In the digital age, it is said that everything lives online — somewhere. Not so with Sweet Land, a site-specific opera that, according to the press release, “erases itself.” Presented by The Industry, the experimental opera troupe that created Invisible Cities (2013) and Hopscotch (2015) and springing from the fertile mind of founder and artistic director, Yuval Sharon, this work is the result of a highly collaborative and multiperspective approach.
Indeed, there are two composers — Raven Chacon and Du Yun — two librettists — Douglas Kearney and Aja Couchois Duncan — and, for the first time, Sharon shares directing honors with Cannupa Hanksa Luger. Performed at the L.A. State Historic Park from February 29 through March 15, the opera is said to be a “grotesque historical pageant that disrupts the dominant narrative of American identity.” With two separate “tracks” (each track showcases a different story, different music and different cast members), the work also features a large group of singers and musicians.
Succinctly put, Sweet Land, for which The Industry partners with the Autry Museum of the American West and IKAR, is an alternate history of the United States focusing on encounters that include ships arriving on a shore — “the Arrivals” — who make contact with another civilization they call “the Hosts.” The opera, which also includes a train scene and a feast tableau, splinters in order to follow diverging perspectives.
In an email, Sharon wrote that he decided on this multiple perspective approach for The Industry, because he has been “wanting to expand how opera is created, experienced, and produced. This means not only changing what story is being told, but who is telling the story. I think when you can bring in new voices and let them tell stories that resonate for them, you’re not only enriching the field, but you’re enriching the world.”
For Chacon, a composer, performer, and installation artist from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation, who makes his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico — and who hadn’t worked with Sharon before — the process proved intriguing. “Yuval invited me to see his  production of War of the Worlds and he pitched this idea to somehow tell the story of America’s history.
“He recognized there were a lot of myths in the founding of this country and [the subsequent] whitewashing. Young people have learned erroneous, mythological facts about the founding — events like Thanksgiving, [the Shoshone Indian guide and interpreter] Sacajawea and Lewis and Clark — and Yuval had wanted to write an opera about this but thought it might be too much for one composer to take on.”
Chacon explained that Sharon also wanted ongoing narratives and parallel stories that might not be possible to experience in only one viewing. “Once we developed the story and who would take on what segments, Du Yun and I were able to invert each other’s musical ideas in each of these scenes that we’re rewriting.
“After the audience sees the opening scene,” Chacon continued, “it splits into separate scenes and the audience goes back to these same locations and watches the scene again. I’m writing the whitewashed version of Du Yun’s scene and she’s writing mine. There were lots of opportunities for humor and for using musical references, not only to imply that you’re watching the scene over again, but that the metaphorical content of history is repeating itself.”
Chacon, a CalArts graduate and United States Artists fellow who has collaborated with Arizona Opera and the Kronos Quartet and was a member of the American Indian art collective Postcommodity, has made numerous works across a variety of mediums. One such work was the collective’s Repellent Fence (2015), a two-mile installation that bisected the U.S.-Mexican Border that employed “scare-eye” balloons.
Often referred to as a sound artist who composes experimental noise music and explores and transforms analog sounds into strikingly eerie scores through digitization and feedback loops of handmade instruments, Chacon admits that the music he wrote for Sweet Land is some of his most tonal. “What’s been interesting to me [in] thinking about education — what you’re forced to learn as you grow into an artist or a person — I thought, or maybe I was told that I had to study music history, the musical canon, and had to learn theory and counterpoint — how to put dots on paper.
“Later,” Chacon recounted, “I realized that’s not necessary to be an artist, composer, or sound artist. What this did give me — not to say that I didn’t have an appreciation — but this has been an opportunity for me to reference all I’ve learned, to make music in the style that the pilgrims might have listened to.”
The notion of sound, in whatever form, unquestionably occupies Chacon’s oeuvre, with the composer explaining that that has been his motivation lately. “There’s an artifact of the gestures that I want the performers to do. If that gesture produces a sound or an artifact of a sound, then that’s desirable instead of forcing an emotional or connected sound to drama. The challenge for me is to combine the two things in some kind of counterpoint — that I achieve the gesture but it’s going to propel the narrative or the emotion.
