By Evan Shamoon, October 18, 2013
In an era of digitally projected IMAX 3D movies, on-demand television
and hyperrealistic, open world video games, the centuries-old art form
of opera might appear to have become something of a technological relic.
But in an effort to breathe new life into the medium, a trio of
companies has come together to create something never before attempted:
an opera whose soundscape exists entirely in the audience’s headphones,
and a performance that bleeds directly into the physical space of its
Thursday night I attended the invitation-only private dress rehearsal for Invisible Cities,
a collaboration between three complementary organizations: Los Angeles
production company The Industry, the nonprofit L.A. Dance Project, and
German audio company Sennheiser.
Rather than sitting down and watching a performance, attendees were
equipped with wireless headphones and wandered the enormous main station
hall—as well an adjacent waiting area and outdoor courtyard—following
the similarly untethered performers as they emerged from all
directions. There was no stage, no music broadcast over speakers, and no
clear separation between performer and audience. This was opera made
Dancers from the L.A. Dance Project perform an aspect of a many-faceted performance of the Invisible Cities opera.
As in its source, the 1972 Italo Calvino novel, this reimagining of Invisible Cities still takes place in 13th century Mongolia, but is here transported into Los Angeles’ majestic transit hub, Union Station—while
the station is actually operating. (For those who might be unfamiliar
with it, Union Station is L.A.’s equivalent of Grand Central Terminal.
Built in 1939, it’s an enormous, spectacular piece of Art Deco
architecture that stands as the largest railroad passenger terminal in
the Western United States.)
And indeed, the station was operating at normal capacity; passengers sat
waiting for their train to arrive, while station restaurants and shops
did business as usual. Some travelers slept, looking like they’d been
here for days; others sat in business attire, paging through newspapers
eagerly awaiting their trip home. All was normal, save for the fact
that a live opera was about to take place about the terminal, close
enough that commuters could literally reach out and touch the cast.
The performers brushed
past us as they moved throughout the station, their vocals beamed back
to the mother brain, where they were mixed with the orchestra and layers
of sound design before being beamed right back into our headphones.
As the director Yuval Sharon assured us, there is no “right” way to experience Invisible Cities;
the opera has no must-see set pieces, and he encouraged everyone to
follow their instincts through the cavernous station. “Each of you,” he
said, “has the best seat in the house.”
Before the action started, however, each of the several hundred audience members was provided with his or her own set of Sennheiser HDR120 wireless headphones. We were then ushered into one section of the sprawling station, where the orchestra awaited us.
This was where the prelude began; each of the instruments was outfitted
with a microphone, the audio signals from which were run through the
brains of the operation—a custom wireless audio rig built by Sennheiser,
using state-of-the-art receivers and transmitters.
A feed of the audio mix (the orchestra, as well as the opera singers)
was sent to our headphones over RF, while the performers received a
separate mix (each of them was equipped with wireless microphones, as
well as a wireless in-ear monitor). In fact, three custom antenna and
mixing rigs were required to bring the production to life: one for the
performers’ wireless microphones, one for their in-ear monitors, and one
for the audience’s wireless headphones. It was a free-roaming
audiovisual experience, enabled by some serious technical heavy lifting
on the part of Sennheiser’s back-end electronics.
From there the opera spilled out into the main hall, with performers
emerging seemingly everywhere at once. We audience members could clearly
hear the orchestra through our headphones, carefully mixed with the
voices of the opera singers and the backing tracks. And this mixing was
As for those innocent bystanders not wearing headphones, they could hear
only the voices of the singers who happened to be near them, and
perhaps the sound of the orchestra in a distant part of the station.
The line between performer, audience member, and onlooker blurred; the experience was somewhere between a traditional opera, an alternate reality game (ARG),
and a piece of high-tech performance art. Audience members wandered
around and amidst the action, temporarily perching against a tiled wall,
or taking a seat next to a bewildered traveler.
Regular eye contact was made between audience members as they felt their
way around the new format, but never with performers. Despite the close
quarters, the fourth wall was never broken.
And the headphone factor should not be undersold; the result of hearing
the performers in such an intimate way was beguilingly unfamiliar. Set
inside the vast, historic space with hundreds of other people, we heard
the live audio in a way that felt at once personal and communal, passive
and active, immediate and displaced. The performers brushed past us as
they moved throughout the station, their vocals beamed back to the
mother brain, where they were mixed with the orchestra and layers of
sound design before being beamed right back into our headphones.
The opera was written by Christopher Cerrone.
Its narrative centers on explorer Marco Polo, who must report to an
elderly Emperor Kublai Khan about his travels to cities far and wide.
Polo’s fanciful descriptions are imagined and fantastical, appropriately
expressed through dance in a way that feels modern and relevant. The
themes converge in a satisfying way, offering the audience a chance to
contemplate the essence of travel as they wander through Union Station,
playing with our subjective experience of environment and time as we
move through public space in a uniquely private way.
Invisible Cities makes its public premiere at Union Station on Saturday, Oct. 19 for a limited run through Nov. 8. For more information, visit www.InvisibleCitiesOpera.com/tickets.