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Traffic Jam: “Hopscotch” Orchestrates Opera On Wheels In Los Angeles

The streets of Los Angeles play host to an audacious experiment organized by director Yuval Sharon.

The streets of Los Angeles play host over the next three weekends to an audacious experiment organized by director Yuval Sharon. His mission: re-invent 21st-century opera one limousine at a time. On Saturday Sharon’s opera company The Industry is rolling out Hopscotch, composed by six musicians and performed in a fleet of automobiles for audience members who’ll be seated inches from the musicians.

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Sharon and production designer Jason H. Thompson brainstormed the concept in 2012 while prepping the company’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated piece Invisible Cities, in which opera goers gathered at L.A.’s historic Union Station train terminal and listened through headphones to wirelessly transmitted music. “By getting audience to put on headphones and pay attention to the everyday life that surrounded them, that production had a lot to do with what I call ‘the poetics of noticing,'” explains Sharon. “So then I became fascinated with the idea: What if the car became the stage? What if the car became a platform for performance? How could music then alter your perception of the city as you’re driving through it?”

Serenaded on a Journey, Destination Unknown

The Industry team assembled a small army of about 240 musicians, technicians and chauffeurs to get Hopscotch moving. As Sharon explains it, the project requires a leap of faith on the part of mobile opera fans. “You buy a ticket and get an email with a start time and a street address,” he says. “When you get to the location, two cars pull up. Four of you get in one car and four of you get in the other car. The musicians and singers are already inside waiting so you’re knee to knee with the performers. You have no idea where the car is going but you drive for a fair amount of time listening to one chapter of the story. Then you arrive at an intersection where the door opens for you and another car is waiting for you. You get into that car where other musicians and singers perform the next chapter of the story.”

To further keep audience members on their toes, Hopscotch libretto, which follows existential misadventures of Lucia, Jamison and Orlando, is partitioned into three color-coded routes and related in non-chronological order. “You might get the climactic scene as your very first scene, or it might be the last,” Sharon says. “You’ll get enough of the story on any one route, but you won’t get that arc in the traditional way.”

The routes are mapped out to coordinate with each limousine’s drive by music, Sharon notes. “For some chapters we’ve had to figure out which streets feel particularly despairing? Which streets make you you feel incredibly elated driving through them? We often take streets for granted they’re like a no mans land between point A and point B. With Hopscotch, we want you to experience streets in a completely fresh way.”

The free-range Hopscotch delivery system represents Sharon’s latest effort to treat opera as an “emerging art form.” Lukewarm about traditional Lyric Opera of Chicago performances he attended as a kid, Sharon later became excited about pushing the form into the 21st century after studying theater at UC Berkeley with performing arts maverick Peter Sellars and staging multi-media pieces for seven years in New York. He says, “There is something aspirational about opera which is part of its pleasure and beauty, but I don’t think that needs to be disconnected from everyday life.”

Surreal in the City

To illustrate the point, Sharon describes a Hopscotch scenario, choreographed to take place in between car rides, that literally elevates mundane urban life into the realm of the surreal. “Audience members get out of the car and the singer brings them to the top of a building,” Sharon says. “She hears a trumpet player distantly from a roof top, then turns around and there’s a trombone player standing on another rooftop. She begins to sings with both musicians, who play perfectly in time with each other because they’re connected across this huge distance with wireless technology.”

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Citing one of his formative influences, Zen composer John Cage, Sharon says, “Theater exists all around us and it’s the artist’s job to notice it. I’m interested in using opera in the city as a springboard for some kind of sublime event.”

More Like a Web Than an Opera

To expand the Hopscotch experience beyond the confines of cars and their passengers, The Industry commissioned 10 animated videos that dramatize tentpole plot points. Additionally, each 90-minute journey will be video-streamed to a hub in downtown where people can remotely monitor the progress of all three trips simultaneously. Sharon, pictured above, says, “Once we started with driving as the central motor of the piece, we extrapolated from that to the point that Hopscotch has become very web-like. It’s actually less of an opera and more of a web, a web of ideas and a geographic web. Everything’s connected but there’s no one path.”

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.

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