Opera As History Upended, Guttural And In Your Face

The spirit Wiindigo (Sharon Chohi Kim) and a Coyote (Micaela Tobin) gave ‘Sweet Land’  haunting mythological presence. Two composers, two librettists and two directors created The Industry’s American history re-take.  (Photos: Casey Kringlen)

LOS ANGELES – Opera at its best can be transformative. It can strengthen our empathy muscles. For a time, maybe we take fewer things for granted and feel connections between people more deeply.

That’s one response to Sweet Land, the latest site-specific work from Yuval Sharon’s probing, avant-garde, L.A.-based opera company The Industry. Like previous Industry shows – Invisible Cities was set at L.A.’s Union Station; Hopscotch told three separate stories as 24 limos stopped at various sites in central L.A. – Sweet Land conjures considerable magic in an unlikely venue: the unprepossessing L.A. State Historic Park located north of downtown.

Entering the park on Saturday evening, I passed a row of porta-potties. So much for amenities. Two hundred audience members were given wristbands signifying which track, or journey, they were to take. I got orange for Feast; the other half got Train. (A separate ticket was required for each track.) We all took places on unfinished bleachers. A transparent sheet acted as a curtain of sorts. Above us in the distance loomed the back of a billboard and a bridge. You could smell dirt and raw wood. The Metro Rail rumbled by directly to our left.

Carmina Escobar as one of the Coyotes, who were depicted with in-your-face attitude.

While waiting for the show to start, two men provided light percussion, with chiming and scraping sounds. One held a bunch of wrenches in his teeth. If those primal sounds were meant to cause some disorientation and nervous anticipation, it worked.

A program note says that Sweet Land is intended to take place “in real-time, today,” but presented that way, the show wouldn’t work as well as it does. Instead, Sharon and company generate a universal you-are-there quality, allowing the show’s themes of colonialism, racial identity, and exploitation to unfold without becoming preachy and patronizing in a clunky, Peter Sellars manner.

Mercifully, Sweet Land, co-directed by Sharon and Cannupa Hanska Luger, who also serves as the inspired costume designer, avoids these pitfalls by also creating distance between the history we assume as factual and what we are shown. An example: The first act of Feast seems like the Thanksgiving holiday we know. Presented abstractly, it becomes something else. In part two of “Feast,” for instance, the Hosts sit wearing white hoods. In an interview, Sharon suggested such touches create an alternate “pocket universe.”

The co-directors, librettists Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney, and composers Du Yun and Raven Chacon all apparently agreed on finding ways to keep the audience connected – no Us v. Them allowed – so we would remain open to reflecting and rethinking received history.

This technique is masterfully controlled throughout the well-conceived and executed Feast, and also between acts where both audience groups meet at “the crossroads” overlooking the downtown skyline. As the scene plays out, the sun sets. Since darkness is often disempowering, Sweet Land‘s creators gain a further purchase on our unconscious.

Spirit animals stealthily moving along are projected on a wall of water, while two Coyotes, played with in-your-face convincing attitude by Carmina Escobar and Micaela Tobin, and Wiindigo, given a haunting mythological presence by Sharon Chohi Kim and wearing colors of no particular tribe, make guttural sounds deep enough to wake the dead. Someone said Wiindigo looked like the stringy-haired scary lady from The Grudge. There’s pop-cultural appropriation for you.

Michaela Tobin as a Coyote. A you-are-there quality allows ‘Sweet Land’s’ themes to unfold without becoming preachy.

The two Coyotes also opened the show, acting as guides for the two groups and directing us back to our respective theaters for act two of Feast and Train. (The latter show, by the way, focuses on westward expansion.)

The title Sweet Land is bitterly ironic. Other ironies roil below the surface, like the word “coyote,” a term for opportunists smuggling desperate people across the U.S. border. Sharon and his collaborators also have some fun with Jimmy Gin, the main Arrival invited in by the Hosts. He’s given black patches on his crotch and butt, worn like badges of a rapacious despoiler. He also wears a blue phallus as his bolo tie clip and silly cowboy-type hats (a la the singer Pharrell). Sung with appropriately sweet-sinister character by countertenor Scott Belluz, Jimmy makes a memorably disgusting villain, but one with a  sense of implacability about him. His unwilling bride, Makwa, was portrayed with stunning authority and moving sadness by Kelci Hahn, a soprano with impressive range.

Stringy-haired Wiindigo (Kim), costumed by Cannupa Hanska Luger, made guttural sounds deep enough to wake the dead.

Feast‘s small orchestral ensemble, expertly conducted by Jenny Wong, performed the austere and finely integrated music of Chinese composer Du Yun and Raven Chacon, a Native American artist, with dramatic precision. Generally, Du Yun’s sonic palette offered a sensitive, expressive mix of styles, including a wry Baroque passage featuring harpsichord-like accompaniment announcing European Jimmy Gin’s arrival. Incidentally, a new work by Du Yun will be featured on April 21 on an L.A. Philharmonic Green Umbrella program, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel’s Bone is scheduled May 1-3 at L.A. Opera.

At the end, the audiences from both shows converge a final time at the bleachers. There’s more singing, much of it sounding like howls of despair, from a distance. Supertitles projected on the back of the aforementioned billboard and bridge became eerie.

Sharon recommends people choose one track of Sweet Land or, if they must see both, to come back on a different evening. I can see why. At a lean 90-minutes each, these shows pack a lot into them.

While every audience member will bring a unique response to Sweet Land, I found myself thinking of  Tommy Orange’s harrowing Thanksgiving history lesson in his 2018 novel, There There. And J.M. Coetzee’s observation, “that the settler societies [of the past], the settler societies of today, ought to be riven with self-doubt but are not…When a society (but for a few dissident members) decides that it does not feel troubled, how can healing even begin?”

The show’s branding includes a Mayflower image. (Concept by Cannupa Hanska Luger, graphics by Visual Issues)

Maybe a show like Sweet Land, which explores our collective amnesia and cultural mythologizing with imagination and asks whether progress must always depend on dehumanization and despoilment, offers a place where healing has a fighting chance.

Performances of Sweet Land continue through March 15. For tickets and information, go here.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.