Yuval Sharon On Connecting Opera With Today

Yuval Sharon | Credit: Sam Comen

Dubbed “opera’s disrupter in residence” by The New York Times, director Yuval Sharon continues to live up to that label. Indeed, in 2022 he staged Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème backward (from Act 4 to Act 1) for Detroit Opera, where he was named artistic director in 2020. In 2018 he mounted John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 on a soundstage at Sony Studios, and in 2015 he presented Hopscotch, a mobile opera staged in 24 limousines that traversed downtown Los Angeles while a host of singers, actors, dancers, and instrumentalists provided the action both inside the vehicles and at various locales.

Those latter two offerings were produced by The Industry, the L.A.-based company Sharon founded in 2010, which is now run by an artistic director cooperative — Sharon, Ash Fure, and Malik Gaines. And true to its boundary-smashing reputation, The Industry’s latest production is the world premiere of The Comet / Poppea, which runs June 14–23 at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A.

The opera is being produced through landmark partnerships with American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), Curtis Institute of Music, and Yale Schwarzman Center, as well as by producer Cath Brittan and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who sings the roles of Nero and Julia’s Father. (Costanzo was recently hired as general director and president of Opera Philadelphia.) Staged on a revolving turntable, the production brings together seemingly disparate worlds that echo across the centuries: The Comet is George Lewis’s opera, commissioned by AMOC, based on a 1920 science-fiction story written by civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. L’incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea) is Claudio Monteverdi’s opera about ancient Roman politics, first performed in Venice in 1643.

Poster art for The Industry’s The Comet / Poppea

Sharon was born in 1979 in Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree in 2001 from the University of California, Berkeley. He worked at New York City Opera, directing its VOX program from 2006 to 2009. With The Industry, he has mounted works including Invisible Cities (2013), an opera that unfolded over headphones in L.A.’s Union Station. Sharon has also made warehouses, parking garages, and escalator corridors some of the settings for his thought-provoking works.

The director, whose book A New Philosophy of Opera is coming out in September, has also racked up awards and firsts along the way. In 2014, he received the Götz Friedrich Prize in Germany for his production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic at the Staatstheater Karlsruhe. In 2017, he was named a MacArthur fellow, and shortly thereafter, he was named the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first artist-collaborator, a three-year position that included such productions as Meredith Monk’s Atlas. And with Lohengrin in 2018, Sharon became the first American to direct a production at the Bayreuth Festival.

SF Classical Voice caught up with the director by phone from New York, taking a deep dive into The Comet / Poppea. Sharon also discussed opera in the age of AI and why he’s not a fan of remounting works.

What’s up with you and science fiction? In 2017, you staged War of the Worlds at Walt Disney Concert Hall, as well as in the streets of L.A., and now The Comet / Poppea. How does the premise of W.E.B. Du Bois’s story mesh with Monteverdi?

I will say I absolutely love science fiction in opera. There’s not a lot of it — there’s a handful of [sci-fi operas] — but there’s a key element to both [forms]. Both are, even when dealing with historical characters and moments, still a fantasy, a speculation, which implies that things could be different. But when Monteverdi is looking at form in 1642, he’s presenting it in this highly critical way, implying the past didn’t exactly go the way we imagined it and we can always be morphing and changing the past.

I find that powerful, and [that’s] why I’m not an advocate of doing [operas] in historically specific productions but [instead] look for this place of speculation that connects opera fundamentally with the world of science fiction.

A scene from the LA Phil’s War of the Worlds at Walt Disney Concert Hall | Credit: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

“The Comet” has been described as a kind of proto-Afrofuturist text, set in New York City during the 1920s after a comet hits the earth and leaves a Black man and white woman as the only survivors. Poppea unspools amid social divisions in ancient Rome. Why did you choose George Lewis to compose the score for The Comet?

I was working on [The Industry’s 2020 opera] Sweet Land at the time and really thinking about race — stories of representations of race or, in the case of Sweet Land, the mechanisms of colonialism: how that can work, how we can mythologize it, the way opera tends to mythologize things, and getting at a more abstract experience of truth.

I was thinking about that and connecting it to Poppea and the experience of double consciousness, [a term that] that Du Bois coined — this notion that with the Black experience in America, you are experiencing the world with two consciousnesses, yours and the one that is imposed upon you, [that you’re] trying to live in a society where you’re not treated equally. It led me to think about Poppea as a representation of opera more broadly, and this sense of double consciousness became my interest.

