The drama of humanity unfolds in Union Station — oh, and an opera, too

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Passenger, or opera singer?

At most performances you pay your money, go sit in your seat, and wait for the action to unfold. Not so at the opera Invisible Cities, which officially debuts tomorrow night at Union Station in downtown. (It is based on the 1972 Italo Calvino novel of the same name.)

“This information booth is closed”

After checking in, you are presented with a snazzy set of headphones, into which is pumped an operatic score performed live by on-site musicians. Then, you and your fellow audience members roam around in search of the action.

Of course there’s plenty of action in Union Station on a typical day. (Nighttime is particularly dramatic, if you haven’t ever been.) It’s some of the best theater in the universe, in fact; all you need is a bit of imagination to look at the parade of humanity, coming and going, or fixed in the enormous chairs in the waiting area, using the magnificent building  as home base.

But imagine all that, with the occasional opera singer emerging from around a corner, belting out a song.

After bounding through the main waiting area, this dancer leapt onto the information booth
After bounding through the main waiting area, this dancer leapt onto the information booth

What I loved about Invisible Cities is how it forced me to inhabit and experience Union Station in a way I never would have just passing through. Curiously, tentatively, with no particular aim.

What’s also fascinating is the group dynamics. At first the audience, in this case about 50 people, roamed in a cluster, looking for… well, we weren’t sure what or where. Eventually, some of us rogues meandered off away from the group, integrating with the unofficial audience of passersby. With the haunting music playing in my headphones, I witnessed a poor young guy sinking to the ground, clearly tripping out on something– not the opera. He was oblivious to the opera.

Walking east in the terminal, I faced a gaggle of people who just emerged from an arriving train, as the operatic music in my headsets provided a dramatic score. Was that man in a gold sequined jacket coming from Santa Barbara part of the action? No, it turned out, but the guy in the wheelchair hanging out in the courtyard was.

Below: Warren Olney talks to Yuval Sharon, Artistic Director of The Industry about “Invisible Cities”

The genius of the conceit here is that it forces you to inhabit a space the way we rarely do, curiously, tentatively, with no particular aim. It creates a bond between you and the other headphone-wearing audience members.  It made you pay better attention to the random other humans who happened in on the experience, as they gazed with wonder or concern or even disinterest at those dancers writhing on the floor of the terminal.

The producers told me beforehand that part of the aim here is to celebrate mass transit in this city that’s furiously working to embrace and expand it. While that aim is great, and so is this massive effort, really what’s most wonderful about Invisible Cities is how it uses technology to unite us in an odd, wordless way. A nice antidote to how technology is dividing us in its odd, wordless way.

Performances through November 8th.  For details, click here.

Passenger, or opera singer?