Hopscotch and Steel Hammer
By Myron Meisel
Since its founding in 2010, The Industry, under the daring leadership of artistic director Yuval Sharon, has pursued a new media makeover meant to shake up not merely the Los Angeles opera world but the world at large. Its extraordinary coup de theatre, 2013’s Invisible Cities, commandeered Union Station as singers and dancers and audience wandered about as alien invaders amongst the real-life travellers, apprehending the orchestral music through Sennheiser headphones.
This was a tough act to follow, but The Industry’s cutting-edge identity mandates that it must top it. Sharon, trained in the world of the European avant-garde (he assisted Achim Freyer on his landmark local Ring Cycle), doesn’t allow his high-art credentials to compromise a visionary reimagining of flamboyant showmanship for a digital age and social media temperaments. He brandishes an unerring instinct for investing a long-deemed irretrievably irrelevant art form with a dazzling array of hipness, conceptualism as experiential cool.
Everything about Hopscotch (inspired by but bearing no resemblance to the Julio Cortazar novel, though there are readings from Ortega y Gasset) seeks to elaborate upon the more contained inspiration of the Union Station gambit. It employs five composers (with several additional fill-ins), six writer-lyricists and an obviously very busy dramaturg. The work consists of 36 “chapters,” telling a story ever so slightly suggestive of the Orpheus myth. Ten of the chapters are animations available online. Audience members, in groups of four, join singers and musicians in a series of limousines that carry them throughout neighborhoods east of the downtown Industrial District, emerging at undisclosed sites to explore parks or plazas or buildings.
There are three distinct routes, each denominated by a color (like each of L.A.’s subway lines), though even parties that simultaneously travel a common itinerary start at different locations and proceed in a different order. Moreover, each route encounters only eight of the full complement of chapters, though everyone finishes up at The Central Hub to congregate with all the artists (and ticketless viewers) for the finale. So, not only is the narrative, such as it is, non-linear, it also shuffles the sequence like a deck of cards split into three piles.
The point, naturally, is that no one’s experience of the overall work will be the same. It will also vary depending on how much the occupants of your limo partake of the videotaping that is beamed back to the Hub for real-time streaming, or simply chat among themselves, or peer out the windows to get a sense of the geographic journey. Indeed, ultimately Hopscotch is far more intensely a theatrical experience than a musical one, since the aural materials we encounter, however deft and expressive (though unevenly comprehensible), never assert themselves decisively over the quotidian immersion of the allusive journey undertaken.
On my Red itinerary, from the rooftop pool area of an building, trailing behind leading lady Lucha (named for Mexican singer Lucha Reyes, subject of a masterful biopic by Arturo Ripstein, and here portrayed throughout by multiple sopranos) and two French horn players, one could see the L.A. Gun Club, a stray movie soundstage, and a defunct box company, while a trombone sounded from the top of the repurposed National Biscuit Company across the street, a spatial effect that would have wowed such an experimental composer as Henry Brant. We followed the central lovers with an accordionist into Hollenbeck Park, with its duck-filled pond and a bandshell where other singers are deployed, one of them on roller skates. (I couldn’t help but notice official Los Angeles signs at both pool and park prohibiting defecation by humans or dogs.)
At a triggering event where Lucha crashes her car into the motorcycle of her future lover, our limo circled the scene in several 360-degree maneuvers like one of Brian De Palma’s unmotivated camera gyrations, the voices amplified inside our vehicle as we watch the singers apparently lip-synching their words, the car and motorcycle evoked by wooden sculptures of rough-hewn suggestive beauty instead of custom props.
In Mariachi Plaza, we wandered in and out of Libros Schmibros. I discovered the urban sanctuary of Evergreen Cemetery, a location mysteriously new even after having lived 40 years in this city.
Logistically, it is so vast and complicated that there is marvel in the feat itself, particularly considering how challenging it is in everyday life to get most people from Point A to Point B at all, let alone on time.
