Duration: Feast Track 60 mins | Train Track 62 mins | Total: 2 hours 2 mins
About the Work
The Arrivals wash up on the shore. They make contact with another civilization they call “the Hosts.” And from there, the story splinters, following diverging perspectives. Starting as a procession through the LA State Historic Park, Sweet Land becomes an opera that erases itself.
Despite stellar reviews and sold-out performances in our first two weeks, Sweet Land was forced to shut down two weeks ahead of schedule to stop the spread of COVID-19. With cameras as the only audience, the ensemble of Sweet Land came together for one final impassioned performance to preserve a new work the Los Angeles Times called “opera as astonishment.” A modest on-demand fee will help The Industry survive this emergency, by making up lost box office income and allowing us to fully pay the artists and crew. Both “Feast” and “Train” will be available Sunday, March 29 at 12:00pm.
Like all of The Industry’s previous works, Sweet Land is the result of a highly collaborative and multi-perspectival approach. Composer Du Yun is a Chinese immigrant whose recent work originates from what she states “is a lack of understanding and empathy around immigration”. Her last major opera, Angel’s Bone won a Pulitzer Prize for music and explores the psychology behind human trafficking. Composer Raven Chacon, United States Artists fellow and winner of the Creative Capital Award, is a composer, performer and installation artist from Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation. Librettist Douglas Kearney is a poet whose “polyphonic diction pulls history apart, recombining it to reveal an alternative less whitewashed by enfranchised power” (BOMB Magazine). Librettist Aja Couchois Duncan is a mixed-race Ojibwe writer who works to advance equity and social justice. Cannupa Hanksa Luger is a multidisciplinary artist who interweaves performance and political action to communicate stories about 21st-century Indigeneity. He co-directs Sweet Land with Yuval Sharon, the Founder and Artistic Director of The Industry and a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.
Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx (Associate Director); Jody Elff (Sound Design); Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (Lighting Designer and Production Designer); Hana S. Kim (Projection Designer); Alex Schweder (Projection Adviser); Tanya Orellana (Scenic Designer); Carlo Maghirang (Scenic Designer); E.B. Brooks (Costume Designer); Tonantzin Carmelo Choreographer)
First Performance: February 29, 2020 at Los Angeles State Historic Park, Los Angeles, CA
Sweet Land is supported in part by generous grants from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, LA County Arts Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and the Pasadena Arts Alliance. The Commissioning of Du Yun for Sweet Land received funding from OPERA America’s Grants for Female Composers program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. The music of Sweet Land is commissioned by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting.
A special thank you to community hosts the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission.
“SWEET LAND made such a huge impression that it has haunted me ever since. I can’t think of anything more zeitgeisty than this immersive environmental work with enraptured scores by Du Yun and Raven Chacon, a phenomenal staging and sensation-inducing performance that allows us to look at our past, the land on which we stand, who we are and what we must mean to one another anew.” — Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times
“The encroaching pandemic hung over “Sweet Land,” an opera performed in a Los Angeles park, but its tales of cultural violence would have been a gut punch under any circumstances.” — Alex Ross, The New Yorker
“A bewildering and ghostly new opera. SWEET LAND is a parable of, and fantasia on, Manifest Destiny, performed outdoors at a richly suggestive site. The ending is a miniature masterpiece.” — Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times
“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 the idea many steps further: it gives its subject a complexity and an impact that could be experienced in no other way… Neither replicable nor recordable, “Sweet Land” is not an artifact. You had to be there.” — Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal
“An astonishing presentation that unfolds like a chillingly beautiful fever dream across several unusual settings spread out in Chinatown’s L.A. State Historic Park. SWEET LAND lingers in the memory with its utterly entrancing music.” — Falling James, LA Weekly
Review: ‘Sweet Land’ astonishes. Opera in an L.A. park examines what it means to be American
“Sweet Land,” the new, tenaciously uncategorizable opera by Yuval Sharon’s doggedly unorthodox opera company, the Industry, is not sweet. The land on which it is performed, Los Angeles State Historic Park north of downtown, is no longer sweet.
The experience of attending “Sweet Land”: not sweet. Dress warmly. You’ll be outdoors 90 minutes in early evening and at night, and the park gets a lot colder than you might expect. It might even rain, and that’s your tough luck, because you’ll still have to go through with this.
Negotiating the pop-up venues for “Sweet Land” can get a little tricky. There are steps to trip on in the dark. It is easy to scrape yourself on raw lumber. There are no amenities, no opera house coddling. No wine bar, chocolate, coffee or much of anything.
Prepare for all of that, and then prepare for subject matter that is anything but sweet. Prepare for the world we live in, the place we inhabit and the progress we hope for it to lose a significant amount of its sugar content. If you love Thanksgiving, prepare to no longer know what that even means.
“Sweet Land” is opera as astonishment. To say that Sharon has changed the operatic landscape by changing the physical landscape of opera is glibly obvious. That is what he has done but in ways — musically, visually, theatrically, environmentally, historically — that are not glib and far from obvious.
So, what is “Sweet Land”? It’s too early to say, which is one of its many remarkable and remarkably confusing glories.
It follows directly with what Sharon, as an inveterate disrupter, has been up to from the start with the Industry. He may be invited to the toniest opera houses in Berlin, Vienna and Bayreuth, but at home in L.A. he’s made opera in a warehouse, Union Station and, famously with “Hopscotch,” in limousines and outdoor sites around central L.A. He’s tended toward outsider composers, outsider poets, outsider visual artists as well.
He is not driven by narrative alone but by image and idea and place and purpose and sound and soul and the latest ideas in critical theory and avant-garde art and music, with some popular culture thrown in. He is also driven by making opera the art form of the impossible, getting city fathers and mothers to condone violations of regulations. He has won over local arts patrons who are indispensable in funding the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Long Beach Opera and various new music ventures around town. Sharon’s winning support for “Sweet Land” after the inchoate, disaster-seeming first workshop was persuasive power of genius (yes, he has MacArthur).
“Sweet Land” is America before and after colonization. Kind of. There is the native population, the Host community. There are the Arrivals. But there is also the land, its Nature and mystical spirit. The Hosts recognize that spirit, but even they have an uneasy relationship with it. The Arrivals are, of course, despoilers.
An opera of pairs, “Sweet Land” has two composers. Du Yun, who arrived in the U.S. from China and has quickly moved up the avant-garde ranks. In the next months, L.A. Opera will mount her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angel’s Bone,” and she will be featured with a new work in an L.A. Phil Green Umbrella concert. Raven Chacon is a Native American artist with CalArts composition credentials and a background in installation, performance and film. The composers, while highly individual and attuned to each’s respective cultures, have a sophisticated sense of the abstract sonic potential of music. Both are superb sound artists.
There are two librettists. The African American poet Douglas Kearney collaborates with Chacon. The part-Ojibwe poet Aja Couchois Duncan wrote the texts for Du Yun. There are two directors — Cannupa Hanska Luger and Sharon — and two scenic designers, Tanya Orellana and Carlo Maghirang. It is seldom possible to keep track of any of this.
There are even two operas with common points. The audience meets in a central space of bleachers. (The pop-up “Sweet Land” set is made of wood, gorgeously raw and elegant and tactile, splinters included.) A transparent sheet serves as curtain on which there are projections. We’re welcomed by singing Coyotes (Carmina Escobar and Micaela Tobin), who look part punk and part wild beast and who are only partly welcoming (while also partly crazily threatening). All the eye-popping costumes are by E.B. Brooks and Luger. The crucial choreographer is Tonantzin Carmelo.
Hosts welcome Arrivals as guests. Drumming and eerie vocal writing come from both composers. Helicopters occasionally fly over the park and drown everything out, a threat to art. Metro trains occasionally whiz by.
One part of the audience heads off to the “Feast,” the other to the “Train.” Everyone then meets in the middle “Crossroads,” an open space overlooking the downtown skyline where the Coyotes cavort and projections appear on water from sprinklers — pure magic.
Audience members return to “Feast” or “Train” to find everything changed. As they return to the bleachers for a communal finale, the land looks different, sullied. Songs of sorrow are what we hear. The texts appear as spectacular projections, near and far, including on a bridge and on a billboard (how did Sharon get away with that?). The texts remind us of America’s violent past of slavery and persecution. When a Metro train comes by again, it isn’t so innocent. Nothing is innocent.
“Feast” and “Train” are both vehicles for uncertainty. Each takes place in a wondrously carpentered circular space, open to the sky.
For “Feast” we sit at tables facing glum, Puritan-seeming Arrivals. The Hosts are flamboyant and joyous. Du Yun is the composer of unearthly ceremonial music, and Jenny Wong conducts a small ensemble. The Coyotes roam. Before long, the Arrivals abuse their Hosts, telling them their way of life must end. Jimmy Gin (Scott Belluz) forces Makwa (Kelci Hahn) to be his bride.
After the communal meeting at the Crossroads, we return to the “Feast” theater to find the physical and metaphorical tables have turned. Makwa, and the Hosts, are victims. Here, Chacon delivers a musically violent turn.
The part of the audience ushered to “Train,” meanwhile, sit on swivel chairs around a central orchestral ensemble conducted by Marc Lowenstein. Chacon provides the propulsive music. Preacher (Richard Hodges) provides the soundtrack for Manifest Destiny. The Arrivals push for modern technology; the Hosts attempt to retain their own.
After gathering at the crossroads, the “Train” audience returns to see the country on the way to “progress.” The Arrivals boast that they have taken everything they want, everything they need. Du Yun’s score is again ceremonial, but now sounding more like a sad, angry requiem.
But it’s not that simple. Too many words haunt with double meanings. The composers employ the most advanced techniques of modern music and technology to reach back to the sonic essence of what we’ve lost. The visuals are dazzling as primitive art and modern art. Everything happens under our noses, and the large cast is, to a singer and dancer, exceptional. So much happens that we forget.
Once back to “Feast” or “Train,” you simply have to no opportunity to remember what was because you are bombarded by what is. Past and present, mythic land and “Sweet Land” and the land which we occupy become one and confused.
Who are we, the public? Are we now the Hosts, and are new immigrants the Arrivals, thus the threat to our way of life? Or are we still the Arrivals, and are immigrants the original Hosts returning to take back a sweet land? Or is it something very different, where we’re all in this together as progress threatens us all alike, and no one knows what to do?