That’s when I thought about George Lewis — that the counterbalance would be more theoretical. This is his [second] opera, and the actual story of the piece becomes trying to eliminate double consciousness — that [we] need the juxtaposition of two operas to enact the double consciousness for the audience. George has been such an amazing innovator for quite some time. He’s a professor at Columbia [University], the artistic director of ICE [International Contemporary Ensemble], and he wears a number of very, very important hats. I feel a kinship with him in that way.

George Lewis | Credit: Eileen Barroso

What about working with your librettist for The Comet / Poppea, Douglas Kearney?

Doug has been a great collaborator. He first did Crescent City [for The Industry in 2012, about Hurricane Katrina, with music by Anne LeBaron], and he did Sweet Land. We’re very familiar with how we work together. I think what Doug did — he didn’t just adapt Du Bois but delved deep into the full libretto of Poppea. He used language from Poppea and put it into the world of Comet. There were textual interchanges between Comet and Poppea, which he orchestrated.

He laid out the libretto almost like a double vision. He took a first crack at what it means to turn The Comet into a libretto for an opera. [There are] these two characters around a destroyed Manhattan. What Doug suggested was rooting it in one location that could convey the entire immensity of devastation.

Once he had that, it became, “What happened with the Poppea side?” That was much more fluid — four hours’ worth of music, lots of characters. It was a constant process of thinking about [and] retelling [Poppea] in relation to Comet. What I was understanding from George — because this is such a fluid thing — [led me to] encourage George to think about opera in more of a cut-up way: “It could have windows for the other world — instead of one continuous score, think about where things could break or loop.” That was part of the exploration — putting both operas on their feet somewhat independently.

Which comes first for you — the idea, the venue, the composer, the set?

It’s always a bit different. This one, fairly early on the concept for the set was clear. I was going to do the two operas simultaneously on the rotating stage. The audience is fixed and seeing both worlds in a kind of spiral. [The operas] end up feeling like they montage [between] each other. As the audience, you’ll hear what’s happening on both sides of the wall: one is the world of Comet, the other Poppea.

These two worlds will be constantly interrupted from this other universe, from this other dimension. How this is going to feel, I can’t really say. We’re staging both worlds as if they’re both constantly alive, constantly spinning out, constantly engaged. What happens will be a very exciting next phase of the creative process.

Yuval Sharon

Is it true, then, what Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed said when writing about Europeras 3 & 4, which you recently mounted in Detroit, that you’ve taken up “a Cagean operatic challenge”?

I’ve taken some of the Cagean methodology and put it in a different iteration than in just the Europeras — the intermingling of pieces without it being a total lack of intention. Do we do it with some intentionality but with a lot of openness? Those ideas really influenced the makings of [The Comet / Poppea].

The opera will run about 90 minutes, and you’ve got a dozen singers and 10 instrumentalists, including a harpsichord, a Baroque cello, and a theorbo for the Monteverdi score. What about for Comet?

The Baroque instruments are supporting Poppea, then there’s the orchestration for George’s [work], [which has] more contemporary instruments in terms of the sound world coming back and forth. In the end, [the musicians] have to feel like they’re playing one piece.

For Detroit Opera, you’re staging a new production next season of Mozart’s Così fan tutte where AI turns the tale into a futuristic experiment, and you pose the question, “Why do we continue doing opera in the era of AI?” What’s your answer?

We’re seeing AI write music, paint paintings, create plays, but I still think it’s hard to imagine an AI-created opera. It feels very far in the future because it requires so many different kinds of artists involved. Opera really does feel like this place that is so resistant to what AI is about. It can be an amazing refuge — the things that only the human mind and its messiness and incongruousness can really do.

That’s what I expect Così will feel like. We have to just grapple with it. This push for AI is centuries old and is why I want to do it with Mozart. So much of Enlightenment philosophy is all about AI.

Are there any of your works you’d like to remount? Could you see Hopscotch playing out on the streets of Manhattan or Invisible Cities, perhaps, at Grand Central Station?

It depends on the circumstances. I can’t imagine remounting Hopscotch. It’s impossible. Such a piece [is] of its moment; [it] wouldn’t make sense to redo it. But using some of those tactics in different ways would be fantastic. Invisible Cities — I would consider that. Technology has changed. I just did The Cunning Little Vixen in Detroit, [a production originally] from 2014. I think it holds up, but I would do it so differently now. I always think about what’s next as opposed to what happened.

Do you have any advice for aspiring opera directors?

Do things differently. That’s what Richard Wagner said to his own kids. Create new things. He did not say, “Just repeat my exact example.” Create your own thing. Figure it out yourself.

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