Press were invited to shakedown previews, and while it was natural that the process was confusing to grasp at first, there were no apparent glitches. Save one: It requires multiple arbitrary acts of willful imagination and no little amount of hand-waving to assemble any coherent comprehension of Hopscotch as a musical and dramatic entity remotely related to how it has been conceived.
The creators understand this and provide ample explicatory supplemental materials to compensate for it, not least in a copious array of supporting documentation provided to spectators – documentation that’s unreasonable to absorb except in retrospect, if then, or ever.
No doubt this outcome comprises the purpose of the piece: to partake collectively in an acutely individual spectacle, where resolutions are unattainable with the vagaries of obscure process being our only points of reference. Meanwhile, we explore the intricacies of “community” and seek out patterns of some newly minted connection without the gratification of any imposed certainty, or authoritative program. It achieves a relentless interpenetration of media without recourse to any palpable sense of shared contact. It is so big and elusive that we disappear within it more than it encourages us to emerge transformed.
Instead, Hopscotch’s meta-significance may lie in its unabashed embodiment of an anti-operatic happening, shorn of opera’s traditional barriers of social class and pretension (as well as a Happening’s reliance on spontaneity and chance). Yet most of the various innovations can be viewed as effectively a brazen checklist of grant-magnet attributes: prolix profundities, expanding audience appeal to younger demographics, technologically savvy, community-based, environmentally grounded, academically au courant theoretical underpinnings, etc. Yet the prodigiously talented Sharon strikes me as equally a new incarnation of impresario, yet still a consummate showman, if perhaps more in the mold of Mike Todd than Sol Yurok. He and his crack collaborators deliver the goods, though it is not unreasonable to wonder about the extent of the wardrobe they wear.
In one crucial particular, The Industry cannot deliver an essential cornerstone for a true democratization of opera: a reasonable ticket price. This is too grandiose and therefore expensive an undertaking, and given the relatively few who can participate directly, it’s a hot ticket that everyone is talking about, while accommodating only a select elect. Commendably, they are doing everything possible to allow access to the extravaganza via the array of online resources, especially the animations that provide the links missing to even those who purchase the expensive tickets. And The Central Hub offers free admittance, providing headphones and those multiple simultaneous video feeds for as long or as short a time as anyone chooses, and for which, fortuitously they can show up for at any time, unlike the necessarily well-marshaled ticketholders. The 4:30 daily finale, uncharacteristically modest in its intimation of epiphany, is open to all, subject to limitations of capacity.
Lest this review seem too churlish, enough praise cannot be lavished for The Industry’s ambition and its dedication to the cultivation of opera as a living, evolving art form. Its First Take presentation earlier this year of scenes from avant-garde operas in development was exciting beyond measure, and the underlying taste sophisticated and genuinely bold.
Hopscotch may jump around too much in its determination not to allow its feet to land within the squares, too diffuse musically and conceptually to coalesce effectively; still, an excess of ingenuity and enterprise remain among the most valuable of faults. Its shortcomings presage a process from which greater things might come.
For the record, the composers, all well-established ample talents with much-appreciated local Los Angeles connections, include Veronika Krausas, Marc Lowenstein (also music director), Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid and the venerable David Rosenboom, and the writers Tom Jacobson, Mandy Kahn, Sarah LaBrie, Jane Stephens Rosenthal, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, Erin Young. All subsumed their egos to serve the greater glory of the project, and while I heard the work of only some of them, their distinctive voices added spice and fiber to the tasting menu of the work’s fragmented vision.
John Henry’s Hammer
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer began as a free-standing composition, an oratorio commissioned by her nonpareil group Bang on a Can (which she founded with David Lang and Michael Gordon), exploring dimensions of the American myth of John Henry, the pile-driving black rail-worker who matched his brute strength against a steam-powered drill, only to die trying.
Wolfe claims to have culled her text from over 200 extant versions of the song. Perhaps its currency has faded, but in my day it was among the first songs we learned in elementary school. A foundational fable, it has been appropriated for many different purposes over at least 150 years, which in the folk tradition involves many lyrical and melodic alterations, from Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White to Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen.