Can this ritual opera open our eyes and ears and spirits? You can attend “Sweet Land” at dusk or in the dark. You’re not recommended to see both versions on the same day. You need time to think and to absorb. With every art form at his disposal, Sharon has made that — and opera! — essential.
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.”
Review: ‘Sweet Land’ triumphantly moves online. It’s the best ticket in opera right now
“Sweet Land,” the widely celebrated opera mounted by the Industry during the last weekend of February and the first weekend of March at Los Angeles State Historic Park, was performance of place and of the moment. The setting was the work. You had to be there.
The opera was designed as immersive art, and you needed to feel it physically. The experience was meant to be personal. Another aspect of its essence was disappearance. Here was fragility amplified. After two additional weekends of performances, all traces of the sets were meant to vanish into thin air.
Those final weekends were wiped out by the pandemic. The park closed. Yet an operatic butterfly with a lifespan of a month lives. It has mutated into a video opera. Cast and crew returned for a shoot on March 15, and on Sunday the video was released for on-demand steaming via Vimeo.
What Yuval Sharon, the founder and artistic director of the Industry and the mastermind of “Sweet Land,” has done is make a video that is a very different experience from attending in person. If you saw the park staging, originally co-directed by Sharon and Cannupa Hanska Luger, this shows you what you missed. If you weren’t, this shows you what you are no longer missing.
An opera of place has become an opera of stay in place. An opera of physical immersion has become an opera of aural immersion. (I recommend listening with headphones.) An opera that was meant to be a very strong communal experience has become, as our quarantined lives have, utterly personal. An opera about the spirit of the land has become, itself, a spirit in the digital ether rather a physical presence.
Most of all, an opera about disappearance has refused to disappear.
When performed live, there were two versions of “Sweet Land,” with common points. The audience sat in bleachers for the opening spectacle of immigrant Arrivals coming to Sweet Land, greeted and fed by native Hosts attempting to attune the newcomers to the spiritual needs of nature.
Then half of the audience saw “Feast,” in which the Arrivals turn on their hosts as the countertenor outlaw Jimmy Gin violently takes the beautiful Makwa against her will. The other half saw “Train,” in which the Hosts attempt to guide the Arrivals in the ways of the land, only to have that used against them as their captors propulsively ravish the Earth. At the end, the audiences from both parts returned to the bleaches for a bleak look at that ravishment.
There were hundreds of ways of making the experience of “Sweet Land” entrancing. Los Angeles was seen physically from a new angle. There were dazzling visuals, particularly a central scene with mischievously mystical creatures in front of magically mysterious projections on mists of water from sprinklers. Only audience members capable of muscling their way to the front of the crowd could see more than the bits everyone else could catch by craning heads.
During other parts of the performance you were hit by stimuli from so many sides you never quite knew what was what. With so much going on, the sheer barrage on the senses meant that everybody had a different experience. That was the point. You had to let it sink in. Trying to see each 90-minute part, “Feast” and “Train,” on the same night was a bad idea. This was an opera of commitment. Through it all, the music was but one part.
Watching and listening to the video version, you can’t help but notice the music and libretto taking the central place they occupied all along, even if that required more than one sitting to comprehend. “Sweet Land” was shot and recorded on a single evening and edited in a mere two weeks, but the sound and editing are so superb that, by itself, the soundscape creates the landscape.
There was never any question that the performances, both the instrumental ensembles for each part and the arresting singers, were terrific. But experiencing all of that close-up shows just how terrific.
Then there is the score by the composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun. Here is how you can tell this is real opera — its bones, blood, sinew, skin and consciousness all in the music. The experience that seemed more than complete outside was that only because all along it was the score that gave everything else meaning.
The music is complex. Chacon draws on his Native American roots, Du on her Chinese émigré ones. Both composers are highly adept in avant-garde instrumental and vocal techniques. Both have a sophisticated understanding of electronics. Repeated listening reveal scores with layers upon layers of coexisting elements that include a host of musical traditions, be they from Baroque opera or various kinds of spiritual ceremonies.
However different the two composers’ personalities, they together unveil the unexpected, unique American melting pot of now. The video — which is beautifully shot, by the way — is also a better way to appreciate the poetic texts by the librettist Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney. For them, cultural anger and arresting imagery also potently meld.
“Feast” and “Train” have been edited down to around an hour each. That mystical central section, clearly not meant for the video screen, is now a brief two minutes of effective collage. The final scene, reduced to just a small boy on ravished land, has an emotional power all its own.
The Industry, for which the loss of revenue from the cancellation of “Sweet Land” poses an existential threat, has hoped to make something back by pricing “Sweet Land” at $14.99. (To watch, go to theindustryla.org.) It is the single best deal in all of opera right now, and that is taking into account the sudden riches of free opera streams from the world’s most illustrious companies.
Review: An Opera Erases and Rewrites the American Myth
“Sweet Land” is a parable of, and fantasia on, Manifest Destiny, performed outdoors at a richly suggestive site.
LOS ANGELES — A light-rail train barrels along the curving west edge of Los Angeles State Historic Park, a spit of land here just north of Chinatown. It roars by so close that it feels like the audience watching “Sweet Land,” the bewildering, ghostly new opera being put on in the park, could reach out and nearly touch it.
The train becomes almost a character in the opera. You feel a rush of anxiety and thrill every time the tracks start whistling. And the cacophony of each brief passing both overwhelms and underlines the “real” performance.
As it kept whooshing past last weekend, I started to think about who was inside and who was driving. Where was it coming from? Where was it going?
These are also the questions raised by “Sweet Land,” a parable of, and fantasia on, Manifest Destiny and the colonization of America, that “sweet land of liberty.” The work captures — with a poetry that’s stern yet colorful, oblique yet blunt — the uneasiness of our past and future as a nation defined by brutal oppression and pervasive cultural mixing, and by a history that’s been painfully selective about what it remembers.An Opera About Colonialism Shows How History WarpsFeb. 28, 2020
“Sweet Land” is the latest endeavor of the Industry, the Los Angeles company founded by the director Yuval Sharon and dedicated to an alternative vision of opera. Its productions sprawl well clear of traditional theaters. “Invisible Cities” (2013) was heard over headphones in Union Station, performed by singers indistinguishable from ordinary travelers. “Hopscotch” (2015) put musicians and audience members into 24 cars driving around downtown.
Different people had vastly divergent experiences of these pieces, which asked how much of any performance is defined by the perspective from which it’s consumed. And by the environment in which it takes place: next to that barreling Gold Line train, when it comes to “Sweet Land,” in a park recently built on land that was once acorn fields, a Tongva settlement and a rail yard, near which Chinese men and boys were killed in a 19th-century lynching.
It’s a richly suggestive site for a reflection on the winning of the West, a story that is really many stories, variously exposed and submerged. To tell them, or at least evoke them, “Sweet Land” has enlisted an unusually large group of central collaborators: a pair of directors (Mr. Sharon and Cannupa Hanska Luger); composers (Raven Chacon and Du Yun); and librettists (Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney).
Coming from different ethnic, racial and artistic backgrounds, they offer a sort of American utopia: a panoply of traditions that intermingle — to the point that it’s hard to tell one contribution from another — even as each retains equality and integrity.
The audience enters the park and is ushered toward a theater, one of three roughly constructed, temporary open-air structures built for the production. Through a scrim, there’s a dim view of the northern side of the park, still a construction site, and the bridge beyond over the Los Angeles River. Musicians lightly tap on metal. Individual voices — chanting, ululating, cracking, squealing, howling — gradually emerge over speakers, as does a soft, smooth choral harmony underneath.
Here, the opera’s first part, “Contact,” establishes the rough outline of the stylized, mythlike story, told with gnomic economy. A group of Arrivals, singing a blurry version of a religious hymn, comes ashore amid a blast of electronic noise and quivering flute. They are greeted as guests by the native Hosts.
The audience is separated into two tracks — “Train” and “Feast” — each of which has a dedicated in-the-round theater and a separate story. (Over a pair of performances, I was able to experience both.) “Train” is like an abstraction of missionary-driven westward expansion; an ominous drone is punctuated by ripples of percussion as the Hosts teach the Arrivals words and skills. There is building; there is a murder.
“Train” suggests the rape of a land, and “Feast,” the rape of a woman: At a Thanksgiving-like banquet, the music light and flickering, a cowboy-cocky member of the Arrivals, singing Baroque-pastiche countertenor lines, claims one of the Host women as his bride.
Both tracks come together outside in the chilly darkness for “The Crossroads,” before splitting again for “Train 2” and “Feast 2.” Time has moved forward during the interlude. The “Feast” banquet is now a catering hall, complete with chafing dishes, for the wedding of Arrival and Host, and the desperately brassy “Train 2” conjures the chaotic world of contemporary consumerism, mounting to cries of despair from both voices and orchestra. Then the audience reunites back in the “Contact” space for the final part, “Echoes and Expulsions.”
All this, in barely 80 minutes. Despite the ad hoc architecture and the D.I.Y. aesthetic — particularly the costumes, a mixture of neon knits and thrift-store finds — there’s a sense of extravagance in the marshaling of dozens of artists and so many technical challenges for something that passes so quickly.
Quickly, yet in epic style. I’ve rarely taken in a work that’s so grandiosely modest.
The vocal lines tend toward passionate extremity as the instruments seethe underneath. Our guides throughout are two figures, both called Coyote: part-human, part-animal, part-eternal beings who communicate in nearly wordless moans, hums, cackles, clicks and giggles. They take center stage in “The Crossroads” alongside the evil spirit Wiindigo.
As projections play on a mist of water, their voices rise to a guttural roar before Wiindigo chokes out the phrase “Go back to where you came from,” perhaps American racism’s most notorious line — given darkly witty dual meaning here as an instruction for the audience to return to the theaters.
The weakest part of “Sweet Land” is the first: “Contact,” much of which takes place behind that scrim, is musically and dramatically murky. Is some incoherence the point as we begin this disorienting journey? If so, it was unsatisfying; while the piece hardly gets clearer as it progresses, its enigmas grow to feel more intentional and beautiful.
But if the opening is unsteady, the ending is a miniature masterpiece. For “Echoes and Expulsions,” the scrim has been pulled aside, revealing rough country. A child plays (works?) in a ditch (grave?). Voices of the past are heard as if coming out of thin air, chanting in overlapping chorus: stories of a Pomo girl and a Greek immigrant, that 1871 Chinatown lynching and segregated medicine. The words are projected on surfaces all over the wasteland, enlivening even the bridge in the distance.
