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Opera Director Yuval Sharon Awarded MacArthur 'Genius' Grant

Oct 11, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 6:31 am

American opera and theater director Yuval Sharon has earned one of the most prestigious – and lucrative — honors in the arts world. He was announced, early Wednesday morning, as a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of the so-called "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, which comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000 purse. He joins 23 others, representing a broad range of talent in the arts, humanities and sciences. Musicians Rhiannon Giddens and Tyshawn Sorey are also among this year's winners.

Sharon, still in his 30s, founded The Industry, an experimental opera company based in Los Angeles. He was singled out for, as the foundation cited, "expanding how opera is performed and experienced through immersive, multisensory and mobile productions that are infusing a new vitality into the genre."

Labeled as "opera's disrupter in residence," Sharon plays with concepts of reality and fiction in his headphone opera Invisible Cities (by Christopher Cerrone), which is set amid real life commuters in a Los Angeles train station. The production was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist. He's also paired CGI technology with traditional staging in a reanimated version of Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera originally inspired by a comic-strip.

But perhaps no production lives more outside-the-box (literally beyond the four walls of an opera house) or is more worthy of the MacArthur "genius" moniker than Sharon's Hopscotch. With a team of six composers, six librettists, over 125 performers and a fleet of limousines, the "mobile opera" unfolds across the city of Los Angeles with audience members and musicians inside vehicles and assigned to specified locations. A lone trumpeter, for instance, offers solos from atop an abandoned water tower perched on the sixth floor of a warehouse. New Yorker critic Alex Ross compares its scope and ambition to Wagner's four-day, 15-hour Ring cycle, describing Hopscotch as "a combination of road trip, architecture tour, contemporary-music festival and waking dream."

Sharon graduated as an English Literature major (with a minor in dramatic arts) from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. Before starting The Industry, he worked as an assistant director on productions at the Los Angeles Opera, the San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera and abroad at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and at Berlin's Komische Oper.

Earlier this year, Sharon was announced as one of the producers at the 2018 Bayreuth Festival in Germany. It's the first time the all-Wagner music fest has named an American to produce an opera. His latest work, an operatic adaptation of Orson Welles' radio drama War of the Worlds (with music by Annie Gosfield) premieres at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and on the streets of L.A., on Nov. 12.

In conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel, at the listening link above, Sharon talks about the ideas behind his groundbreaking works. Excerpts from that conversation follow, edited for breadth and clarity.

For those of us haven't experienced your operas, describe what you're doing and what you conceive of it.

I've always been drawn to an idea of opera as something that wasn't just a concert with nice costumes, but was actually something closer to the root of what opera always was, which was an interdisciplinary and multimedia experience. You have to think of these people that put together the first operas, thinking, "OK, we've got a composer, we've got a designer, we've got a poet, a choreographer, we have this beautiful space and we're going to bring all of them together into this kind of unstable mix to try to understand what this thing would be that we would create." And that's why they called it opera. In Italian it translates literally to just "work." When you think of opera on those terms it sounds so contemporary and so open and still something that feels like something emerging. And that's something I've always been drawn to with opera.

In Hopscotch, there are multiple plots and the opera unfolds in different locations in Los Angeles and the audience travels from location to location. Do I have that right?

It's a notoriously difficult project to summarize. It did take place in 24 cars and locations all around Los Angeles. I think that when people hear about that project or about Invisible Cities, they can come across as a little gimmicky-sounding, or they can sound like it's a cool stunt or something fun to do. But they really come from a very deep investigation into both what opera is and the ideas of opera. But also how operas can connect really closely and deeply with the life of a city and our social experience. In something like Hopscotch or Invisible Cities, I really aimed to try and bring something that seems inaccessible – just from the idea of the word "opera" – and try and bring it right into the fabric of our experience of everyday life.

You said there's a lot of fear in the opera world, and you also said all fear is manufactured. What do you mean by that? Who is manufacturing the fear?

This is a much bigger question than just an aesthetic question. I think about this a lot in terms of our current political reality or our current social situations. Fears and prejudices, and over reactions and over simplifications, they all go to narrow our minds, and that is being done by people with a specific agenda. A piece of art can actually open us up to what we don't know and what we don't expect and help us see the world from a different perspective. I actually think we get closer to the essence of what it means to be alive and be a part of a community with other human beings. And I think that's so essential now more than ever.