Wolfe seizes on the extreme variations in the story, applying her contemporary composing techniques with a sensitive appreciation for different styles of traditional Appalachian singing, her own repetitive motifs woven into subtle harmonic dissonances that invoke intimations of small religious choirs, of shape note vocalizing, and other mountain country practices, including gospel and blues. Using three pure female voices, backed by a bottom of cello & bass & piano & percussion, along with electric guitar, mountain dulcimer, wooden bones, banjo, harmonicas and clarinet, Wolfe can sound resolutely in new music mode while remaining ever alert and aware to the network of old-time nuances and styles.
She explores the range of fantasy and ulterior purposes that surrounds the core legend, capable of sustaining so many often contradictory meanings. Was John Henry a free man impressed into convict labor by a journey south in search of work? Does he represent the futility of manual labor against automated progress, or its innate dignity? The questions are rightly propounded as endlessly ponderable. The American Communist Party during the Depression created an iconic emblem out of the John Henry image in its joint efforts to unionize workers and organize for civil rights. Racists could interpret the story contrastingly to buttress their own prejudices.
It’s a well-focused and inventive work, like most of her other compositions, yet Wolfe felt it would benefit from the amplification of becoming a stage piece with scenes and movement, enlisting the collaboration of the seven-time Obie winning SITI Company, under the direction of Anne Bogart, who have been seen here twice performing reimagined Greek classics at The Getty Villa, most recently Persians (with four of these six actors).
At that time, I wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “SITI exhibits a genuine knack for melding the ancient with the avant-garde, ceremonial solemnity with abstract movement,” and that certainly remains true for its contribution here, characterized by a rigorous discipline of physical performance. Barry O’Hanlon’s choreography tends more toward actorly movement than dance, and unlike Wolfe’s fine-spun slight variations, can grow repetitious at times in a piece that, while inarguably lengthy at 115 minutes, nevertheless gathers increasing strength and power as it goes along.
Bogart recruited four playwrights (Kia Corthron, Carl Hancock Rux, Will Power and Regina Taylor – still fewer than Hopscotch) to craft scenes from John Henry’s imagined various lives. Discomfiting parallels to our own continuing school-to-prison racial pipeline are strikingly suggested by pointed takes on the perpetuation of forced labor by other means after the abolition of slavery. The ideas can be complex, yet are not dwelled on: too many new viewpoints to move on to.
Naturally, Eric Berryman as the kaleidoscopically mutating John Henry figure stands out as charismatic and compliant, prideful and humble, reflective and reflexive, but all the performers, musical and otherwise, provide vivid yet malleable presences.
Do all the pieces coalesce seamlessly to create a work larger than its parts? Not often enough, although the underlying integrity of Wolfe’s score and the dedicated commitment of the SITI cast suffice to carry the intellectual and aesthetic momentum, even when integration and invention occasionally flag. I was mindful of the flawed yet compelling folk cantata composed by Kurt Weill, Down in the Valley (1945, revised 1948), which UCLA resourcefully mounted with students this past spring. Steel Hammer, for all its conscious deconstruction and analytical bent, doesn’t seem all so very different from that pioneering lost opera, and both seem to me to work a vein which I would hope other intrepid creators would find it stimulating to mine.
Hopscotch presented by The Industry, is performing at various locations with varied starting times. The production is based at The Central Hub, 350 Merrick Street, downtown (next to SCI-Art), open each performance day from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m., providing first-come, first-serve headphones, multicasting video from the chapters of the story, with the show’s animations screening from 12:30-1 p.m. and 2:30-3 p.m. on performance days, and the finale at 4 p.m., open to all for free until capacity is met. Scheduled performance days: 11/7, 11/8, 11/14, 11/15, starting at 10:45am and last run-through starting at 2:45pm. Running time: Ninety minutes per each of three Routes. Information, tickets and animation: [note: no real phone number, I double checked] www.HopscotchOpera.com
Steel Hammer, SITI Company and Bang on a Can All-Stars at Royce Hall UCLA (closed). Running time: 115 minutes.