Finally, a single voice is left, singing “the sweet land” over and over. The sad, curling melody, like a memory of a hymn, bleeds into the child’s quietly forlorn cry, and Coyote, howling at the moon.
There are no curtain calls, as if the work, as it ends, has really vanished. Vanished into an uncertain future: “Sweet Land,” and the spiffy park itself, are symbols of urban renewal and also, inevitably, avatars of gentrification. You can almost hear in the music the rising rents and displacements coming nearby.
The temporary structures in which it’s being performed will be gone in a week or so. Then there will be no trace that an opera was ever put on here. Yet another event on this land, to be remembered and forgotten.
‘Sweet Land’s’ radical design uses Los Angeles to rethink the architecture of opera
It is an opera about land whose main set is, quite literally, the land that makes up Los Angeles. The soil and rocks and fragments of industrial detritus that can be found underfoot in the city, the parts not blanketed in concrete.
“Sweet Land,” the site-specific opera created by the Industry, the company founded by Yuval Sharon, is a story about those who live as part of the land and those who seek to own it. It is, in abstract ways, the story of U.S. colonization. But it could be any story in which Arrivals (as the opera labels its newcomers) land in a place and soon overtake their Hosts (longtime inhabitants).
And for this reason, the opera takes place not in a performance hall or warehouse (that great contemporary signifier of avant-garde-iness) but on the land itself: a corner of Los Angeles State Historic Park in downtown, where a trio of structures in which the opera is performed sits lightly on the soil — so lightly, in fact, that to be a spectator of “Sweet Land” is to stand amid dandelions and get your shoes covered in dust.
“It had to be in conversation with the land,” says Carlo Maghirang, a scenic designer for the opera.
“You are using the buildings only to frame what’s there,” adds Tanya Orellana, codesigner on the project. “Not having a floor was really important.”
“Sweet Land” has drawn critics’ attention for the innovative ways in which it has addressed its fraught topic: a nonlinear narrative, stripped of place and time, that reflects on the violence of colonization but also on systems of belief and resilience. The narrative takes place on a pair of parallel tracks — titled “Feast” and “Train” — and the audience sees only one of them over the course of a show.
(On Friday morning, the Industry announced that it was canceling any remaining performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the company is working on a video recording of the opera that it hopes to make available for on-demand streaming by March 20.)
In his review, Times classical music critic Mark Swed described the work as “opera as astonishment.”
Just as astonishing is the opera’s design — the sets, costumes and projections — which dispenses with the visual tropes of U.S. colonial history (pilgrim hats, feathered headdresses) in favor of elements that feel postindustrial and retro-futuristic.
“The main thing is to remove specificity,” says Cannupa Hanska Luger, who codirected the opera with Sharon.
The design also dispenses with the visual tropes of opera.
When the narrative splits, the audience also splits, migrating through wood-frame tunnels to one of two circular theaters, also fabricated from raw lumber, in which viewers are promptly immersed in the performance — be it the candle-lit banquet that greets the viewers of “Feast” or the rolling walls that serve as evocations of locomotives in “Train.” (The latter is a remarkable feat of design — like being placed in a swirling vortex.)
“You are an Arrival,” says Maghirang of the sensation the designers wanted to inspire. “You are arriving in this land. And you are part of this critique.”
“We were like, how do we do this so that we don’t let the audience off the hook — that this is the land where this happened?” says Sharon. “Los Angeles State Historic Park feels like a central character in ‘Sweet Land.’”
These design choices emerge out of the opera’s narrative but also its intense collaboration — a creative team that worked not as top-down enterprise but as a collective. Sharon teamed up with Luger, a visual artist who is based in New Mexico, to codirect. Two poets — Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney — supplied the libretto. Composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun wrote the music. Maghirang and Orellana collaborated on the set design. Luger shared costume design duties with E.B. Brooks.
“This opera is an opportunity to look at the founding of the United States from different perspectives,” says Orellana. “We were coming at it from many different angles.”
Part of that included a multitude of indigenous perspectives. Chacon is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. Duncan is part Ojibwe. Luger is an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation who grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
Luger’s vision was essential to the costume design, with its aesthetics drawn from an ongoing art project dubbed “Future Ancestral Technologies,” which imagines a futuristic indigenous regalia that isn’t specific to a single ethnicity.
“A lot of the work I’ve been doing is looking at science fiction, indigenous futurism,” he says. “One of the core ideas is that rather than manufacturing new material, how do you repurpose existing material?
“I found that used sporting equipment is built for dynamic movement and makes great infrastructure for costumes and regalia. Some of the designs to displace impact actually look like indigenous graphic design, like the shin pads — they have these plated lateral and diagonal lines and it looks a lot like indigenous beadwork.”
The Hosts wear ensembles creatively engineered out of shin guards and shoulder pads and hockey gloves. These are accented with bright, geometric arrangements of industrially milled felt, remnants that Luger scooped up from a manufacturer in Albuquerque at no cost.
“I like the subtlety of talking about a postindustrial experience,” Luger says. “How do we escape the weight of primitivism and look at some of these new materials?”
The opera takes the indigenous — often relegated to the past in U.S. history — and makes it wildly futuristic. Its design also serves as counter to the frequent pop cultural depictions of Native Americans as bellowing warriors.
“We are embedded as combatant with mascotry and all of that,” says Luger. “It reinforces us as enemy. And that savagery, it’s for sale. Disney sells it. Every sports team that is ‘honoring’ us is honoring only one perspective. You never see sports teams called things like the Aztec Astronomers.”
Much of the opera’s design was about working with what was available. The theaters were placed where land was flattest and they wouldn’t disturb any trees. The boneyard supplied a ready-made postindustrial landscape.
Hana S. Kim’s skillful projection design employed the back of a billboard to project supertitles and the North Broadway Bridge to show the silhouettes of galloping animals.
At the beginning of the opera, a scrim features projections of Tongva patterns, which soon dissolve into other forms.
“It’s a nod,” says Kim. “The beginning would be the most grounded — it’s our departure point — into something more abstract and complex.”
“Sweet Land” is placeless and timeless, but in its design it has Los Angeles in its bones.
There is the landscape. But also the sound of helicopters. The rumbling Gold Line. The wheezy exhale of braking buses. This keeps the opera “eternally fresh,” says Luger. Every day, “Those environmental cues are different.”
It also makes Los Angeles State Historic Park a central player.
The park marks the city’s cradle: the Tongva village known as Yaanga that was ultimately replaced by the Spanish municipality established by several dozen pobladores in 1781.
Hosts and arrivals.
Sharon and Luger didn’t have to construct an elaborate set to evoke the epic narratives of colonization. Los Angeles has been building it for 239 years.
Behind the scenes with Yuval Sharon’s opera company as coronavirus shuts down the show
The opera ‘Sweet Land’ was a success. Then came the coronavirus. How Yuval Sharon’s company banded together for one last show where cameras replaced the audience.
Like every show before it, this one began with a thrum of discordant strings, the singers, in costume, standing at attention, as they await their musical queues.
Unlike every other show before it, the seats are empty of spectators. For its final show, the Industry’s critically acclaimed new opera, “Sweet Land,” is being staged only for a trio of video cameras.
As the action unfolds, Derrell Acon, a bass-baritone singer dressed in red-and-white regalia in the role of Grandfather, presents a bowl of fruit to the open sky in the open-air theater in Los Angeles State Historic Park, where the opera is staged. On this evening, his deep melancholic notes sound especially mournful.
It is Sunday, in the hour before sunset, and as the cast pours its heart into what will be its final, improvised performance of “Sweet Land,” Mayor Eric Garcetti is preparing to announce the closure of bars, movie theaters and gyms and placing limitations on restaurants to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
“This is the last day we could do something like this,” says co-conductor Jenny Wong, who also plays Totaa’ar, as she steps into the set with the other performers. “Just everyone stay 6 feet apart.”
With the opera’s remaining shows canceled — “Sweet Land” had been scheduled to close on March 22 — the video will be an attempt to offer ticket holders who haven’t demanded refunds an opportunity to see the show virtually. It’s also a last chance to get the show on tape. (KCET is producing a documentary.)
“I think of it a little bit like if a house was burning, and you had the opportunity to run in and save a piece of humanity,” says Industry founder Yuval Sharon. “That’s what we’re doing.”
The ongoing pandemic has led to a raft of theatrical, performance and other cultural cancellations over the past week. L.A.’s big three performing arts organizations — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera and the Center Theatre Group — had shut down by Thursday. Almost two dozen California museums followed. This has left actors and musicians without gigs and part-time visitor services associates who staff museum galleries without shifts.
And it has left small arts organizations like the Industry teetering on the brink.
“Other organizations may have the opportunity to postpone,” says Sharon, who also served as “Sweet Land’s” co-director. “We have no such structure.”
For one, the opera’s unorthodox scenic design means that it isn’t held in a theater but in a trio of temporary, wooden structures in a state park — not the sort of venue that can be easily locked up and reopened later.
Moreover, the company itself is tiny. (The core staff consists of just three people: Sharon, executive director Elizabeth Cline and music director Marc Lowenstein. The performers all work on contract.) And the budgets are, likewise, small.
During the periods in which it is developing an opera, the Industry’s budget might hit half a million dollars a year. The years in which it stages a production, such as this one, those numbers may rise to more than $1 million — not a lot given that “Sweet Land” has a cast and crew of 105 people. (The L.A. Opera, by comparison, has an annual budget of almost $44 million.)
This is the kind of organization in which a director can be found directing — as well as operating supertitles, getting performers water and putting port-a-potties in place.
“It’s a very glamorous shoestring,” jokes Sharon.
Now that shoestring is fraying.
“We built a cash reserve for a rainy day,” says Cline. “But we don’t have a reserve for a pandemic.”
The performance cancellations meant the company lost ticket sales from a dozen performances. Grantors hit by stock market losses have emailed indicating that they may need to back out on grants because of force majeure. And the executive team has made a commitment to pay the performers for all of the performances, regardless if they were canceled. “We are an artist-driven company,” says Cline.
As of Sunday evening, the team hadn’t calculated all of the losses. But Sharon estimates that the coronavirus-related cancellations have ripped a $150,000 crater into the Industry’s modest budget.
“The cascade of effects is unreal,” says Cline.
