ve missed arguably the show’s most stunningly beautiful piece of writing.
Is it worth considering the possibility that relying on audience imputation hinders the ability of the show to rise to a point? But then the creators might object to the need for “points” or even the idea that this would be a “rise.” And of course, viewing a traditional indigenous ceremony can be like this, sequences conveying a logic of meanings only the initiated can understand. In this case, the audience-member can at least read the libretto beforehand (if that is not veering into the highly cerebral that at least one of the creators seems intent on avoiding).
But where does music fit in all this? Is it memorable and to what extent should it be?
I could remember the “Blood and water putrify” melody as I walked over the gangway to Train. Raven Chacon’s Railroad Song stood out as did Du Yun’s percussion-scape at the beginning of Train 2. Jon Lee Keenan as the Captain and Richard Hodges as the Preacher were formidable presences. Through the energy of her performance (physical as well as vocal) Carmina Escobar, as Coyote, contributed so much to the moulding of the show.
In the Train performance space, conductor Marc Lowenstein handled the orchestra with great skill. It was riveting to watch him lead to that one scene-ending note to “Train 2″ that sustained through twittering, blaring, trilling to signify we should move to the final location.
And then it became clear. This is not music for a Highlights CD; it’s actually a navigation device for a space. But might the work be even more widely impactful if traditional musical story-telling were involved?
At the end of Act One of “Parsifal,” Gurnemanz asks the hero, “Weisst du, was du sahst?” No, Parsifal did not understand the ceremony he had just seen. As opera, “Sweet Land” is mystifying. But, in a sense, so what? Its greatest importance is as memorializing of place. It requires a shift in audience-perspective and maybe a new definition of opera.
Perhaps the greatest proof of this was the last scene, “Echoes & Expulsions.”
The backdrop was gone and the original performance space was no longer a building bound on four sides. The super-titles were projected onto a disused billboard and the North Broadway-Buena Vista Bridge a couple of hundred yards away. Mention of the 1871 Chinatown massacre was made – reinforcing echoes of tragedy in the location. And then, as the synopsis says, “Speck [Micah Angelo Luna] remains on the industrialized land. / The voices of America’s history rise up around him.” Singers mimicked the cries of coyotes which once echoed around this area and possibly still do occasionally up on Chavez Ridge.
That – a strong sense of place formed by a bundle of devices, mostly visuals but including sound – was the impression that remained. And a strong impression at that.