You once said "As arts leaders we're supposed to be the ones that create our audience. I see a resistance to that. It's the idea that, 'Well, it's what our audiences wants.'" You say you're supposed to do what he audience doesn't yet know they want.

They think that the only way they will sell tickets is by giving an audience what they already expect. I don't know a lot of audiences that go to an opera or a theatre piece or a film and wanting to see exactly what they already know they're getting. I think they actually want to be taken on a journey somewhere they've never been before and to experience something brand new. And the only way to do that is to ask the audience to take a leap of faith, but first and foremost you as the artist and the producer have to take the first leap of faith.

(Note: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awards these grants, is among NPR's financial supporters.)

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To experience an opera, you join a few hundred other people in a big theater. The ones closest to the performance are the best dressed. And you watch and listen to performers up on stage behind an invisible fourth wall. Wrong, says Yuval Sharon, and today we can call him a genius for saying so.

Sharon has been awarded a so-called genius grant by the MacArthur Foundation for, as they say, expanding how opera is performed and experienced through immersive, multi-sensory and mobile productions - for example, "Invisible Cities."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "INVISIBLE CITIES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (As character, vocalizing).

SIEGEL: This is adapted from a novel by Italo Calvino and performed in Los Angeles' Union Station. The miked singers, the audience with wireless receivers and headsets and real life passengers waiting for their trains mingle together in the station. Yuval Sharon, welcome, and congratulations.

YUVAL SHARON: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here.

SIEGEL: We just heard a little bit of Invisible Cities and my attempt to describe that opera. There's a much more complex work you've produced called "Hopscotch..."

SHARON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...In which there are multiple plots. And the opera unfolds in different locations in Los Angeles. And the audience travels from location to location. Do I have that right?

SHARON: Yeah. It's a notoriously difficult project to kind of summarize because it did take place in sort of 24 cars and locations all around Los Angeles. And you know, I think that when people hear about that project or if they hear about "Invisible Cities," you know, they can come across a little gimmicky sounding, or they can sound like it's kind of a cool stunt or something really fun to do. But something like "Hopscotch" or "Invisible Cities," I really aimed to try and bring something that seems inaccessible just from the idea of the word opera and try and bring it right into the fabric of our experience of everyday life.

SIEGEL: I've read a quotation of yours which says in part that there's a lot of fear in the opera world.

SHARON: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: And I was wondering if you're producing an opera like those you've made, I would have a fear of a very loud PA announcement in the railroad station.

SHARON: (Laughter) We had lots of those.

SIEGEL: You had lots of those.

SHARON: Oh, sure.

SIEGEL: The people that get lost in Los Angeles - you're caught in the traffic jam.

SHARON: Oh, that happens. Yeah, that happens, too.

SIEGEL: All of this happens.

SHARON: Oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: And that's just part of the experience.

SHARON: Well, I think it's part of being open to what is unpredictable and what is out of your control. And I think that's one of the things that we can really look to art to do - is how we can remain open to the experience of our lives and the experience of the cities that we're in, not look with preconceived notions but actually try and expand our own perceptions of what's around us.

SIEGEL: But when you said there's a lot of fear in the opera world, you also said all fear is manufactured.

SHARON: Yes.

SIEGEL: What did - what do you mean by that? Who is manufacturing the fear?

SHARON: Fears and prejudices and overreactions and oversimplifications - they all go to narrow our minds. And those are being done by people with a specific agenda. And I think when a piece of art can actually open us up to what we don't know and what we don't expect and help us see the world from a different perspective, I actually think we get closer to the essence of what it means to really be alive and really be part of a community with other human beings. And I think that is so essential now more than ever.

SIEGEL: The grant - several hundred thousand dollars - straight to the casinos, or what do you intend to do with it?

SHARON: (Laughter) Yes. Well, one of things that it really will enable me to do is to actually take a break. I know it sounds (laughter) - it sounds...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SHARON: Maybe it sounds counterintuitive. It's something I've wanted to do, but I never knew how to do that financially - how to just take time off and not work at all. It wasn't financially feasible up until now. And so the first thing I thought to myself is, oh, this creative break that I actually really think I need to make sure I'm planning properly for the next phase of my creative life is now realizable. And for that, I'm so grateful.

SIEGEL: Well, Yuval Sharon, congratulations on winning the MacArthur genius grant.

SHARON: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And we are obliged to note that while we are not geniuses, NPR also does receive funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.