Part of the plan for the video is to potentially help fill some of that gap. Though it will be made available to ticket holders of canceled shows for free, it will also be put online as a pay-per-view film and shared with a wider, internet audience. Sharon estimates they will get the footage edited and online by March 24. (The film will be available at stream.sweetlandopera.com. Find additional details at theindustryla.org.)
Cannupa Hanska Luger, the opera’s co-director, looks for the silver lining in this unexpected digital release.
“It’ll be a different experience, but it will have a far larger reach,” he says. “I’ve had hundreds of people who apologized that the cancellation happened but were excited to throw down and see it online. These are people who wouldn’t have been able to see it otherwise.”
For the producers of the Industry — like the rest of the world — the rate at which coronavirus caught up with them seemed to happen at whiplash speed.
When I interviewed Sharon and Luger for a story on the opera’s design on March 3, they were both easy, relaxed, preparing to announce a one-week extension of the show after positive reviews in both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. (Previously “Sweet Land” had been scheduled to run through March 15.)
By Monday, March 9, just six days later, things began to change — rapidly.
Originally, the Industry’s plan had been to film the opera on the final night of the show — March 22. But early on the morning of March 9, Sharon says they decided to move the shoot up to March 15 instead.
“We said, ‘Let’s call the film crew for this weekend, because who knows?’ ” says Sharon. “The original idea is that we were supposed to film it with an audience.”
That was when things really began to move quickly. “We were going hour by hour and trying to follow the outbreaks in Los Angeles County,” he says. “We decided to follow the guidelines of the health department in L.A. County.”
For a time, they held out hope that they might be able to proceed since the opera was held outdoors and the audience was small. (Only 200 people, compared with larger venues, such as UCLA’s Royce Hall, which seats 1,800.)
But after the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic on March 11, and Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a recommendation that events of more than 250 people be canceled, it became clear that “Sweet Land” would have to close.
Even though the opera was just under the crowd limit, Sharon said it felt “icky” to proceed. “And people were asking me, ‘Why aren’t you canceling this already?’ ”
On Thursday night, he pulled together all of the opera’s available cast and crew on a Zoom video conference — “a mega Zoom,” he dubs it — to let them know that “Sweet Land” was shutting down.
During that discussion, he raised the idea of a final performance for video.
The request was one he agonized over. “How do I possibly even ask people to come together under these circumstances?” he says. “Isn’t the right thing not to come together?”
They discussed it together as a group. “There was the risk of getting together,” he says, “And the risk of this being gone forever.”
Some cast members declined to participate. “And I completely understand their decision,” says Sharon.
The majority said yes.
On Sunday evening, they landed at Los Angeles State Historic Park for one final show.
The final performance of “Sweet Land” was a show that, in its process, couldn’t have been more surreal.
There were moments of strange normalcy: performers chatting idly about their favorite video games as they waited for a take to begin. Musicians tapping text messages into their cellphones between scenes. Women dressed as coyotes lounging in the wings. And there are moments of camaraderie and humor, of the kind shared by a cast and crew that have been rehearsing a show for weeks.
At one moment, Sharon volleys with the performers on various topics including coronavirus. Someone responds by suggesting he sell any of the production’s remaining toilet paper as a fundraiser for the Industry. Singers wearing bags on their heads all bob their heads in laughter.
But there are countless other points in which the reality of the outside world seeped through. Performers did their makeup in cars, parked just off site, so they wouldn’t have to jam together into the production tent. Members of the crew wiped down props with liberal amounts of sanitizer before each scene. Artists who hadn’t seen each other in a week or more greeted with awkward waves at a distance instead of customary hugs.
But when the director yelled “Action!,” what emerged were moments of incredible poignance.
“Sweet Land” is made up of a pair of abstracted, parallel narratives that evoke the history of U.S. colonization — a history that is not without its own pandemics — namely, the decimation of native populations from diseases imported from Europe.
“This is a story of survival,” Sharon reminds the assembled cast and crew in the moments before the shoot begins.
And when it does begin it feels as if it is with a singular purpose and determination. The musicians don’t miss a note. The choreography goes off without a hitch (even though the rain has left the exposed ground of the theater muddy). The singers attack their lyrics with fierceness and power. It’s as if the audience for this show is something greater than any one person or thing.
Micaela Tobin, an experimental voice artist who plays one of the mischievous coyote figures in the opera, says it’s an emotional farewell.
“All of my gigs have been canceled and this has been such a unique role,” she says. “To sing outside, under the moon, it doesn’t get better than that. I’m glad I get to see everyone one more time before a quarantine.”
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”).
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.
“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).
Amid the glitz and glamour of the recent Oscar festivities, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to make a rather significant announcement.
“The academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam, and the Chumash. We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion picture community lives and works.”
A few months earlier, the Academy had also awarded a lifetime achievement award to the great Native American actor, Wes Studi, who at the beginning of his acceptance speech observed, “I’d simply like to say, ‘it’s about time.’”
“It’s about time” is also the overriding theme of the remarkable operatic experience that is Sweet Land — a site-specific, multidimensional collaboration from Yuval Sharon and The Industry. Presented on the former ancestral land of Los Angeles State Historic Park, this panoramic opera experience will be performed through March 15. Then, by design, it will simply fade away.
In order to tell its complex story of cultures in conflict, Sweet Land incorporates a variety of musical vocabularies created by two composers: Native American composer and soundscape artist Raven Chacon, and Chinese immigrant Du Yun. Likewise, there are two librettists: Douglas Kearney and Aja Couchois Duncan; two orchestras (one conducted by Music Director Marc Lowenstein, the other by Jenny Wong); and two directors, Yuval Sharon (founder of The Industry) and director/costume designer, Cannupa Hanska Luger.
Enter the Land of Dreams
As evening fell, the audience gathered in the first of several constructed wooden venues to share the experience of the arrival of colonists. We were greeted by a pair of gaily clad spirit guides: Coyote (Carmina Escobar) and Wiindgo (Sharon Chohi Kim) whose costumes and makeup rejoiced in the vibrant colors of the earth. They embraced us, rubbed noses, and sang to us in a bird-like language of chirps and chants.
The entire tone of the opera changed, however, with the arrival of the newcomers, the first members of a white horde emboldened by a sense of religious superiority through “the power of the blood” and the righteous mandate of manifest destiny. They also introduced the curse of slavery upon the Sweet Land.
This first encounter is presented as a collision of musical themes composed by Chacon and Du Yun. The earth-oriented nature of native harmonies is soon overwhelmed by western harmony, pious religiosity, and the ornamentation of Baroque opera.
The “Feast” or the “Train”
At this point, the audience — which has been divided into two groups — followed one of two tracks: the “Feast” or the “Train.” But just as in The Industry’s multitrack opera, Hopscotch, the only way you can experience Sweet Land in its complete form is to attend two performances.
By the time the audience entered the elegant wooden enclosure for the Feast, night had fallen. The hall was decked in stalks of corn, sheaves of wheat, and was ablaze with candles. The natives, in full ceremonial finery (as tradition dictates), greeted and fed the newcomers. But their hospitality is soon disrupted by the arrogance of the colonists who seek to impose their God-granted superiority. They are led by the brash outlaw character of Jimmy Gin, (countertenor Scott Belluz), who, in a burst of coloratura frenzy, tells them in no uncertain terms, “Your way of life must end!”
At the same time, the other half of the audience had entered the circular pavilion of the Train — a remarkable 360-degree stage of revolving panels designed by Tanya Orellana and Carlo Maghirang. As the panels open and close they reveal the conquerors led by the Preacher (Richard Hodges). It is their destiny, he proclaims, to subdue the land and decimate its native peoples. At the center, the orchestra conducted by Lowenberg pounds out Chacon’s jackhammer score.
In full darkness the entire audience joined together to hear the lament of the spirit guides, Coyote, Wiindigo, and Totaa’ar (Jenny Wong). And as their plaintive moans filled the cold night air projections of leaping deer and antelope appeared on a softly falling veil of mist. Then each group returned for the second part of the Feast (which devolves into a cannibalistic orgy) or the Train, where the completed conquest of the “Sweet Land” is celebrated.
The final scene, “Echoes & Expulsions,” reunited the audience back where it all began. But now the once-verdant landscape has become a desert of rubble where the desolate spirit guides roam among the ruins as their words of lament are projected on the old bridge that spans the Los Angeles River.
As it was with Hopscotch, any attempt to convey the overall impact of Sweet Land in words is doomed to failure, since it is by design a totally immersive experience of sight and sound. Once again Yuval Sharon and The Industry have expanded the borders of what an opera can be and told a story that is in desperate need of telling.
Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).
THE INDUSTRY UN-MANIFESTS DESTINY IN THE BEAUTIFULLY STRANGE SWEET LAND
The story of how the West was won is so shocking, violent and sad that it defies dramatic credibility. The conquest of America and the attempted destruction of so many disparate indigenous cultures remains this nation’s original sin, and involves a seemingly endless litany of heartbreaks, betrayals, broken promises and treaties, slavery, poverty, rape, suicide and murder that also extends to the non-white immigrants who came here, both willingly and forced.
To fully confront the systemic horrors of such a prolonged and ongoing genocide — spanning centuries — of Native and other people by European invaders requires abandoning almost everything you might have learned in U.S. history classes and recognizing, like Alice in Wonderland, that down is up and everything is backward in this country.
The Industry’s Sweet Land confronts this tragic history boldly in an astonishing presentation that unfolds like a chillingly beautiful fever dream across several unusual settings spread out in Chinatown’s L.A. State Historic Park. Enigmatically described as “an opera that erases itself,” the multimedia work, which received its world premiere on Saturday evening, February 29, and continues through Sunday, March 15, was created by composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun and librettists Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney and enacted by a virtual all-star cast of new-music adventurists.
Like this divided country, Sweet Land splits off in two directions, giving audience members the choice of following one of two different storylines and processions that wend their way through the park in the gloaming before coming together again at the end. The piece is so ambitious that it requires two directors, Native artist Cannupa Hanska Luger (who also designed the costumes) and The Industry’s artistic director, Yuval Sharon; a cast of 18 vocalists and actors; two small vocal ensembles; and two dozen orchestra musicians.
As the audience files in for the Saturday preview and gets seated in wooden bleachers overlooking a vacant lot on the northeastern edge of the park, percussionists Corey Fogel and Derek Tywoniuk stir up a low, jangling din of metallic sounds in front of a large screen made out of a semi-sheer white sheet. Fogel walks back and forth, scraping little wrenches against a metal bar to create a bell-like blur of noise; later, he suspends a chain of wrenches from his mouth and moves his head back and forth to make them clink together. More ambient percussion occurs when trains from the Metro Rail Gold Line go by occasionally on tracks just past the park’s fence.
