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Opera director Yuval Sharon was driving to work one day thinking about new works for The Industry, his experimental company that brought the site-specific, sold-out opera Invisible Cities to LA’s Union Station last fall. He drove past a car dealership where air dancers, those ubiquitous inflatable promotional puppets, jostled for attention. One of them caught his eye as it seemed to be dancing to the music on his stereo, composer Terry Riley‘s tabula rasa In C, which some have called the first minimalist composition.
The work will get its longest-ever performance this month as The Industry presents it on April 12 (the first performance was April 5) at Westwood’s Hammer Museum. Their audience for the four-hour duration will be the 14 air dancers in the courtyard of the museum, and whatever art lovers come drifting in and out of the galleries, where works by Andra Ursuta, Mike Kelley, Barbara Kruger and Paul McCarthy are on display.
Composed in 1964, In C consists of 53 short musical phrases for an unspecified number of musicians playing unspecified instruments. Each is encouraged to randomly select a phrase and play it either in or out of time with the others. The result is a foundational piece that can be limitlessly interpreted — and has been — including on a pipa in Shanghai, a daegeum in London and a glockenspiel in Venice. But this will be the first time an opera company has taken it on.
“It’s as far from operatic as possible,” laughs Sharon in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “We are doing it with chords and words that Terry Riley wrote. We’ve been calling it a performance installation ’cause we’re not real sure what to call it.”
If the air dancers could speak, they’d probably call it a party — a day off with 13 friends, strange music and dancing in the sunshine. But for Sharon, they serve a deeper purpose as a visual metaphor for the layers of music, a moving forest immersing the audience.
In fact, The Industry is all about immersing the audience. Their inaugural production, the “hyperopera” Crescent City, was staged at their home base, Atwater Crossing, a Los Angeles-based warehouse where audiences could walk among the sets while the story of a swamp town outside New Orleans bracing for a hurricane unfolded.
Invisible Cities took place in a train station where audiences wandered freely, often surprised when the stranger next to them broke out into song. It was not-your-usual-opera playing to not-your-usual-opera-audience, but the run was so successful that they had to add nine shows. “There really is a hunger for this kind of work that expands the traditional definition of opera, and looks for new ways of creating it and new ways of audiences experiencing it,” explains Sharon.
That’s all well and good, but do they really expect anyone to sit for four hours of air dancers and minimalism? Of course not. Audiences are invited to come and go as they wish, a trope Sharon borrowed from minimalist icons like Robert Wilson and Philip Glass (who met after a 12-hour performance of Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin), and John Adams‘s Doctor Atomic, which Sharon directed earlier this year in Germany.
“It was Riley’s In C that really broke through and became this sort of tabula rasa in what music could be, and especially what American music could be,” Sharon explains. “It’s one of the things that we often take for granted, is the amazing cultural heritage that we have inherited from the last century in terms of composers and in terms of artists.”
The Industry stands in stark contrast to traditional opera companies in that its rooted in the American experimental composers of the sixties and seventies, and not so much the classic European canon. But like everyone else in the opera world, they were shocked at the San Diego Opera’s announcement last month that they would be closing their doors so soon on the heels of New York City Opera doing likewise.
“You start to feel very negative about the future of opera in America,” he groaned. “It’s just one of those things where it just feels more and more essential to be thinking outside the box and to be creating those kind of experiences that could help turn people into opera fans.”
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