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The Industry and L.A. Dance Project, Invisible Cities, 2013, Union Station, Los Angeles, California. Directed by Yuval Sharon. Photo by Dana Ross

Questions of Practice: Opera Director Yuval Sharon on Modern Opera Techniques

Opera director Yuval Sharon set his production of Invisible Cities in a functioning train station, outfitting each audience member with a pair of headphones, allowing them to immerse themselves in the piece and giving them the agency to pursue which elements interested them most. In a conversation hosted at the Center in 2018, Sharon discussed his approach to storytelling and explained why he thinks even the most ostentatious technical gimmicks should take a backseat to the story itself.

Sharon discusses when new technologies and storytelling techniques are most effective.

Yuval Sharon. Filmed at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage on May 17, 2018.

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Whether did the composers, the visual artists, that the singers, whatever you want them to be their authentic selves. You know you want them to be true to who they are.

And on the other hand, you also want everyone to be out of their comfort zone. Because that's where I think the most exciting art really happens is when everyone is pushed beyond what they think they could do. But they first need that basic natural inclination towards the experimentation.

For people that are just fix that saying opera is going to be a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, there's going to be a love story, and a death. All that has to happen. But within that we can be flexible.

Some people find a lot of flexibility in that or do that narrative wonderfully. And that's great. But they shouldn't be doing your VR, kind of things.

The people that are going to gravitate towards using new technologies as new storytelling techniques. I don't think you can tell an old story with these new techniques. And nor should you.

Right around the time is was Invisible Cities, I heard about a company in London that was also doing operas with headphones. They were smaller spaces. More like spaces like this. And they would use headphones and amplify the singers.

But they were doing Malebo M. And I just didn't understand why. To me, why would we explore these ways of telling a story to use an old opera?

I think it can only lose. Because we know what that opera kind of feels like when it's full you know. Why would we want to hear it the way we hear it when we're waiting on a train?

But instead if we want to reproduce that waiting on a train in a train station, but about creating a brand new piece, that allows the technology to feel inevitable and also a fully integrated part of the storytelling. It's always hard for me at these projects because to talk about them, I almost have to lead with the gimmickry of it. And I know that if roles were reversed, and I was sitting, listening to myself, I would go OK that sounds like a fun, cool gimmick. But what's it about? What's the content? What's the meaning of it?

So I always try and at least, even if it's backwards, even if I have to first talk about the gimmick to eventually get back to why we're doing it. So that when the audience comes to these experiences within a few minutes, the headphones just disappear and they were in the piece. And that's the best circumstance. And you want the storytelling devices or the technical devices as soon as they draw attention to themselves that you've lost.

Sharon explains his approach to realizing work that allows audiences to feel “emancipated” from expectations.

Yuval Sharon. Filmed at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage on May 17, 2018.

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I found myself particularly inspired by the writing of the French theorist Jacques Rousseau who talks a lot in his book 'The Emancipated Spectator'. If these topics or ideas are of interest you, I really recommend you reading, because he actually talks about the synthesis of the Brechtian and Artaudian models and how to make that movement between the passive and the active a kind of unstable space. So that you're never quite aware how you are supposed to engage with the work that you're in.

And sometimes the distance is very useful, and sometimes the proximity is very exciting. But that shift between the two is where some very exciting work happens and where even the top the title emancipated spectator. I find really exciting. The idea that the audience isn't just a captive prisoner in their seats, but also that in the activity of potentially moving around, that they are nonetheless not just in a hypnotic state.

Here's how I took these ideas now and wanted to apply them to opera and started thinking about how to apply them to opera. I knew I couldn't really do it in a conventional opera house in a conventional opera company. So I started the industry with the intention of trying to explore these kinds of ideas as ways to expand what opera might be.

The thing that was challenging for me was starting this all off. So the industry is a purely entrepreneurial enterprise. Now, not to contradict what I said earlier about the collaborative nature of genius. Because I've done this with a team all along.

That said I've been part of the entire process the marketing, the fundraising, the not just the conceptualization of the ideas, but then also the realization of these ideas, how to bring them into the practical realm, how to sell the tickets, how to communicate with the audience, listen to the audience. All of that became a part of what this company has been about. And I hope for constituents that are here that something I would love to really impart is that the closer the artistic and for lack of a better word administrative, I feel like that sounds so bureaucratic.

But let's call them the pretty surreal side of the work that the closer that those two fields are with each other, the stronger the work is going to resonate to an audience.


Yuval Sharon is founder and artistic director of The Industry, a Los Angeles-based, experimental production company. In May 2018, he visited the Center to speak about the ideas that drive his projects, the importance of creative partnerships, and how he engages with audiences to circumvent their expectations about opera. The videos above are excerpts from this conversation.