Performance

The Public Spectacle of a Personal Opera in LA’s Union Station

"Invisible Cities" at Los Angeles Union Station (all images by the author and Heather Courtney)
“Invisible Cities” at Los Angeles Union Station (all images by the author and Heather Courtney for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — A train station is an apt location to tell stories of journeys to lands unknown, particularly when the storytelling method is as unconventional and frontier-pushing as the one deployed in Invisible Cities. This experimental opera, a production by The Industry in partnership with LA Dance Project, deconstructs the boundaries between performer and audience and resurrects them in the form of personalized, fluid relationships.

The orchestra in the former Fred Harvey Restaurant in Union Station.

Los Angeles Union Station provides a historically rich and architecturally stunning backdrop for the performance. The narrative unfolds in multiple locations throughout the various courtyards and vaulted halls at any given moment, allowing members of the audience to roam freely and let their personal whims dictate their experience. Each participant is equipped with a set of wireless headphones through which the music of the live orchestra and voices of the singers are broadcast.

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Invisible Cities is an adaptation of Italo Calvino’s 1972 book of the same name. This structurally complex novel centers on Marco Polo’s relaying of fantastical descriptions of imagined cities to the waning Kublai Khan. Christopher Cerrone’s score and libretto poetically navigate the shifting relationship between the Italian explorer and Mongol emperor as Marco Polo narrates his ethereal visions.

Although the lyrics are projected as surtitles onto two prominent walls, the narrative itself seems rather peripheral to the overall pageantry of the production. The music is delightfully light yet moving, and the performers are mesmerizing in their skill and focus, but the real excitement is derived from the constant adventure of stumbling upon new scenes and unexpected vignettes.

Marco Polo (played by Ashley Faatoalia) at Traxx Restaurant.
Marco Polo (played by Ashley Faatoalia) at Traxx Restaurant.

In the beginning, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the performers from the audience. Someone who I thought to be a fellow participant broke out into a meticulously choreographed dance. What first appeared to be a civilian seated at Traxx Restaurant, casually clad in a plaid shirt, red vest, and ball cap, turned out to be none other than the tenor-voiced Marco Polo.

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Union Station ceases to feel like a public space and instead takes on the aura of the stage itself; the audience becomes passive yet privileged members of the cast wandering with the performers as they engage in their crafts. Neither group takes overwhelming precedence over the other; everybody moves through the station in a spirit of mutual re-arrangement.

The sense of connection between the audience and the performers is palpable. After all, participants are equally a part of the spectacle as they silently roam about Union Station en masse wearing matching headphones. This communal sense of spectacle also serves to highlight the more unsettling disconnect between the performance and the third, involuntary participants of Invisible Cities: the general public.

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A cast member in the waiting area of Union Station

Perhaps the mood at the 7 o’clock show is more convivial, but come 10pm the overwhelming majority of people in Union Station (whether waiting to catch late trains or seeking sanctuary from the nighttime chill) seem primarily preoccupied with catching some sleep. As the opera paraded in and out of the main waiting area, I doubt I was the only one feeling like a very conspicuous and intrusive interloper in an otherwise relatively prosaic environment.

For this reason, I felt compelled to remove my headphones at frequent intervals. I wanted to know what the show looked, sounded, and felt like to anyone without access to the microphoned orchestra. The answer? Beckettesque, completely absurd.

DSC04347Whereas the headphones transmitted the rich, evocative music of the nearby orchestra, the main hall was noiseless save for the intermittent voices of the opera singers, the grunting and heavy breathing of the dancers, and the shuffling of audience feet as they trailed Marco Polo and Kublai Khan about. As a result, the atmosphere in Union Station felt heavy with an unnatural type of silence.

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Singers Cale Olsen (Bass), Sarah Beaty (Alto), Stephen Anastasia (Tenor), and Maria Elena Altany (Soprano) at the Union Station Information Booth

The promotional material for Invisible Cities promises a “highly private experience” in a public space, but I would argue that this opera delivers the opposite effect. Most of us maintain introverted demeanors in public places such as train stations – we keep our heads down, earbuds in, and eyes fixated on our books or smart phones. The thrill of Invisible Cities lies in creating a shared focus within a space where we intuitively tend to keep to ourselves.

No one observes the show in the same way, in this respect making it a highly personal, not private, experience. It is this individualized element that provides the source for sharing different stories connected by a single, very public event. Once the applause died down and the headphones were off, Union Station filled with the buzz of strangers talking to strangers. Everyone seemed to revel in the sense of camaraderie that comes from together having witnessed something rare and groundbreaking.

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Invisible Cities plays at Union Station (800 N. Alameda Avenue, Los Angeles) through November 17.

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