“I like that it might not, as well,” he added. “That it might have nothing to do with the narrative, that can get interesting, not making a soundtrack to something. I wasn’t trying to do that with any of this — to fit the words to music, to make physical gestures for the musicians that’s going to produce sounds, then mediating all of that.”
Shanghai-born, New York-based Du Yun said that working with Sharon and the others has been “a great process [with] the message of a diverse cast and voices put into this work [not being] just one perspective. It’s our wish to demystify that and because of our cultural backgrounds it was easy to shatter that.”
Having won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for her opera, Angel’s Bone, an allegory of human trafficking that has its West Coast premiere May 1 through May 3 as part of L.A. Opera’s Off Grand series and that The New York Times hailed as an “appallingly good work,” Du pointed out that Sweet Land is not a story of what happened to whom, but more about what the creators wanted to address.
“We actually came up with the story together [and it’s] what we want to re-tell. Then we’d get together again and work on the form and structure. Yuval’s work has a lot to do with multiviews and not proscenium operas, and because I work quite a bit with people who do put work in locations other than the concert hall, it’s a unique way of dealing with American identity.”
The title, Sweet Land, might seem ironic to some, but not to Du Yun. “We all have our own idea of Americanness and the industry that comes with it — sugar cane, which compounds that kind of sweetness — but the opera is not about that at all. We don’t say it’s the American dream; we don’t want to call it the great land. But to me, it’s never ironic. Maybe it’s the immigration part of me, but it’s more about what you’re seeing and what you’re being told is not true. It doesn’t match. That’s the [strongest] point: it’s horror, but it’s not a horror story.”
Co-director Cannupa Hanska Luger, a multidisciplinary artist raised on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota and who now lives in New Mexico, admitted that he’d never worked in opera before and had only been to a handful of performances. “The fact that I don’t have an opera background is my strength because I’m not hindered by its format. I’m not thinking, ‘How is this possible?’ I have no idea, so I can direct fresh. For me [a visual artist], I recognize all the humans, players and participants [as] material to create a visual image and the nice thing is I’m not doing it alone.”
Luger, whose work addresses environmental matters and issues of violence against indigenous populations, especially those identifying as female, queer or transgender, said that he hopes that Sweet Land will resonate with audiences, despite there being no conclusion. “That’s one of the strange things: there’s no reason to applaud. I imagine it will happen, but I don’t know why. It seems weird to applaud what we’re presenting, because the audience is left with a responsibility.
“I don’t want anybody to go home with a gold star and turn it into an anecdote at the Highland Park Brewery across the street. Or if they do, I hope somebody sitting in the booth next to them has a contradictory experience. There’s no real resolution. If it is successful in any sort of way, that desire to clap would be crushed. I don’t know what you’d be clapping for. I understand why people would, but I’m not expecting it. I would be more pleased if there was a silence at the end and people were wrapped in contemplation.
“The only way I imagine us being able to understand other peoples’ experiences is through time and complexity,” added Luger. “The content opens up possibilities and what I’m encouraged to do is create more complexity rather than turning it into a binary one versus the other. We have relegated ourselves to trusting the icon, the stereotype, and hopefully this makes people consider the amount of effort that goes into understanding our present, our past as part of a continuum — that it’s not over.
“And the nonlinear aspect of the work incorporates the idea of it being open-ended, continuous,” said the artist. “As people live the opera, hopefully they see that the opera is still going on — [it’s] the opera of our lives.”
Sharon agreed: “If there was a straightforward message, there would certainly be simpler and more direct ways to communicate it than by creating this enormous operatic experience. Opera’s power lies in its complexity and its ability to create complication, to help us experience complex visions of the world. It’s something we need more and more desperately and why I think opera has an underestimated political power. Reducibility, along with didacticism, has been something all of us have actively resisted in this process.”
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.