Our Invisible City

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Director Yuval Sharon boldly sets the new site specific opera "Invisible Cities" within Los Angeles' Union Station. Conceptually, this courageous gesture is both the work's greatest success and most profound challenge.

The opera borrows its title, characters and thematic inspiration from Italo Calvino's famously dense novel "Invisible Cities." Complexly structured, Calvino's text imagines a dialogue between Kubla Khan and Marco Polo as they recount the glory of cities both real and imagined.  

For the opera, the explorer and conqueror are joined by an ensemble of singers, a corps of dancers, the life of Union Station, and significantly a pair of wireless headphones. Upon arrival, every ticket holder gets a pair of headphones that serve as our connection to the score and singers.  

On opening night, Mr. Sharon welcomed the audience; explained that the piece would travel throughout the historic architecture of the station; we were free to wander; he reminded us that this was a "working train station" and that surrounding us would be people rushing to catch a train, people waiting, people seeking refuge . . . "Ideally," Mr. Sharon said hopefully, "these two worlds will be one."

The opera comes closest to this exciting promise in the station's waiting room. After following characters, who are clearly a part of the opera through the gardens, the audience finds itself in the cavernous hall. You find yourself scanning the faces, the bodies of everyone in the station. Who's part of the art? Who isn't? Suddenly, a woman sleeping under a green blanket, who you imagined to be homeless, begins singing. There's a delicious, dangerous tension as you discover and imagine both the invisible city of the opera and more importantly the invisible city of Los Angeles.

The magic of the piece is becoming aware of the art and life that surrounds us: of engaging the public space of our city as a locus for art making.

But it's this very awareness that leads to a discovery of the piece's conceptual shortcomings. 

First, those pesky headphones: they have the unintended consequence of cutting off one of our most important senses and isolating each audience member in their own sonic bubble. Sound, which gives us such a strong sense of direction and space, is flattened into two dimensions. While they connect the audience to the 'music' of the opera they obscure the 'music' of Union Station.

But the more important consequence is one of community. I couldn't help but become aware of everyone with a headset and everyone without one. Here's a piece that's embracing the life of the city but at the same time excluding it.   

"Invisible Cities" stumbles upon an ironic and unfortunately apt metaphor for Los Angeles: here are the privileged elite wandering around a historic relic, oddly cut off from one another by technology, searching for the center of the invisible city that surrounds them.

This is an important piece you shouldn't miss.

"Invisible Cities" plays through November 17th at Union Station.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: Dana Ross