Imagine an opera that has audience members sharing stretch limousines with performing actors, singers, musicians, and dancers engaged on a magical mystery tour of downtown Los Angeles destinations.
Two years ago, experimental opera company The Industry pushed performance and technical boundaries with a wireless headphone opera, Invisible Cities, that coursed through Los Angeles’ Union Station. The sold-out production, in partnership with audio leader Sennheiser, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination and inspired an Emmy-winning documentary. It also encouraged artistic director Yuval Sharon to up the ante of interaction.
This time, miles of downtown Los Angeles is the stage. Hopscotch—which runs weekends from October 31 through November 15—takes audiences in limos through three different 90-minute routes starting at different points, with stops at secret destinations (including one graveyard). Artists riding with audience members and stationed at the destinations perform random chapters of a master narrative about love and disappearance across time.
“Hopscotch is the culmination of five years of an artistic inquiry into the nature of opera, the relationship of spectator to the artist, and trying to find new ways to create those scenarios,” says Sharon. “I often think of this opera as having three main characters—[protagonist] Lucha, Los Angeles, and the audience—because each audience member is experiencing the story in a unique way, in random chapters, with the city going by, and the music augmenting our experience of Los Angeles. In our isolated cars driving all around Los Angeles, maybe there was someplace where we could all connect.”
All routes end at The Central Hub, a pop-up circular structure in the parking lot of the Southern California Institute for Architecture (Sci-Art) designed by its students as part of a production-related class. It features a circular array of 24 monitors simultaneously streaming the 24 journeys, which people can watch for free. In addition, the Hopscotch website offers animated interpretations of various chapters on the routes. The $1 million production is funded by individual patrons, ticket sales, and civic, government, and foundation grants.
The production not only involves a multidisciplinary collaboration between artists, neighborhood leaders, and sponsors, but one between the audience and the city.
Six composers, six writers, three special musical guests, more than 120 singers, actors and dancers, an aerialist, 24 drivers, and 150 sponsoring partners—including main collaborators Sennheiser (which includes Sharon in its Momentum Project), Sci-Art, and 5D World Building Studio. Once the production found a home for its Central Hub, its organizers located three distinct neighborhoods with their own culture and history—Boyle Heights, Historic Core, and Elysian Park/Chinatown—that could also host and connect the production team to local collaborators and talent.
“Everyone kept saying, `What about the traffic?” says executive producer Elizabeth Cline. “Every limo has an assistant stage manager talking to the other stage managers, saying, `I’m running a minute early or late,’ and everyone knows how to cut or extend their scene based on what the other cars are doing. We created scenes that have vamping mechanisms.”
In keeping with one of the story’s themes of transient characters through life, one of the more curious flourishes involves characters that seem to glide through a scene for no apparent reason.
“All of a sudden, you notice a character and think, `Why are they here? What is their significance? Do they appear in the main characters’ lives in other chapters?’ adds Cline. “Putting those questions out there really mimics our lives and how our identities are formed and created by the people we meet. Sometimes you never know who’s going to be the core cast of your life and who’s going to be the supernumerary character.”
As with Invisible Cities, The Industry has again teamed with Sennheiser, whose audio technology enables continuous audio transmission between mobile and stationary performance sites, against the city’s backdrop of digital broadcasting and RFID interference.
Limos are outfitted with Sennheiser’s AVX digital wireless microphone systems, multichannel rack units in their trunks, and omnidirectional mics on their roofs to transmit audio to and from performance and production staff, and the Central Hub. One scene requires audio coordinated between three rooftops a quarter mile away from each other. “We had big artistic challenges and Sennheiser had the technology to match it, “ says Cline.
At the Hub, Sennheiser’s GuidePort wireless audio guide system and Momentum 2 headsets enable audiences to switch between the livestreamed audio feeds to create their own narrative. (Bexel Audio specialists and sound designer Brett Jarvis provide additional audio support at the Hub.)
“Non-paying audience members aren’t as close to the performers, but for free, they can stand in the Hub and dial into any of the streams that are going on live,” says Stefanie Reichert, Sennheiser’s director of trade marketing. “The technology is the same, but each time we do these types of performances, we configure it to the task.”
Ultimately, the opera’s creators hope the audience will come away with a new relationship with their city. “What’s so exciting about making art in public is you can see spaces differently,” says Cline. “Whether an abandoned parking lot or Victorian building from early LA history, you all of a sudden have a transformed view of the other histories and stories happening there.”