LA Street Opera: Scenes Assembled In Cars, At Stops

‘Hopscotch,’ a mobile opera recording, comes with a “key” that can be plugged into your car’s USB port, from The Industry Records. There’s also a digital download option.

Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera For 24 Cars. Music by Veronika Krausas, Marc Lowenstein, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid, David Rosenboom. Additional music by Phillip King, Odeya Nini, Lewis Pesacov, Michelle Shocked. Libretto by Tom Jacobson, Mandy Kahn, Sarah LaBrie, Jane Stephens Rosenthal, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, Erin Young. Yuval Sharon (concept, director). Mark Lowenstein (music director).  USB drive and digital download. The Industry Records TIR003.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL MEDIA — In fall 2015, Los Angeles was the setting for The Industry’s Hopscotch: A Mobile Opera For 24 Cars, one of the more bizarre — or “groundbreaking,” as some believed — undertakings in recent contemporary music history, something that was intimate in sound and grandiose in execution.

A limited number of presumably well-off patrons paid $125 to $155 apiece to ride around the grubby streets of downtown Los Angeles and vicinity in limousines listening to fragments of the opera being performed right in their cars. They would get out of their limos to witness other parts of the piece performed in public spaces and then get back in other limos to go to the next destination. Impecunious curiosity seekers could gather for free in a central hub downtown (the Southern California Institute of Architecture) to watch live videos of the performance beamed in and to take in the Grand Finale when all 24 limos converged there.

Wait, it gets even more complex. There were three separate routes on which the limos traveled — labeled red, green, and yellow — each allotted eight of the opera’s 36 chapters with the order scrambled. This was a deliberate effort to disorient linear thinking and plunge the passengers into an aimless road trip where the experience seemed more to the point than the work itself.

Well, the tables have been turned and the work itself is the focus, now that an audio recording of Hopscotch is out. Yuval Sharon, the mastermind behind this experimental opera project, says that the live performance was “intentionally fragmentary and incomplete” and the recording is supposed to fill in the gaps. So here, about two-and-a-quarter hours of the four-hour score are presented in the proper order, and it has to stand on its own wobbly merits.

A scene in ‘Hopscotch’ somewhere in Los Angeles.

There is a plot of sorts in which Lucha, a member of a puppet troupe, meets Jameson, a research scientist at JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab), when she accidentally smashes her car into his motorcycle. Of course they eventually fall in love and marry, but Jameson gets deeper into his research and disappears. Lucha hallucinates that she finds him in Hades but can’t bring him back, so she settles for Orlando, her creative partner in her troupe.

Six composers — Veronika Krausas, Marc Lowenstein, Andrew McIntosh, Andrew Norman, Ellen Reid, and David Rosenboom — provide the bulk of the music for this slender plot. The idioms are scattered all over the place, including simple songs, Latin-American-flavored music, a children’s choir with bells,  improvisations, and stretches mired in arid classical academia, performed by small, ever-changing lineups too numerous to list. Each of the three main roles is sung by different singers from scene to scene, adding unnecessary confusion. The libretto – sometimes spoken, usually sung – wanders, philosophizes, and pontificates. The low point, the “Hades” section, has ridiculously repetitive parts for Boatman and Lucha’s Father, pretentious beyond words in its evocation of Orpheus and Eurydice.

‘Hopscotch’ CD case with car-key-shaped USB stick. (Photo by Richard S. Ginell)

The packaging is innovative and even kooky, for inside the CD-sized case is a metal USB memory stick shaped like a car key. Both the music and the booklet are on this key, which you can plug into a computer or, they tell us, into the USB port in your car. Eager to see if this worked, I plugged it in and my car’s readout screen indicated that none of the files could be read. Instead, I had to download the files onto a laptop, transfer them via iTunes into an iPod, and plug that into the car, where they played just fine.

In order to get into something resembling the original spirit of the piece, I listened to the entire thing while driving around Los Angeles — including some of the sections of the city where the limos went (the maps at were too vague to re-create the exact routes). If there is a word that kept cropping up in my mind, it was alienation, a disconnect between the surroundings and what was coming over the car stereo. Now and then, the patient listener encounters something of special interest — like Lowenstein’s percolating percussion-accordion-driven rhythms in the park scene, or Krausas’ “Looking Backward” scene, enlivened by a liberating outbreak of free jazz near its close. The latter was the only music in any resonance with the L.A. landscape or the near-chaos of downtown traffic.

Parts of ‘Hopscotch’ are performed in public spaces.

The recording’s last chapter, “To Find the Center,” is apparently just an excerpt from the opera’s Grand Finale, with a huge cast milling about and babbling a laundry list of daily tasks at subliminal level, and a background score by Norman consisting of drone bass, struck crotales, and mallet percussion. The tangle of voices and instruments gradually grows more complex and ethereal before it morphs into a unified wordless choir that fades away.

If all of this suggests anything, it is the fragmented nature of sprawling Los Angeles, a car-centric city of many diverse neighborhoods with little or no connection between them, except when one of the professional sports teams has a good year. At the end, while it seems as if the city has finally found its center, those who actually live here know that is an illusion.

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Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.