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Experimental Operas Might Make the Genre Cool Again

'Hopscotch,' a new experimental opera in Los Angeles, bends every convention of what you thought an "opera" should be—and that's exactly why millennials like it.

Photo courtesy of Hopscotch

The limousine rolled through Boyle Heights, a neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles, where I was waiting to get in. There was a harpist with dreadlocks already seated inside, dreamily strumming, as the limo circled around a car accident. It wasn't a real car accident, of course—the whole thing had been constructed from wood, and we watched through the limo window like it was a movie screen. A distraught redhead in a yellow dress and a handsome motorcyclist were dealing with the aftermath of their collision. Their voices were being piped in through the speakers, so you could hear that they were both upset—but not so upset that we couldn't also feel a spark starting between them.

This was just one version of the beginning of Hopscotch, an opera unlike any I've seen. (Full disclosure: I haven't seen many.) It's a world away from the traditional stage performance you'd expect from an opera, and a fantastical world at that. The performance unfolds throughout 36 chapters, which are told from within several moving limousines. There's no particular order to the chapters, and the limos circle on one of three routes, which each tell one-third of the narrative. There are 128 performers, many miles, and a dizzying feat of logistical planning.

A wood-constructed accident scene in 'Hopscotch.' Photo by the author

Hopscotchis the latest iteration of experimental opera, a trend that's appeared everywhere from Stockholm to Dallas. Unlike the formal posture of operas past, these new experimental operas play with new storylines, use of music, and even reject a traditional stage and audience. None seem to challenge the convention on a scale as large as Hopscotch, which was dreamed up by director Yuval Sharon and created in collaboration with six composers and six writers. Sharon is the Artistic Director of The Industry, a Los Angeles-based opera company making "musical, operatic, visual, and immersive experiences."

Sharon is no stranger to bending convention: His last major project, Invisible Cities, took place entirely within LA's Union Station, the audience listening on headphones as singers and dancers performed among regular passengers and passersby.

As for Hopscotch, Sharon says "the whole project began with a conversation that [production designer Jason Thompson and I] had... It actually was, in a way, a challenge; we were sort of daring each other. What's harder than Invisible Cities that will make completing Invisible Cities seem easy? So we started thinking about driving."

Driving is the centerpiece of Hopscotch. The production eschews a traditional stage and audience in seats, and instead uses the limos to transport the audience through the story. During one performance, there are multiple limousines driving around simultaneously, visiting different chapters in different orders, giving each car a slightly different version of the story.

An ultra-small audience watches Hopscotch from inside limousines. Photo courtesy of Hopscotch

When I saw the show, I took the "red route," on which four of us were ushered around the city, shuffled into a new limo in a new location for each chapter. We watched the story and music unfold as musicians, singers, and actors performed next to us, inside the vehicle, or out on the streets in a carefully chosen stretch of city.

But one route only tells a third of the story, and it's totally out of order, so unless you read the entire synopsis ahead of time you really only get an abstract, fragmented glimpse of the overarching story of Lucha, the girl in the yellow dress. Themes of love, time, and death bubbled underneath the surface, but always just out of reach. Hopscotch rejects the simple idea of a linear narrative and I didn't mind at all.

We listened on headphones to an actor's amplified monologue as we trailed behind him into an actual bookstore in an actual courtyard filled with actual people. From there, we followed a girl in a sparkly Quinceñera dress into our next car, where she sang about becoming a mujer as we drove. Three guitarists accompanied her in real-life stereo on either side of us in the limo.

For another chapter, we followed an older Lucha to a rooftop, who sang to a younger version of herself until, in a breathtaking moment of realization, my red route partners and I saw the tiny, faraway horn players playing along on the rooftops of two nearby buildings. One car drove us through a spooky cemetery as a man in our limo belted out notes to a (presumably dead) woman in extravagant red Day of the Dead garb; one ride had us simply sitting in total darkness, left to our imaginations while a song played.

Old Lucha sings to young Lucha in Hopscotch. Photo by the author

Like most young people, I've always considered opera one of those things that makes you feel cultured, in a stuffy, rich, English grandmother sort of way. There was nothing stuffy about Hopscotch. For such a classically grown-up genre of entertainment, I'd never imagined opera could be so legitimately appealing to my overstimulated millennial sensibilities.

Hopscotch is immersive and surprising and, especially with the incorporation of technology—like the animated chapters online, or the cell phones in each car that stream the whole thing onto 24 video screens at the show's Central Hub—decidedly modern. For a generation that has little interest in opera (hell, we barely even watch broadcast television), it could be the kind of retooling that opera performances need. With traditional opera's demographic quickly aging, experimental opera—something that appeals to younger audiences—could be the future of the genre.

"That is our vision as a company," Sharon explained. "To consider opera an emerging art form and one that should be expanded using the latest developments in music, narrative strategies, and technologies... I definitely hope projects like this will contribute to an audience becoming curious in the art form beyond what The Industry produces."

And somehow, amazingly, Sharon pulled off the collaborative, synchronized, moving multimedia opera he'd envisioned. Hopscotch is a glorious patchwork portrait of Los Angeles and Lucha's mysterious life, and it's such a multifaceted stimulation that a single slice of spectacle is plenty on its own.

Hopscotch the Opera is on view until November 15. Get tickets here.

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