BREAKING NEWS — It was one of the more unlikely places that one would ever expect to see an opera — a crescent-shaped, sparsely vegetated piece of land beside a set of trolley tracks. The opera itself was scarcely less unusual: Created by a committee of six, the event was split into two concurrently running parts with the audience required to pick itself up and move to various jerry-built, temporary performance spaces in order to get just half the story. And it worked — a self-contained organism with the visible environment and invisible history of the locale playing roles as important as anything else in the production.
This was Sweet Land, a production of the iconoclastic Los Angeles company that calls itself The Industry and the winner of the 2021 Music Critics Association of North America’s Best New Opera Award. The award, given annually, honors musical and theatrical excellence by the composer and librettist of an opera that received its world premiere in North America during the preceding calendar year. A streamed audio recording of the score will be released on The Industry’s label on Sept. 24, and a full video of the work (excerpt below) is currently available on Vimeo.
The opera was composed jointly by Du Yun and Raven Chacon, with texts by Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney, and co-directed by The Industry’s Yuval Sharon and Cannupa Hanska Luger. It received its world premiere with two performances on Feb. 29, 2020, but couldn’t complete its scheduled run beyond mid-March because the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down all of concert life.
The 2021 runner-up was Matthew Aucoin’s and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, another opera that received its world premiere in Los Angeles — via Los Angeles Opera — just prior to the shutdown. Due to the pandemic, operas that only received online productions were included for consideration.
The award committee is co-chaired by Heidi Waleson, opera critic of the Wall Street Journal, and George Loomis, longtime contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America. The other committee members are Arthur Kaptainis, who writes for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale; John Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of the New York Times and now contributor to Opera (UK); and Alex Ross, classical music critic of the New Yorker.
Citing Sweet Land as a “haunting dramatization of the nightmarish histories of indigenous people and immigrants in America,” the committee praised the “spirit of invention and passion that many other participants brought to the project, which offers a new model of opera as a collective enterprise.”
While Sweet Land was a collaborative effort, it was Sharon who set the project in motion while contemplating the results of the 2016 presidential election. “Sweet Land grew out of a response to the election in so many ways,” says Sharon. “For me, the initial impetus behind it was really trying to think about — can opera be a mechanism for trying to explore how we got to this stage where such an election was possible? Not going back to 2012 or 2008; let’s go back to origins about what kind of country are we living in.”
Sharon’s previous productions with The Industry were attempts to release opera from the confines of traditional spaces — to figuratively “push out the walls of the opera house” into the surrounding community. Hence, Invisible Cities was performed within L.A.’s busy Union Station, Hopscotch literally hopscotched from place to place around the central city in limousines, and War of the Worlds — in tandem with the Los Angeles Philharmonic — took place simultaneously inside Walt Disney Concert Hall and on two outdoor stages, including the top of a now-demolished parking structure.
Yet Sweet Land expanded the scope of The Industry’s visions even further, going so far as to suggest an alternative history of the United States to the one that long has been taught in schools and memorialized on national holidays. The goal was to incorporate the point of view of the victims of European colonization of the New World and contemplate how that history was erased from the history books. Howard Zinn’s seminal The People’s History of the United States was one influence; another, greater one was An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, which goes deeper into the struggles of Native Americans.
Sharon is careful to point out, though, that while trying to set the essence of history straight, “Sweet Land was inherently a myth, so I don’t think it should under any circumstances be confused with being educational. But I would hope that the experience of it would inspire people’s curiosity to become more educated.”
As a performance site, The Industry settled upon Los Angeles State Historic Park, once the home grounds of the Tongva Native Americans and later the site of a train station where travelers from the East disembarked. In the northernmost corner of the park, they built a rickety-looking, bare-bones main stage with a grandstand overlooking a post-industrial wasteland, and two circular structures nearby where the parallel threads of the story unfolded.
Amid all of the swirling currents of history and the polyglot score — sometimes atonal, sometimes electronic, sometimes folk-influenced — one could sense the environment making the opera even more complex and meaningful. The Metro Gold Line trolley frequently whooshed along the tracks, helicopters buzzed the park, a train horn from Union Station would blow — all representing the costs of progress. Looking to the south, you could sense the triumph of the white man’s money in the lit-up skyscrapers downtown. And we were standing on the ground of past civilizations marginalized by history.