Vocalist Carmina Escobar (looking garishly wild in a hybrid costume of furs, kneepads, robotic gloves and a kind of exoskeleton) and soprano Micaela Tobin (wrapped up in colorful Native blankets, a canine-shaped glove and a black Misfits T-shirt) emerge from the darkness and begin prowling around while occasionally launching triumphant, feral coyote cries and boasts. An undulating keening of intertwined voices builds like a prayer-like incantation as the silhouettes of other characters of the community walk joyously back and forth on the other side of the screen.
But the feeling of harmony changes along with the music when a group of European settler-refugees known as the Arrivals marches in from the opposite direction, chanting more quaintly structured songs about their blood-obsessed god, their voices overlapping and then drowning out the Host community’s singing. There is a feeling of mutual curiosity as the two groups encounter each other. They intermingle and break off into two directions, leading each half of the audience to follow them on a short promenade to one of two settings: Train and Feast.
On Saturday, the Feast path led to a large, round wooden yurt-like building with an open-air ceiling framing the bare branches of a tree outside. The audience and the Arrivals assemble at benches and candlelit tables arranged in a circle as a small string section scratches together woozy, unsettling lines for conductor Jenny Wong. The Hosts feed the desperate refugees, whose mournful voices murmur together hypnotically in a section composed by Du Yun with a libretto by Duncan.
But the Arrivals turn out to be ungrateful and demanding, and the boorish Jimmy Gin (portrayed by falsetto-voiced countertenor Scott Belluz) tries to force Makwa (soprano Kelci Hahn) to be his wife, although he is eventually driven away by the Hosts. After the feast ends, the audience is taken outside to a nearby field called the Crossroads, where animated images of horses and deer are projected onto the shimmering sides of water formed by a row of sprinklers in the moonlight. The coyote singers are joined by Wiindigo (voice artist Sharon Chohi Kim), a fearsome, white-faced, wraithlike being draped in a furry, Yeti-like costume with oversize jaws and teeth sticking out of the back of her neck. Escobar’s lyrical coyote cries and Tobin’s wordless wailing (composed by Chacon and Du Yun with improvisations by the three soloists) come out as an engrossing series of gasps, shudders and laughter against an ominous electronic drone while Kim croaks scary guttural sounds.
The audience returns to the round building for a second Feast, where the white-hooded Arrivals sit at tables with empty plates while brandishing their forks and knives demandingly, as the small ensemble unspools creepy string parts bumped against restrained, fuzzy crumbles of electric guitar. Makwa is wrapped up like a cocoon in a shiny silver blanket on the center table, and, when she stands up in a daze, she finds herself being married against her will to the leering Jimmy Gin in a bizarre ceremony.
“An appetite can bite right back when the gut outgrows the spirit,” Tobin sings accusingly to the Arrivals, with lyrics written by Kearney. “Your skin reeked of drowning,” Hahn sings as Makwa recalls how needy the settlers were when they first arrived. “What happened to the land? It’s like a bone bleached by the sun.”
Gin and Makwa’s marriage symbolizes that the Arrivals have taken over the country, which they have renamed Sweet Land. The cast and audience, from both the Feast and Train storylines, walk back to the bleachers where the story began. A solitary figure named Speck (played alternately by Micah Angelo Luna and Leander Rajan) appears in the dark vacant lot beyond the park fence. At first, it’s not clear if the person is digging a grave, building an altar or making camp for the night.
Unseen soloists (singing from a nearby location) lament about how Sweet Land was built on the bones of innocent people, and horrifying stories about the deaths of Chinese railroad workers and abuse against African-Americans mingle with accounts of Native women being sterilized in white hospitals. Meanwhile, a choir intones warm vocal accents from under the bleachers. Supertitles with these memories suddenly appear on the front of a billboard across the train tracks and, even more stunningly a few minutes later, played out against the long side of the North Spring Street Viaduct, the imposing bridge that crosses the Los Angeles River just north of the park. (The sight must puzzle train passengers and other passersby in the area.) Seeing those heart-wrenching words projected starkly against such mundane backgrounds is as visually startling as the weave of voices — by soloists Nandani Sinha, Molly Pease and Joanna Ceja — is sonically mesmerizing.
One voice ruefully confides that survival in Sweet Land is all about “who gets to make citizens and who gets to make babies,” in the ending section, “Echoes & Expulsions,” which was composed by Chacon and Du Yun with a libretto by Duncan and Kearney. A piercing final voice cleaves the night air with a majestic and poignant final aria, punctuated by howls from the two coyote women, as the opera — and the story of America itself — winds down delicately into a powerfully moving silence.
Because Sweet Land involves two separate plots, it’s worth going a second time to catch the other storyline. At the late performance on Sunday, March 1, half the crowd took a ride on the Train track, entering another circular wooden structure with no ceiling. Guided by conductor Marc Lowenstein, the musicians in the first of the two Train scenes were ensconced inside a gazebo, and they emitted a disturbing, muted soundtrack of low strings and electric guitar. Panels inside the curving walls were pulled along a track, closing and opening again like shutters to reveal vignettes from such characters at the Preacher (baritone Richard Hodges) and his dutiful scribe (played alternately by Peabody Southwell and Molly Pease) and Rifle (Joanna Ceja) with music by Chacon and lyrics by Kearney. (If possible, try to get a seat in one of the swivel chairs up front, which makes it easier to quickly spin around as vocalists suddenly appear from behind panels at different places within the circular walls.)
Regardless of which track is chosen, Sweet Land lingers in the memory with its utterly entrancing music and inventive visual presentation. In relating such a bitter history of this country, the composers and librettists could have indulged in melodramatic sentimentality or used generic musical tropes. Instead, they experimented with unusual sounds and melodies to unlock the dark secrets still lurking in America’s collective attic.
The Industry 2020 Review: Sweet Land
A Mystifying Work That Asserts a Sense of Place While Challenging Notion of Opera
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.
Sweet Land: A site-specific opera in downtown LA streams online
April 17, 2020 by Jane Rosenberg for Seen and Heard International
While traditional opera houses struggle to attract younger audiences, Yuval Sharon, the founding artistic director of The Industry, has solved that problem. He has delved into site-specific opera with its obvious attractions for new audiences as well as longtime opera fans. Opera in cars, Hopscotch; opera at Union Station in Los Angeles, Invisible Cities; opera on the streets of downtown LA, War of the Worlds: these are among the productions that have made the reputation of this MacArthur fellow and artist-in-residence at the LA Philharmonic. As for in-house opera, there was the recent staging of Meredith Monk’s Atlas at Disney Hall, Sharon’s production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic in Germany and Seville and John Cage’s Songbooks in San Francisco and New York.
The live performance of the Industry’s newest offering, Sweet Land, opened on 29 February at Los Angeles State Historic Park, a scrappy parcel in Chinatown running between Spring Street and the tracks of the Metro Gold Line. Reviews were ecstatic, and I can understand why. Poetic texts by librettists Douglas Kearney and Aja Couchois Duncan that depict the harsh realities of indigenous peoples colonized by white oppressors are accompanied by an otherworldly soundscape of chanting, ululations, snippets of hymns, blasts of percussion, shuddering strings and lyrical woodwinds by composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun.
I missed the live performances but saw the production online. Two weeks before the end of the run, the company was forced to cancel because of the quarantine. Fortunately for audiences worldwide, Sweet Land has a second life and can be streamed at stream.sweetlandopera.com. The artists came together on 15 March for one last performance, and the result is a cinematic tour-de-force.
By all accounts, the physical production was meant to be an immersive experience for the audience. Fortunately, some of that comes through in the video version via a trifecta of marvelous camera work, extraordinary lighting and imaginative editing. So successful is the end product that it brought me back to the immersive theatre of Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados seen at La MaMa in the 1970s in New York’s East Village – in particular the groundbreaking 1974 production of Euripides’s Trojan Women. It influenced generations of directors, of which Sharon is surely an heir. A visionary artist, Elizabeth Swados developed a rhythmic collage of ancient languages for the score, and her music can be seen as a precursor to Yun and Chacon.
When seen live here, audiences came together for sections and separated for others. The end result was that patrons were unable to see the entire opera in one evening. Streaming gives the viewer an opportunity to see both parts, ‘Feast’ and ‘Train’. The sections in common are repeated in both, so if you choose you can fast forward through the repeats (for maximum viewing I would watch it in two separate sittings).
Yun and Couchois are teamed together for part of ‘Feast’. Their section consists of the opening, ‘Contact’, and ‘Feast 1’. Coyote (elastic-voiced Micaela Tobin), the trickster character of Native American mythology, presides over the opera, bestowing a sly and threatening tone from the outset. An immense round table at the center of an open-air set is where we meet the Visitors, who no sooner partake of the bounty of the land than they begin enslaving their Hosts in ‘Feast 2’.
The ‘Feast 2’ creators are Chacon and Kearney. Countertenor Scott Belluz as Jimmy Gin kidnaps Makwa (Kelci Hahn) and, in an unsettling scene of Visitors eating with clinking knives, claims her as his wife as she struggles on the table like an animate centerpiece. There is a terrifying, ghostly Windigo sung by Sharon Chohi Kim, and a predictable amount of religious righteousness on the part of the Visitors. There are haunting lines of the libretto sung by Coyote: ‘When the gut outgrows respect an appetite grows teeth. The brain climbs down beneath and the stomach rides the neck’. And there are the heartbreaking cries of Makwa: ‘If I could find Grandfather, I’d ask how to right a boat without oars. If I could find my father, I’d ask how to shut a house without doors’.
The poetry and music of ‘Feast’ are so compatible and beautifully wrought that, for me, it’s the more successful section. The instances in the live performance when the audience gathered together for ‘The Crossroads’ and ‘Echoes and Expulsions’ are trickier to read in their video incarnation. However, something of what the live experience must have been like lingers in the screen version. A sense of timelessness pervades ‘Echoes and Expulsions’ – the continuation of injustices perpetrated and land laid waste.
Costumes for the indigenous people, designed by Cannupa Hanska Luger and E.B Brooks, have a sculptural quality – thick felt bands, fur, animal heads – with a universal and timeless appeal. Attire for the Visitors is a bit more conventional – drab pants and shirts, vests, cowboy hats, bolo ties.
