Invisible Cities: Opera Review

Elaborate public happening in a train station both enriches and overwhelms a rather sensitive and delicate vocal work rendered as a “headphone” opera.

Italo Calvino's famous novel –- a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan about cities –- is transformed into a site-specific opera at L.A.'s historic Union Station.

This may be a contemporary equivalent to those much-lampooned, dressed-to-the-nines, high society openings at the Grand Opera of an earlier era, a great public event where the appointments of the occasion and the trappings of scale dominate the high art aspirations of the work. The modern twist is that it’s packaged aggressively as the diametric opposite: a hip, inviting and inclusively unpretentious environmental staging in which each attendee’s experience is technologically designed to be individually constructed according to their own whims and perceptions. To adopt an appropriately chic, ironic perspective, the two are not so very different under the surface, tony civic opportunities for local puffery and, incidentally, decorative culture.

Union Station makes for a spectacular and apt location for such an endeavor, with its smooth melange of Dutch Colonial, Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne styles, an architectural mash-up before we became so self-conscious about the technique. Many Angelenos are rarely there or otherwise invariably rushing through. Issued our Sennheiser headphones with their disorienting sense of suggestive directionality, we are consigned to wander the terra cotta tile floors and travertine marble walls of the waiting rooms and of the side patios and grassy areas after starting out in the now-unused “Harvey House” restaurant (the last ever built) where the 11-piece ensemble plays a startlingly rousing overture.

Some move in packs, instinctively following one another, while others edge more towards the peripheries. The singers and dancers in mufti are interspersed among the terminal’s regular travelers, though it doesn’t take long to spot the tiny “tells” that differentiate them. The audience, in their Mickey Mouse ears, look like touristing aliens, and it is hard not to regard the station’s patrons with their luggage and other baggage as objects being observed. Camera crews abound, and cellphone recordings promiscuously document everyone’s presence at the “Scene.” And listening to playback, we are all our own cameras, walking a tracking shot, head-twisting a pan, staring a close-up.

It’s somewhat involving and apparently novel until one realizes that the text, drawn by youthful composer Christopher Cerrone from Italo Calvino, is dense, poetic, profound and truly requires undivided concentration, while the music is lyrical and rigorous and points the words with skillful felicity and no little gorgeousness. In short, while the site-specific realization may amplify some of the implications of the essential themes, such as traveling and memory, it also perpetuates perhaps the central problem of daily life: the severe limits of multitasking, of the delusion that split focus and divided senses can comprehend anything approaching a whole awareness of value in competing attentions.

I found myself wandering back to orchestra, seemingly lonely in the now-abandoned restaurant. Encountering the singers’ voices throughout the station, the synch in my ears had always felt a fraction of a beat behind (just like the insert boxes on digital television where the technology, its standards set by politicians as a compromise among engineers, ensures the lips never quite match the words). Far from the madding crowd, the sublimity of the music emerged far more piquantly. Invisible Cities would work perfectly well, probably better, in concert, without distractions lending it inessential relevance. Here the sensation leans uncomfortably close to silent disco.

Calvino’s ruminations center on Marco Polo (Ashley Faatoalia) describing to Kublai Khan (Cedric Berry) fabulous inventions about wondrous cities elsewhere outside his empire. Khan has been experiencing melancholy intimations of mortality and the evanescence of civilizations, and Polo, ostensibly communicating as much through objects, gestures, grunts and cries as through rudiments of spoken language, himself finds nostalgic rue in lost memories that never existed. A fable about confabulation, Calvino’s ruminations enfold layers of grand power and essential insignificance with a playful yet precise examination of how our perception inevitably remains inadequate to our needs. Cerrone inventively mimics Calvino’s tone with recurring musical ideas that repeatedly change perspective. It’s not so very different from classical themes and variations, yet it allows the words to inflect the musical meanings as much as the other way round. He’s undeniably already a composer of considerable gifts, and his work is supple enough to overcome the outsized concept of this elaborate mounting with at least some of its delicacy intact.

The Industry director Yuval Sharon, who surmounted unimaginable logistical difficulties to realize this signal cultural event, certainly struck the sweet spot of ballyhoo and artistic accomplishment here. One might wish only that the achievement had been more concurrent than coincident. Loitering about the station after the audience had left, one could see actual people, everyone moving to their own music, some no doubt hearing voices without benefit of headphones.

Venue: The Industry at Union Station, Los Angeles (runs through Nov. 8)

Cast: Cedric Berry, Ashley Faatoalia, Delaram Kamareh, Ashley Knight, Maria Elena Altany, Sarah Beaty, Stephen Anastasia, Cale Olson (singers); Charlie Allan Hodges, Anthony Bryan, Aaron Carr, Julia Marion Eichten, Morgan Taylor Lugo, Nathan B. Makolandra, Rachelle Ann Rafailedes, Amanda Kramer Wells (dancers)

Director: Yuval Sharon

Composer & Libretto: Christopher Cerrone, based on the novel by Italo Calvino

Conductor: Marc Lowenstein

Lead Sound Designer: E. Martin Gimenez

Choreographer: Danielle Agami for LA Dance Project Company

Costume Designer: E.B. Brooks

Scenic Architects: John and Donald B. Parkinson, Jan van der Linden, Mary Colter

Audio Production Mixer & Audio Broadcast Mix Designer: Nick Tipp