BWW Review: SWEET LAND Site-Specific Opera by The Industry at LA State Historic Park
In 2013, I discovered The Industry, LA's experimental opera company led by Yuval Sharon, when I attended INVISIBLE CITIES on the grounds of Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. I had never seen anything like it before, a totally immersive production where the audience, wearing headphones to hear the live orchestra and singers, followed characters to various sites to witness miraculous interactions of actors, singers and dancers telling tales of the meeting between Emperor Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. And all the while, people waiting for trains were sitting in the midst of the production, which still ranks in my Top 10 productions I have reviewed.Then in 2015, The Industry presented HOPSCOTCH, a new mobile opera performed in limos in which audience members rode with musicians and actors on three different routes to various points in and near downtown, moving through time to follow the story of Lucha, Jameson, and Orlando as their lives intersected on the streets and with the people of Los Angeles. The incredible logistics required to carry off such a feat astounded me, and memories of certain scenes live vividly in my memory.
As a child in Los Angeles during the Cold War, I have memories of "drop" drills when air raid sirens around the city were tested once a month as a way of alerting citizens to take cover if an atomic blast was expected nearby. Three sirens in downtown were refurbished in 2017 by The Industry for their re-enactment of WAR OF THE WORLDS, with the main radio broadcast taking place live inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall with three remote locations reporting in, presented at locations using the former aid raid sirens to broadcast communications back and forth. Again, I was blown away by the innovative nature of the entire production.
Now in 2020, The Industry is presenting its site-specific world premiere of SWEET LAND at the LA State Historic Park near downtown Los Angeles, with the city's skyline seen prominently during the outdoor production. With Music by Du Yun and Raven Chacon, Libretto by Douglas Kearney and Aja Couchois Duncan, the production directed by Cannupa Hanska Luger and Yuval Sharon, unravels narratives surrounding American identity on the site when new Arrivals ship runs aground on the shore and they encounter a community of The Hosts, those natives to the land.
SWEET LAND opens and closes with two amorphous scenes that deal with colonization, as well as two direct and easy to identify scenes: a feast and a train. Audience members are assigned to follow either THE FEAST, which imagines the first meeting of a "host" community and an "arrival" community and the assumptions and attitudes of those groups, or THE TRAIN which imagines the violent effect of westward expansion on people, land, and animals. Central to the project is the diversity of its voices, not only represented by the cast but the production team as well, recruited by Yuval Sharon to bring his vision of site-specific opera to life.Composer Du Yun is a Chinese immigrant whose recent work is rooted in a "lack of understanding and empathy around immigration." Her opera Angel's Bone, which explores human trafficking, won a Pulitzer Prize for music. Raven Chacon is from the Navajo Nation and advocates for indigenous composers and musicians. Librettist Douglas Kearney is a poet whose writing, in the words of BOMB magazine, "pulls history apart, recombining it to reveal an alternative less whitewashed by enfranchised power." Aja Couchois Duncan is a mixed-race Ojibwe writer with a focus on social justice. Co-Director Cannupa Hanksa Luger (who also designed the costumes) is a multidisciplinary installation artist of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian descent.Combining the skills of such a team with a live 24-piece orchestra and 32 actors/operatic singers, with astounding projections designed by Hana S. Kim and large scale temporary scenic design locations by Tanya Orellano and Carlo Maghirang, and choreography by Tonantzin Carmelo, should have resulted in the type of production that equaled the Industry's previous undertakings. But unfortunately, SWEET LAND fell a bit flat in comparison. For while the projections were exceptionally creative, especially when moving dialogue was broadcast across a very tall traffic bridge during the final scene and digitized animals appeared to be running through the fog across a fence in the background during a meeting between three of THE FEAST indigenous cast members, the music was very atonal and much too loud, causing the singers to scream their words as if fighting to be heard. Thankfully the libretto, which was often difficult to understand, was broadcast in English via projections which I found myself reading more often than watching the scene as it played out. But the visual impact of the creative choreography and the skill of cast members offered many moments of eye-catching wonder.
However, the story is an important one to be told about the history of invaders who have taken over land where indigenous people live, even in our own backyard, and destroyed not only the land but the people who loved it. Perhaps before purchasing tickets it might be wise for audience members to attend The Industry's free public "Sunday Sessions" series, presented in partnership with the Autry Museum of the American West and IKAR, during which pertinent themes from the opera will be explored featuring performances and discussions with community leaders and local artists. Each session will present a focused probe into how art and culture are used to navigate different marginalized experiences during SWEET LAND. Details at https://theindustryla.org/sweet-land-sunday-sessions.The Industry, led by Founder and Artistic Director Yuval Sharon, Executive Director Elizabeth Cline, and Music Director Marc Lowenstein, presents SWEET LAND in Los Angeles State Historic Park, located at 1724 Baker Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012, from February 29 to March 15, 2020, with two evening performances on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Running time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Audience members are assigned to either THE FEAST or THE TRAIN groups by the box office. Tickets are priced from $75-$110, available by calling the box office at (213) 761-8598, online at https://theindustryla.org/ or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Dress for cooler weather as temperatures drop when the sun sets.
Photo credit: Casey Kringlen for The Industry
Mayflower image and conceptual poster design by Cannupa Hanska Luger, Lettering and graphic design by Visual Issues