Like ‘Feast’, ‘Train’ is divided into two parts: ‘Train 1’ by Chacon and Kearney and ‘Train 2’ by Yun and Duncan. A circular track with sliding doors on casters reveals and conceals singers who represent brutalized immigrant labor building the railroads. Violence, whether to people or animals, is justified by God’s word. In the second part, the land is up for grabs, and the exploitation of resources is rampant. The capitalist dream is attacked with Brechtian fervor. Echoes of Kurt Weill haunt the percussive score.
Sharon and co-director Luger have created not only an on-site experience but also an engrossing personal viewing event. During these perilous times, a streaming ticket to Sweet Land while reclining on your couch may prove the best seat in town.
To call The Industry a site-specific opera company is to only scratch the surface of what this groundbreaking organization is. Yes, their productions are sometimes staged in a single location, but more often the show moves, and the audience moves along with it. Their opera, “Hopscotch,” was set in cars. Their adaptation of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast of 1938 occurred simultaneously in locations throughout Los Angeles.
Their latest, “Sweet Land,” a look at our country’s bloody origins and the myths we’ve built around them, was staged in several sections of Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown in late February for 13 performances (including previews), before being shut down by COVID-19. Today, its spirit lives on not only on their website where it can be streamed, but in the current real-world push to dispense with symbols of a romanticized past that don’t square with the bloody facts, whether they be town square statues or logos of professional sports teams.
“It’s strange to think of ‘Sweet Land’ in relationship to everything that’s happened in the last few months, including being shutdown by a pandemic that has been brought from outside this country,” says Artistic Director and founder of The Industry, Yuval Sharon, drawing parallels between the fate of the opera’s characters and the fate of many Native Americans. “The idea of a pandemic wiping out a piece that is ultimately about Indigenous natives is a truly cruel irony.”
The audience arrives to a pre-show percussion improv before they are split into two groups, with one being ushered to “Feast” and the other to “Train.” “Feast” begins when European immigrants arrive on the shores of the “New World,” where they are honored by local hosts with a feast. Sitting down peacefully together, the arrivals soon turn on their hosts.
After an interstitial in which Coyote (Carmina Escobar/Micaela Tobin/Kathryn Shuman) and Wiindigo (Sharon Chohi Kim) deliver antic performances to the music of composers Raven Chacon and Du Yun, the audience lands at another feast, one set after the arrivals have “tamed the land” and subjugated their hosts. “Train” traverses a similar arch, this time focusing on industrialization and ravaging of the land.
The audience is again reunited for the opera’s final section, “Echoes & Expulsions,” in which a little boy, Speck (Micah Angelo Luna/Leander Rajan), putters around a makeshift shelter in an empty lot as a subway passes in the background, and the voices of history are projected in phrases on a bridge, billboard and other surfaces.
“Sweet Land” opened just months before the current reexamination of past symbols resulting in statues of Confederate generals being toppled in public squares around the country. “The political moment, with Trump’s election and watching the rise of the President’s unvarnished use of white supremacist language, you can look at that and say, ‘I see where this train is going,’” says librettist Douglas Kearney about the show’s uncanny prescience.
On a recent visit to New Orleans, Sharon stopped by Jackson Square, named in honor of President Andrew Jackson. The only law Congress passed during his tenure was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which he championed and which resulted in the Trail of Tears, a relocation effort that cost over 12,000 Native Americans their lives.
“Even though it’s not my ancestry, it makes me upset to see that in this public space, someone like that can be held up on a pedestal,” Sharon says. “If you take that statue down and put it in a museum and allow people to engage with history in a deeper way, I think that’s the right way to do it.”
Mezzo-soprano, Jehnean Washington, plays the Guide in “Train,” and happens to be a descendant of the Yuchi, Shoshone and Seminole nations. “They represent such hurt and such harm, like the Nazi flag,” she says of the deposed monuments. “I don’t feel like they need to be in a museum. I feel like we are the living testimony to what those people did. We don’t need a statue to remind us.”
“Sweet Land” is the sixth production by The Industry since their founding in 2012. Their site-specific opera “Invisible Cities,” based on the novel by Italo Calvino and set in downtown L.A.’s historic Union Station, was a 2014 Pulitzer finalist. And Sharon himself is a MacArthur “Genius” winner from 2017, two years after “Hopscotch,” the opera in cars, a production that in many ways is emblematic of The Industry.
That opera was a series of thematically connected narratives occurring in locations throughout downtown L.A. and Boyle Heights. Ticket buyers boarded a limo with the opera simulcast on speakers, and experienced performances both inside and outside the vehicle along its route. The multi-pronged narrative employed here and elsewhere in their repertoire — the idea of giving audiences only part of a larger scheme — has become an Industry staple. The same approach was applied to “War of the Worlds,” broadcast through three antique air raid sirens around town where scenes played out simultaneously with the L.A. Phil performing at the Disney Concert Hall.
Due to the complexity it engenders, the multi-narrative approach compels collaboration, another staple of their work. On “Sweet Land,” Sharon was joined by co-director New Mexico artist Cannupa Hanska Luger to help oversee a production employing two composers, Navajo Nation’s Raven Chacon and Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun, as well as two librettists, Kearney, who collaborated on The Industry’s inaugural production, “Crescent City,” and poet/activist Aja Couchois Duncan.
“I don’t have a musical background, and Yuval has been pretty expressive about thinking poets are the best librettists,” says Duncan, whose debut poetry collection, “Restless Continent” won a 2017 California Book Award. “One amazing aspect of working with The Industry is they really invest in collaboration and relationship building.”
Kearney found the soup of creative voices generated an exponential increase in the decision-making process. “You’re trying to understand the sensibility of two composers and how they’re triangulating between themselves and the director, and then add another librettist. Then the question is what kind of stories do we want to tell and can we tell together?” he says, describing a convoluted, but ultimately rewarding process. “Yuval is deeply invested in how production can transform opera, especially contemporary opera.”
Familiar with the form from a young age when he accompanied his father to productions, Sharon began to notice a gap between the magic the music conjured in his head and the predictable productions he often sat through. To fill that gap, he became a director. In 2001, he graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley, then spent four years as director of New York City Opera’s VOX workshop for new American opera before assisting director Achim Freyer on L.A. Opera’s Ring Cycle.
“Opera is, for some people, the epitome of cultural hegemony. So, there’s a tension there that I think is really fruitful. Certainly a big mission for The Industry is to think about opera away from all of its rigid structures, liberate it to see how we can truly speak to a moment by creating something brand new,” says Sharon, formerly Artist-in-Residence at the LA Phil. “A piece like ‘Sweet Land’ is impossible to imagine within the current institution of opera ‘cause it does not allow these kinds of representations. So, The Industry has to push hard and move the conversation forward from the outside, and put pressure on the core of what opera is and think about how it can live up to a higher standard.”
“Sweet Land” lives up by exposing the process of erasure — how white America has dominated the country’s historic narrative and whitewashed it with its own mythology — the way toppling icons exposes the blood-soaked truth. A great way of honoring that truth is to not hold campaign rallies on sacred Lakota land like Mt. Rushmore, carved by KKK member Gutzon Borglum.
“They were desecrated by the carvings of white Presidents and Jack-ss number forty-five makes a spectacle there,” Duncan says of Trump’s campaign stop, adding, “we should remove those edifices like the statues of Civil War generals and racist Jim Crow f—kers.”
Another way of honoring the truth is through reparations, which the city of Asheville, North Carolina, recently voted to provide African-American citizens for crimes their ancestors endured under slavery. “While America may or may not be grappling with reparations for African-Americans, what they are not grappling with is reparation for Native Americans,” says Duncan.
As for the recent Supreme Court ruling in Oklahoma that put the eastern half of the state, including the city of Tulsa, under tribal jurisdiction, Duncan wonders why it usually takes the Supreme Court for her people to get what’s guaranteed them in 19th-century agreements. Mezzo Jehnean Washington sees the ruling as a watershed moment. “It’s a wonderful turning point and it sends a message throughout the globe that this kind of behavior of lying and cheating and ripping people off is not going to be tolerated anymore.”
Like many, Sharon, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Israel, was educated along the lines of the white settler fantasy, Manifest Destiny and the westward expansion. “All of that ideology is a big part of what we’re still taught about our country. This is particularly important in Los Angeles, which has an enormous culture of forgetting and loves to pretend everything is sui generis and nothing has history,” he says of an area that was formerly home to the Chumash, among other tribes. “You realize it carries with it a pretty insidious look at nation making. It tends to erase populations that have made it a home long before white settlers arrived.”
BREAKING NEWS — It was one of the more unlikely places that one would ever expect to see an opera — a crescent-shaped, sparsely vegetated piece of land beside a set of trolley tracks. The opera itself was scarcely less unusual: Created by a committee of six, the event was split into two concurrently running parts with the audience required to pick itself up and move to various jerry-built, temporary performance spaces in order to get just half the story. And it worked — a self-contained organism with the visible environment and invisible history of the locale playing roles as important as anything else in the production.
This was Sweet Land, a production of the iconoclastic Los Angeles company that calls itself The Industry and the winner of the 2021 Music Critics Association of North America’s Best New Opera Award. The award, given annually, honors musical and theatrical excellence by the composer and librettist of an opera that received its world premiere in North America during the preceding calendar year. A streamed audio recording of the score will be released on The Industry’s label on Sept. 24, and a full video of the work (excerpt below) is currently available on Vimeo.
The 2021 runner-up was Matthew Aucoin’s and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, another opera that received its world premiere in Los Angeles — via Los Angeles Opera — just prior to the shutdown. Due to the pandemic, operas that only received online productions were included for consideration.
Sweet Land continues a long string of recent works that deal with social issues in the news, two of which (p r i s m and Blue) were honored by MCANA with the 2019 and 2020 awards, respectively.
The award committee is co-chaired by Heidi Waleson, opera critic of the Wall Street Journal, and George Loomis, longtime contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America. The other committee members are Arthur Kaptainis, who writes for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale; John Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of the New York Times and now contributor to Opera (UK); and Alex Ross, classical music critic of the New Yorker.
Citing Sweet Land as a “haunting dramatization of the nightmarish histories of indigenous people and immigrants in America,” the committee praised the “spirit of invention and passion that many other participants brought to the project, which offers a new model of opera as a collective enterprise.”
