The mysterious, invisible opera in LA's Union Station

Calvino's 'Invisible Cities' unfolds as a wireless dream


Except for all the antenna farms, it looked like a normal night at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles: skater kids ran to the Gold Line, shoeless transients read yesterday’s Times, businessmen yakked into phones. But in the opulent dining hall off the main concourse an orchestra tuned up for the opening strains of Invisible Cities, the operatic adaptation of Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel. As the music began with a flurry of timpani and discordant woodwinds, guests in the room heard a perfectly balanced stereo mix on Sennheiser HDR 120 wireless headphones.

It didn’t feel that strange until the lyrics began — because the singers were nowhere in sight. The opera would play out simultaneously in different parts of the terminal and spectators would “only be limited by the range of the wireless signal,” director Yuval Sharon prefaced. “Everyone will miss something beautiful.”

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    Sharon designed his production to induce a sense of cognitive dissonance, and guests spent the next 70 minutes trying to resolve it through unguided exploration. After exchanging confused glances with one another, we streamed out into the courtyard to seek the source of the voices that were being fed invisibly into our ears. Upon closer inspection I noticed that some of the weary travelers lounging in the concourse wore wireless headsets that looked suspiciously more complex than a simple Blutetooth unit. Taking off the headphones, you could hear voices echoing through the halls from far away, but the acoustics in the opulent hall made it difficult to trace their source. Eventually I stumbled on a scene that looked like something out of Eyes Wide Shut — a young woman in a toga and sandals walked slowly down the center of the terminal with a huge tray of fruit in her hands. Those headset-wearing travelers stood up one by one and began to dance in time with the music, and all around the terminal voices began to sound both in the hall and in the headphone mix.

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    The actors in Yuval Sharon’s performance collective The Industry weren’t the only ones who needed to worry about choreography. In another hall, a team of engineers from Bexel was busy creating four separate headphone mixes of the live audio: one for the orchestra, one for guests, one for singers, and another for the production team. Circular-polarized antennas hovered above the ground at strategic locations inside and out of the Union Station — they had been precisely calibrated by Sennheiser engineers to overcome the huge amount of RF interference endemic to public transit gateways.

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    Before I saw this production I was only vaguely aware of Calvino’s plot: Kublai Khan and Marco Polo engage in a wide-ranging discussion on the concepts of home and travel, with tangents into metaphysical aspects such as memory, language, happiness, and death. And there is a final point. “In living day to day,” Marco Polo sums up, “we have two options: to become part of the inferno, or to diligently seek and find who and what is not part of the inferno, and then make them endure, give them space.”

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    Witnessing an opera is rarely about understanding every nuance of the libretto — this was especially the case as I wandered between disjointed scenes and characters in Union Station amongst passersby who had no idea what was going on around them. It was only during the opulent finale, as dancers leaped across ancient ticket booths, that I began to feel a cohesive emotion about Invisible Cities: technology and choreography had transformed a normally benign space into something incomprehensibly amazing. Every attendee became Marco Polo as they donned wireless headphones, forced to explore a pedestrian landscape and find pieces of moving art that were definitively not part of the inferno. Yuval Sharon had molded Calvino’s message into a production that explored the outer limits of what art and technology can do as humans thrive in the spaces handed to them by history.

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    Invisible Cities runs through Friday at Union Station in Los Angeles. Tickets and more information here.