“The site became very influential in a lot of what we were doing,” says Chacon about composing the score. “We knew the stage would be outdoors, we knew that the train would be going by the location, we knew that you might hear the helicopter in the sky. All of that was taken into consideration in the sound design.”
Luger, who came late to the project, says he had never worked in opera before, so it was a bizarre baptism for him. “Theater is nuts!,” he says. “I’m a visual artist, so I have to have my work done two months before it even hits the eyes of an audience. Theater is not like that at all, so the whole time I was like, oh, we ain’t gonna make it! But theater has an incredible life to itself that has adapted to that sort of angst and actually uses it as fuel to kind of like drive the performers, the musicians, the set crew. There is something in the atmosphere of that tension that often generates something strong.”
In an e-mail, Duncan wrote that the collaborative process was one in which “the librettists collaborated around the core themes and interconnected stories and the composers collaborated on the music. We had opportunities to co-create the overall storyboard and musical elements, but for the most part the collaborations were parallel and occasionally intersecting. For the finale, ‘Echoes,’ Douglas and I wrote a number of (texts for) possible arias, and Raven and Du Yun selected the ones they were most drawn to for composition.”
After the Prologue on the main stage depicting the arrival of colonists in the New World, the audience was split into two halves determined by the color of previously distributed wristbands and escorted through a pair of planked-wood walkways leading to the other structures. One structure hosted “Feast,” the story of a Thanksgiving-style gathering; the other structure hosted “Train,” a telling of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Each story was divided into two parts — the first being the “actual” history, the other being a whitewashed version that tried to erase the previous one. Right in the center of the “Train” structure was a chamber ensemble led by Marc Lowenstein that was surrounded by the audience, while in the “Feast” structure, a different group, led by Jenny Wong, was placed off to the side. Afterwards, everyone repaired back to the main stage where a few survivors of colonial plunder and pain were left to tell their stories in a real-life wasteland as patches of the libretto were projected onto billboards and even the Broadway Viaduct.
As for the task of sharing the composition of a musical score with another composer, Chacon had never worked that way before Sweet Land. “But I was definitely comfortable with it,” he says. “I knew Yuval’s previous work. I knew that there’s no limitations on what he’s willing to put into such a project. I was aware that Hopscotch had 15 composers. So I was prepared for whatever might turn out. But I told Yuval right away that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into just writing the indigenous music. She (Du Yun) didn’t want that task either.”
One of the unusual compositional problems they faced was that each was asked to write separate scores for the first halves of the two story threads, then switch places in the second halves, and ultimately write the finale together. “Du Yun wrote ‘Feast 1’ and I wrote ‘Train 1,’ Chacon says. “That was our first assignment. We workshopped those and brought those together during a performance. I really did not know what she was working on, and she didn’t know what I was working on until we previewed them. It was very interesting to hear how different they were.”
Yet in the final product, it was difficult for a first-time listener to tell the difference between Chacon’s and Du Yun’s styles, for both served up collages of different styles for chamber ensembles — abstract electronic noise, rigorously atonal instrumentals, extended vocal techniques that took their cues from Native American music, an outdoor interlude that was entirely improvised, and a made-up folk song-like number in “Train 1” with percussion imitating a hammer striking the railroad spike in the manner of the folk standard “John Henry.” Chacon was actually proud of the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference; that was his goal, “a melding together of individuals into a whole.”
To Du Yun, Sweet Land is important because the U.S. has so many layers of people coming in. “I am one of those recent immigrants,” she says, “so my relationship to this is very different than that of Raven or Douglas or Cannupa or Aja or Yuval. And I think all of us have a very different and a singular relationship to the land. (This work is) not afraid to expose the complexity and the many layers of that.”
Since the aborted run of Sweet Land, the retelling of American history from the viewpoint of oppressed peoples has escalated into a hotly debated political issue with buzz phrases like critical race theory and cancel culture thrown around.
“I think I read somewhere that we should be celebrating the U.S.,” Kearney wrote in an e-mail. “I get the feeling that such celebration would involve erasing `Train 1’ and `Feast 1’ before they even got staged. Perhaps that’s an unfair assumption, but I know this: The U.S. has had literally centuries to toot its own horn at the expense of many. And it has taken those opportunities pretty steadily.”