While Sweet Land was a collaborative effort, it was Sharon who set the project in motion while contemplating the results of the 2016 presidential election. “Sweet Land grew out of a response to the election in so many ways,” says Sharon. “For me, the initial impetus behind it was really trying to think about — can opera be a mechanism for trying to explore how we got to this stage where such an election was possible? Not going back to 2012 or 2008; let’s go back to origins about what kind of country are we living in.”
Sharon’s previous productions with The Industry were attempts to release opera from the confines of traditional spaces — to figuratively “push out the walls of the opera house” into the surrounding community. Hence, Invisible Cities was performed within L.A.’s busy Union Station, Hopscotch literally hopscotched from place to place around the central city in limousines, and War of the Worlds — in tandem with the Los Angeles Philharmonic — took place simultaneously inside Walt Disney Concert Hall and on two outdoor stages, including the top of a now-demolished parking structure.
Yet Sweet Land expanded the scope of The Industry’s visions even further, going so far as to suggest an alternative history of the United States to the one that long has been taught in schools and memorialized on national holidays. The goal was to incorporate the point of view of the victims of European colonization of the New World and contemplate how that history was erased from the history books. Howard Zinn’s seminal The People’s History of the United States was one influence; another, greater one was An IndigenousPeople’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, which goes deeper into the struggles of Native Americans.
Sharon is careful to point out, though, that while trying to set the essence of history straight, “Sweet Land was inherently a myth, so I don’t think it should under any circumstances be confused with being educational. But I would hope that the experience of it would inspire people’s curiosity to become more educated.”
As a performance site, The Industry settled upon Los Angeles State Historic Park, once the home grounds of the Tongva Native Americans and later the site of a train station where travelers from the East disembarked. In the northernmost corner of the park, they built a rickety-looking, bare-bones main stage with a grandstand overlooking a post-industrial wasteland, and two circular structures nearby where the parallel threads of the story unfolded.
Amid all of the swirling currents of history and the polyglot score — sometimes atonal, sometimes electronic, sometimes folk-influenced — one could sense the environment making the opera even more complex and meaningful. The Metro Gold Line trolley frequently whooshed along the tracks, helicopters buzzed the park, a train horn from Union Station would blow — all representing the costs of progress. Looking to the south, you could sense the triumph of the white man’s money in the lit-up skyscrapers downtown. And we were standing on the ground of past civilizations marginalized by history.
“The site became very influential in a lot of what we were doing,” says Chacon about composing the score. “We knew the stage would be outdoors, we knew that the train would be going by the location, we knew that you might hear the helicopter in the sky. All of that was taken into consideration in the sound design.”
Luger, who came late to the project, says he had never worked in opera before, so it was a bizarre baptism for him. “Theater is nuts!,” he says. “I’m a visual artist, so I have to have my work done two months before it even hits the eyes of an audience. Theater is not like that at all, so the whole time I was like, oh, we ain’t gonna make it! But theater has an incredible life to itself that has adapted to that sort of angst and actually uses it as fuel to kind of like drive the performers, the musicians, the set crew. There is something in the atmosphere of that tension that often generates something strong.”
In an e-mail, Duncan wrote that the collaborative process was one in which “the librettists collaborated around the core themes and interconnected stories and the composers collaborated on the music. We had opportunities to co-create the overall storyboard and musical elements, but for the most part the collaborations were parallel and occasionally intersecting. For the finale, ‘Echoes,’ Douglas and I wrote a number of (texts for) possible arias, and Raven and Du Yun selected the ones they were most drawn to for composition.”
After the Prologue on the main stage depicting the arrival of colonists in the New World, the audience was split into two halves determined by the color of previously distributed wristbands and escorted through a pair of planked-wood walkways leading to the other structures. One structure hosted “Feast,” the story of a Thanksgiving-style gathering; the other structure hosted “Train,” a telling of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Each story was divided into two parts — the first being the “actual” history, the other being a whitewashed version that tried to erase the previous one. Right in the center of the “Train” structure was a chamber ensemble led by Marc Lowenstein that was surrounded by the audience, while in the “Feast” structure, a different group, led by Jenny Wong, was placed off to the side. Afterwards, everyone repaired back to the main stage where a few survivors of colonial plunder and pain were left to tell their stories in a real-life wasteland as patches of the libretto were projected onto billboards and even the Broadway Viaduct.
As for the task of sharing the composition of a musical score with another composer, Chacon had never worked that way before Sweet Land. “But I was definitely comfortable with it,” he says. “I knew Yuval’s previous work. I knew that there’s no limitations on what he’s willing to put into such a project. I was aware that Hopscotch had 15 composers. So I was prepared for whatever might turn out. But I told Yuval right away that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into just writing the indigenous music. She (Du Yun) didn’t want that task either.”
One of the unusual compositional problems they faced was that each was asked to write separate scores for the first halves of the two story threads, then switch places in the second halves, and ultimately write the finale together. “Du Yun wrote ‘Feast 1’ and I wrote ‘Train 1,’ Chacon says. “That was our first assignment. We workshopped those and brought those together during a performance. I really did not know what she was working on, and she didn’t know what I was working on until we previewed them. It was very interesting to hear how different they were.”
Yet in the final product, it was difficult for a first-time listener to tell the difference between Chacon’s and Du Yun’s styles, for both served up collages of different styles for chamber ensembles — abstract electronic noise, rigorously atonal instrumentals, extended vocal techniques that took their cues from Native American music, an outdoor interlude that was entirely improvised, and a made-up folk song-like number in “Train 1” with percussion imitating a hammer striking the railroad spike in the manner of the folk standard “John Henry.” Chacon was actually proud of the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference; that was his goal, “a melding together of individuals into a whole.”
To Du Yun, Sweet Land is important because the U.S. has so many layers of people coming in. “I am one of those recent immigrants,” she says, “so my relationship to this is very different than that of Raven or Douglas or Cannupa or Aja or Yuval. And I think all of us have a very different and a singular relationship to the land. (This work is) not afraid to expose the complexity and the many layers of that.”
Since the aborted run of Sweet Land, the retelling of American history from the viewpoint of oppressed peoples has escalated into a hotly debated political issue with buzz phrases like critical race theory and cancel culture thrown around.
“I think I read somewhere that we should be celebrating the U.S.,” Kearney wrote in an e-mail. “I get the feeling that such celebration would involve erasing `Train 1’ and `Feast 1’ before they even got staged. Perhaps that’s an unfair assumption, but I know this: The U.S. has had literally centuries to toot its own horn at the expense of many. And it has taken those opportunities pretty steadily.”
An Opera About Colonialism Shows How History Warps
LOS ANGELES — This city likes to pretend it has no history, Yuval Sharon said on a recent afternoon while standing across the street from a place called, yes, Los Angeles State Historic Park.
But history is here. For a long time the land on which this park now sits, not far from the forest of skyscrapers downtown, was a rail yard known as the Cornfield. Nearby, a mob of white people lynched nearly three dozen Chinese men and boys in 1871. Before colonialism and westward expansion, it was a flood plain and the site of an important Tongva village.
“There’s a kind of amnesia here that’s celebrated,” said Mr. Sharon, a MacArthur “genius” grant-winning opera director. “I think that more than ever now, we need a sense of reckoning with our history. And how can art play a role in that?”
He doesn’t necessarily have the answer. But the new opera “Sweet Land,” which premieres on Saturday at the park, is an attempt by Mr. Sharon — along with a team of collaborators and his innovative company, the Industry — to at least start a conversation.
A head-spinning abstraction of colonialism and whitewashed mythologys, “Sweet Land” has been described by its creators as “an opera that erases itself.” It achieves an effect not unlike that of traveling back in time to witness the first Thanksgiving, then returning to the present to hear its story warped through the traditional, wholesome retelling.
Every Industry production — including “Invisible Cities,” which unfolded at Los Angeles’s Union Station, and “Hopscotch,” set in 24 cars driving around the city — has collaborative practice at its core. Mr. Sharon’s “Sweet Land” partners include, as co-director, Cannupa Hanska Luger, an interdisciplinary artist who was raised on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota; Raven Chacon, a Navajo composer and installation artist; Du Yun, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Chinese-born composer; Aja Couchois Duncan, a librettist and writer of Ojibwe descent; and Douglas Kearney, an African-American poet and librettist.
“We’re Noah’s Ark,” Ms. Duncan said. “Two librettists, two composers, two directors.”
Each pair includes a newcomer to opera, which Ms. Du described as an opportunity “to listen to a culture that is not our own.” Mr. Kearney, who has worked in the form before, said that writing with Ms. Duncan, who hasn’t, has forced him to think more critically about the function of a libretto.
The artists have proposed a new myth about two groups, the Hosts and Arrivals — reminiscent of the American experience, but also universal. (The piece’s relationship to the United States, however, is undeniable: Think “sweet land of liberty.”)
“We are all from somewhere,” Mr. Sharon said. “Everyone has been either the colonized or the perpetrator.”
Abstraction, he added, helps refocus history. “That’s where it feels more closely related to the strategies in science fiction,” he said, “which are always so political and give you the right tools to understand the present.”
The “Sweet Land” librettos are placeless and poetic; the music is reminiscent of known styles, but heard as if through a prism; the colorful costumes are works of arresting fantasy. The sets are ephemeral architecture erected in the park — confronting, Mr. Sharon said, “the illusion that we’ve always been here, not nature.”
As in previous Industry projects, which have explored the possibility of individual audience members having vastly different experiences, the plot of “Sweet Land” isn’t straightforward. About 200 people gather at the start inside a pop-up space modeled on the Amargosa Opera House, an unlikely theater plopped into Death Valley, Calif. After an introduction — composed by Mr. Chacon and Ms. Du and depicting the Arrivals, well, arriving — the audience is divided onto two tracks, each leading to a separate theater and story.
One is called “Feast,” written by Ms. Du and Ms. Duncan about welcoming the Arrivals; the other, “Train,” is by Mr. Chacon and Mr. Kearney and about something like Manifest Destiny. Each, Mr. Luger said, is “closer to what the reality might have been, at least in terms of the emotional intensity. It’s much more visceral. It really does not hide away from the violence, the lust and sexuality. And the displacement.”
In these scenes, Mr. Chacon and Ms. Du avoided quoting specific Indigenous musical styles. Still, there are echoes of them, such as in the vocal technique for Makwa, one of the Hosts; there are parodic evocations of Western opera, as in an Arrival’s recitative, delivered in countertenor voice with Baroque accompaniment.
