‘Sweet Land’ Review: A Journey Through History

by Heidi Waleson for The Wall Street Journal
March 10, 2020

A scene from ‘Sweet Land.’ | PHOTO: CASEY KRINGLEN FOR THE INDUSTRY

With “Hopscotch” in 2015, The Industry, Los Angeles’s audacious indie opera company, made art that grew out of the environment that Angelenos inhabit every day. It has done so again with the mesmerizing “Sweet Land,” this time conjuring the troubled, blood-soaked history of colonialism from a small patch of land, called, fittingly, Los Angeles State Historic Park, just north of Chinatown. As the show unfolds in the moonlit park, inside and outside of several open-air, temporary wooden structures, one feels the presence of ghosts.

“Sweet Land” is a feat of collaboration (two composers, two librettists and two directors, with one of each having Native American heritage) and logistics. The audience gathers on bleachers in one theater to see the first contact of the Hosts—the indigenous people—with the Arrivals, who come by ship, singing a chorale about the Crucifixion (the words “blood” and “lamb” are themes throughout the show), which happens behind a scrim. The Hosts and Arrivals then divide, as does the audience, to follow one of two tracks, “Feast” and “Train,” which play simultaneously in separate, round structures reached by arcaded walkways; each structure has a small orchestra in situ.

“Feast” is basically Thanksgiving; “Train” is Manifest Destiny and the opening of the West, but these familiar stories are told in the overlapping voices of the invaders and the overrun. The first half of each track is the struggle between the two; the second depicts how the whitewashed story of that struggle became received history. In between halves, the audiences exit their theaters and hear the voices of the spirits of the land (“The Crossroads”).

A scene from ‘Sweet Land’ | PHOTO: CASEY KRINGLEN FOR THE INDUSTRY

I saw the two tracks in successive performances on March 7. “Train” is violent and visceral. Even the set is violent—the wooden panels that make up the round theater slide abruptly on tracks, alternately revealing and concealing the performers in niches behind the audience.

“Train 1” (music by Raven Chacon, libretto by Douglas Kearney) is driven by the percussion hammer strokes of the railway builders and the blood-infused religious rhetoric of the Preacher (the powerhouse baritone Richard Hodges), urging the Captain of the Arrivals (Jon Lee Keenan) to claim the land for God. Rifle (Joanna Ceja) slaughters every animal in sight while Bow (Lindsay Patterson Abdou) tries to stop her; Scribe (Peabody Southwell) writes down the lore of Drum (Nandani Sinha). The intensity heightens as these frantic lessons are subsumed into the rhythmic work song of the railroad builders and reaches its climax when the Captain murders the Guide (Jehnean Washington).

In “Train 2” (music by Du Yun, libretto by Aja Couchois Duncan), we are in the modern era. The percussive drive continues, but the music has taken on a jazz tinge. The Preacher is now a land- selling huckster, an automaton with wavering pitch, hawking lots to a bevy of buyers; Bow picks

mournfully through a pile of bones and chants “Them dead, dead bones” over aleatoric orchestral noise and wails of naked pain from Host spirits.

A scene from ‘Sweet Land.’ | PHOTO: CASEY KRINGLEN FOR THE INDUSTRY

“Feast” is softer and creepier; more narrative and ritualistic. For “Feast 1” (by Ms. Du and Ms. Duncan), the round theater has banquet tables set with candles, but the glow of welcome is quickly shattered by Jimmy Gin (the countertenor Scott Belluz, singing in a parody of baroque style, with harpsichord accompaniment) who demands Makwa (Kelci Hahn) as his wife. The Hosts drive the Arrivals out, but their victory is short-lived; in modern-day “Feast 2” (by Mr. Chacon and Mr. Kearney), the tables are set with chafing dishes and Makwa has become a kind of centerpiece, surrounded by a menacing chorus of bridal instructors (“You’ll say, ‘I do’”). Her poignant lament of loss is the flip side of her defiance in “Feast 1.”

Gluing it all together are the Coyotes—Carmina Escobar (“Train”) and Micaela Tobin (“Feast”) —who guide the audience along the routes while mockingly observing and commenting on the performance. In the outdoor “Crossroads” section (music by Mr. Chacon), their astonishing, ululating vocalizations become the main event, the voice of the land, along with the cries of a malignant spirit, Wiindigo (Sharon Chohi Kim), who concludes the section with a hoarse, juddering command, “Go back to where you came from.” Coyotes, of course, also guide those entering the country illegally, and Wiindigo’s injunction has multiple layers: The audience is being sent back to its theaters but is also labeled an invader.

Her words resonate again in the evening’s chilling coda, “Echoes & Expulsions” (written by all four composers and librettists). The audience reassembles in the bleacher theater. The scrim behind which the Hosts and the Arrivals met is gone, revealing a wasteland behind a chain-link fence, where a teenager picks through junk, including an anchor. Now, disembodied voices sing new, piercing stories of the persecuted—Los Angeles’s Chinatown massacre of 1871; an enslaved child thrown out with the trash. A Latina forcibly sterilized in a hospital (Joanna Ceja) gets the last word: “But we’re in the Sweet Land. And who gets to make babies is who gets to make citizens. I understand now. I understand.” The Coyotes, perched on piles of rubble, yip and wail.

Yuval Sharon (also The Industry’s founder and artistic director) and Cannupa Hanska Luger did the incisive directing; conductors Marc Lowenstein and Jenny Wong presided, respectively, over “Train” and “Feast.” Mr. Luger also designed the remarkable costumes, which alluded to historical influences but created something entirely new. The Coyotes and Wiindigo got the most eye-catching garb—the former in jumbles of knitwear, fringe, armor, fur, bones and more; the latter a shaggy white Abominable Snowman, with a terrifying mask of a gaping maw on the back of her head. The garments told their own stories: The Preacher, in a snappy suit, wore chains that recalled his origins as a Captive, and in both Part 2s, the ensemble members wore jumpsuits and had bags over their heads, suggesting their deliberate blindness.

Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, the production and lighting designer, melded the structures with the land and accentuated atmosphere inside and out, down to details like the cornhusks hanging from the walkway that led to “Feast.” Hana S. Kim created the projections, which included a red opera-house curtain decorated with petroglyphs at the beginning and leaping silhouettes of horses and buffalo in “The Crossroads.” In the coda, the projections of the text played on a variety of surfaces, including a bridge and a billboard; one last, lonely buffalo appeared on the bridge at the end. Tonantzin Carmelo was the choreographer; Jody Elff’s sound design made the haunting voices at the end echo in memory.

It’s fashionable today for writers of new operas to tackle contemporary issues, hoping to demonstrate the art form’s relevance and value. “Sweet Land” takes that idea many steps further: It gives its subject a complexity and an impact that could be experienced in no other

way. Opera is, ideally, an indivisible meld of music and text; here, with even more creators than usual, and the double story, imagined and embellished, it gets a new, multilayered richness. The site-specificity is essential, not a gimmick. With commuter trains passing just a few feet away, and the lights of Los Angeles in the distance, you can sense all those bones and all that blood as the Coyotes wail under the moon. Neither replicable nor recordable, “Sweet Land” is not an artifact. You had to be there.

—Ms. Waleson writes on opera for the Journal and is the author of “Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America” (Metropolitan).

Myth-busting Opera “Sweet Land” Lives on Long After Final Curtain