After “Feast” and “Train” are over, the audience is reunited outside at what’s called “The Crossroads,” a space of images projected onto mist. A chorus tells the crowd to “go back to where you came from” — a double-edged phrase that echoes President Trump yet is also a practical instruction to return to the theaters where “Feast” and “Train” took place.
Those spaces have been transformed; “Feast” now looks more like a Golden Corral, and “Train” features a group of House Hunters. In the second-part pieces that follow, Mr. Chacon and Ms. Du have switched tracks, letting each composer respond to the other’s initial work. The stories the audiences heard in the first part are repeated, but now in an oddly mythologized way — with the exception of a character returning from each original story, flustered and trying to be heard, yet not acknowledged.
“It’s what we’ve all been told in school,” Mr. Luger said. “But we’ve left the characters that have been redacted. So you can tell the story isn’t all there.”
If all of this sounds confusing, that’s the point. “I hope it’s frustrating, in the best way possible,” Mr. Sharon said. “That’s what should be the catalyst for the self-examination that we want the audience to come into.”
The audience’s response is crucial for the opera’s ending. As the listeners are reunited back in the first theater, it’s up to them to make sense — with one another — about what they have just seen.
Mr. Sharon doesn’t recommend trying to see both the “Feast” and “Train” tracks. “I like the idea that another person’s experience is actually really cut off from yours until you make the effort to inquire about it,” he said. “The audience has to complete the work.”
Mr. Luger interjected: “And that is how you turn it into a myth.”
Toss out everything you thought you knew about the land you are currently occupying.
MacArthur grant winner Yuval Sharon’s avant-garde L.A. opera company, the Industry, is taking on the subject in its latest production, “Sweet Land.” And the creative clamor of rehearsal here in Los Angeles makes clear that this opera is an intense collaboration among renowned artists in service of a common goal: the excavation, deconstruction and reassembly of the myths surrounding the founding of America.
To tackle weighty subjects like immigration, cultural appropriation, racial identity and colonialism,Sharon has enlisted help: interdisciplinary artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, co-director and costume designer, who was raised on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota; chamber music and noise composer Raven Chacon, a member of the Navajo Nation; Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and performance artist Du Yun, who immigrated from China when she was 20; librettist Aja Couchois Duncan, a writer of Ojibwe, French and Scottish descent; and African American librettist and poet Douglas Kearney.
It’s a lineup that would make antiquated history books shake on their shelves.
“It was definitely about building a team that had as many points of view as possible,” Sharon says on a recent windy afternoon, standing beside Luger on the narrow spit of land on the outskirts of downtown L.A. known as Los Angeles State Historic Park. Here, on open land and in three pop-up theaters, “Sweet Land” will premiere Saturday and run through March 15.
Majority rule was not an option in this creative scenario, Sharon says. The group operated only through cooperation, collaboration and consensus.
“From Day One we were very much creating this story together,” Du says. “It’s us engaging all of our individual experiences, saying what this scenario could have looked like for us, and then extrapolating that into the work.”
Not just for golf fans, the event brought out a range of lifestyle devotees for top-end dining options, indulgent experiences, and gracious hospitality.
Sharon calls “Sweet Land” the most “horizontal” work the Industry has created. He also calls it the most important.
This is not a light statement coming from a man internationally known for breaking operatic sound barriers and re-imagining the art form. The Industry’s projects have included conceptual giants such as “Invisible Cities,” performed amid the hustle of Los Angeles’ Union Station in 2013; and “Hopscotch,” the 2015 opera that took place in 24 cars driving in and around downtown L.A.
The Industry is dubbing “Sweet Land” an opera that “erases itself.” An audience limited to 200 (opening night tickets, at $250 each, are sold out) will arrive at L.A. State Historic Park and be shepherded into a black box theater with a traditional proscenium stage. Later they will be divided into two groups and guided to different open-air, theater-in-the-round performance spaces. Each audience member will experience one of two stories.
One story line, titled “Feast,” tells of Hosts and Arrivals coming together. The Hosts already inhabit the land; when the Arrivals show up on a ship, they are invited in.
When these Arrivals appear on scene, Chacon says, they articulate two ideas: “We’re starving. Can you please feed us?” And, “We’re here and we can’t go back, so what’s over that hill?”
“They come hungry, and they are needy and they overstep their bounds,” says Luger, adding that “Feast” takes aspects of indigenous hospitality into account: what happens when Arrivals’ sense of wealth is defined by what they have, but Hosts’ sense of wealth is tied to what they can give to others.
The opera’s creators are careful to say they are not strictly focusing on what happened between Native Americans and European settlers in North America. Luger says “Sweet Land” takes place in a pocket universe.
“By relaxing our gaze and not being specific, components of different experiences globally are represented in this process,” he says.
The immersive nature of the opera, adds Chacon, makes it so audience members are held accountable and recognize that they are part of the story.
The Arrivals’ eventual land grab is violent — uncomfortable and divisive history that the creative team says should not be distilled into a neat us-versus-them narrative.
After the first part of “Feast,” audience members are ushered to a point in the park called “the crossroads,” where they rejoin others who have just experienced the story line titled “Train.” After an eight-minute set change, the audiences are again ushered into their respective performance spaces where they experience a completely whitewashed version of what they saw the first time.
For those who saw “Feast,” Luger says, “the scenes flip, and when you re-enter it’s like a sanitized Golden Corral buffet-style feast. All you can eat.”
“Train” is meant to be the sequence of events that occurs after “Feast.” The audience is taken on a journey of Manifest Destiny. The engine is a harbinger of doom, an “endless, relentless machine,” Sharon says, adding that the scene is very dark.
The second, erased version of “Train” is bright and loud, like a commercial. In fact, the composers used a lot of commercial music in conceiving it.
“There was no violence involved in the making of this train; no one suffered for the making of this train,” Sharon says. “We now get to consume. The land becomes a commodity that is open to us. So it’s horribly joyful.”
In both “Feast” and “Train,” a character remains who remembers the truth of what really happened.
“Like a black line on a redacted statement,” Luger says.
Los Angeles State Historic Park, formerly known as the Cornfield, is a vortex of cultural triumph and trauma. The 32-acre former brownfield sandwiched between the Gold Line tracks and Spring Street on the industrial outskirts of Chinatown, was the site of Southern Pacific Railroad’s River Station. It served as a point of disembarkation for migrants from around the world.
“I didn’t know about this park, but now every time I come here, I’m going to think, ‘Whose land was this?’” says Sharon Chohi Kim, the “Sweet Land” performer who plays Wiindigo, a mythical creature known as a “hungry ghost” in a variety of cultures and is representative of the harm wrought by greed and violence.
Kim sits at a picnic table as the sun sets in a fiery blaze over Chinatown and the lights of downtown’s skyscrapers flicker on, like tiny yellow eyes blinking open. A Metro train rattling by, a helicopter buzzing overhead and the metal thrum of cars creeping through rush hour on the 110 Freeway blend with the buzz saws and staple guns of crews constructing the “Sweet Land” sets.
The sonic landscape of the city will play as much of a role in the opera’s soundtrack as Chacon and Du’s compositions. And the land itself will serve as a crucial main character alongside the 36-member ensemble.
Cast members, most of whom are L.A.-based singers, are as representative of varied cultural perspectives as are the creators.
Micaela Tobin, who plays the mischievous and immortal Coyote, is a classically trained vocalist who had drifted away from the traditional opera world, steeping herself in the underground L.A. noise and electronica scene because she didn’t see herself or her culture reflected in the art form.
“Sweet Land,” with its nontraditional, immersive presentation and radical themes of representation, felt like a revelation to her.
“I always thought this is the kind of stuff we do in basements or in DIY venues,” she says. “I remember first stepping into rehearsal and seeing a roomful of black and brown faces and it was like, ‘Wow, we were all here before,’ but in the past when you’re in other operas, it’s not necessarily like this. It was emotional for me.”
Opera, says Luger, has a long history of elitism, which is why he feels it’s the ideal medium to address how mass culture has largely succeeded in erasing the true story of how we came to be here, on this land, at this point in history.
“Opera is a privileged machine,” he says. “So as a rez kid, as a Native person in this country, having access to an opera crowd … ,” he trails off, shaking his head and smiling at the possibilities.
Du adds that opera wasn’t created just in the Western world. In China it blossomed in the teahouses and the royal court. Still, she says, there is great power in occupying the space dominated by the Western tradition with an opera like “Sweet Land.”
Sharon jumps in.
“When I look around at the operatic landscape in this country, I see more colonialism. I see French, German and Italian repertoire, and I see stuff not at all related to the time we’re living in,” he says. “There’s so much to talk about right now, and yet the No 1. opera performed in America last year was ‘The Barber of Seville.’”
“Sweet Land” is not interested in what Sharon calls “the gold-star approach,” where audiences can pat themselves on the backs for exposing themselves to some heavy themes before heading off for cocktails and a gourmet dinner.
By taking opera out of the opera house and placing it on the land, Sharon and his collaborators hope to put audience members in an uncomfortable position.
“That discomfort is a valuable tool to stimulate new thoughts and ideas and to really provoke new ways of thinking,” Sharon says.
“Sweet Land,” Luger adds, should not end with the last note. Audiences must take it with them. This story, he says, scanning the smog-smudged horizon, ends somewhere out there.
In 2015, The Industry commissioned several brilliant composers to create Hopscotch, an L.A.-centric, multipart opera that was staged inside two dozen taxis and cars. Now the local company returns with its first independent world-premiere work since Hopscotch, with the debut of Sweet Land.
Described as “an opera that erases itself,” Sweet Land is an ambitious project by composers Du Yun (who won a Pulitzer for Angel’s Bone) and the Navajo Nation’s Raven Chacon with librettists Douglas Kearney and Aja Couchois Duncan, and co-directed by Cannupa Hanksa Luger and The Industry’s Yuval Sharon. With themes about immigration and colonization, the opera centers on a procession through the park and a feast between a “host” community and an “arrival” community, with a train symbolizing the effects of Manifest Destiny.
L.A. State Historic Park, 1724 Baker St., downtown; Sat., Feb. 29, 8 p.m.; Sun., March 1, 5:30 p.m. & 8 p.m.; through Sun., March 15, 6:30 p.m. & 9 p.m.; $75-$110. (213) 761-8598,sweetlandopera.com.
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.”