World's first live 'wireless opera' baffles commuters at L.A.'s Union Station

In an era of digitally projected IMAX 3D movies, on-demand television and hyperrealistic, open world video games, the centuries-old art form of opera might appear to have become something of a technological relic. But in an effort to breathe new life into the medium, a trio of companies has come together to create something never before attempted: an opera whose soundscape exists entirely in the audience’s headphones, and a performance that bleeds directly into the physical space of its surroundings.

Thursday night I attended the invitation-only private dress rehearsal for Invisible Cities, a collaboration between three complementary organizations: Los Angeles production company The Industry, the nonprofit L.A. Dance Project, and German audio company Sennheiser.

Rather than sitting down and watching a performance, attendees were equipped with wireless headphones and wandered the enormous main station hall—as well an adjacent waiting area and outdoor courtyard—following the similarly untethered performers as they emerged from all directions. There was no stage, no music broadcast over speakers, and no clear separation between performer and audience. This was opera made interactive.

Evan Shamoon
Dancers from the L.A. Dance Project perform an aspect of a many-faceted performance of the Invisible Cities opera.

As in its source, the 1972 Italo Calvino novel, this reimagining of Invisible Cities still takes place in 13th century Mongolia, but is here transported into Los Angeles’ majestic transit hub, Union Station—while the station is actually operating. (For those who might be unfamiliar with it, Union Station is L.A.’s equivalent of Grand Central Terminal. Built in 1939, it’s an enormous, spectacular piece of Art Deco architecture that stands as the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States.)

And indeed, the station was operating at normal capacity; passengers sat waiting for their train to arrive, while station restaurants and shops did business as usual. Some travelers slept, looking like they’d been here for days; others sat in business attire, paging through newspapers and Kindles, eagerly awaiting their trip home. All was normal, save for the fact that a live opera was about to take place about the terminal, close enough that commuters could literally reach out and touch the cast.

As the director Yuval Sharon assured us, there is no “right” way to experience Invisible Cities; the opera has no must-see set pieces, and he encouraged everyone to follow their instincts through the cavernous station. “Each of you,” he said, “has the best seat in the house.”

Invisible Cities
The "wired" orchestra could be heard in the headphones of the singers, dancers, and audience members as they roamed throughout Union Station.

Before the action started, however, each of the several hundred audience members was provided with his or her own set of Sennheiser HDR120 wireless headphones. We were then ushered into one section of the sprawling station, where the orchestra awaited us.

This was where the prelude began; each of the instruments was outfitted with a microphone, the audio signals from which were run through the brains of the operation—a custom wireless audio rig built by Sennheiser, using state-of-the-art receivers and transmitters.

A feed of the audio mix (the orchestra, as well as the opera singers) was sent to our headphones over RF, while the performers received a separate mix (each of them was equipped with wireless microphones, as well as a wireless in-ear monitor). In fact, three custom antenna and mixing rigs were required to bring the production to life: one for the performers’ wireless microphones, one for their in-ear monitors, and one for the audience’s wireless headphones. It was a free-roaming audiovisual experience, enabled by some serious technical heavy lifting on the part of Sennheiser’s back-end electronics.

Invisible Cities
Members of the opera cast were outfitted with small wireless microphones and in-ear headphones, courtesy of Sennheiser.

From there the opera spilled out into the main hall, with performers emerging seemingly everywhere at once. We audience members could clearly hear the orchestra through our headphones, carefully mixed with the voices of the opera singers and the backing tracks. And this mixing was done perfectly.

As for those innocent bystanders not wearing headphones, they could hear only the voices of the singers who happened to be near them, and perhaps the sound of the orchestra in a distant part of the station.

The line between performer, audience member, and onlooker blurred; the experience was somewhere between a traditional opera, an alternate reality game (ARG), and a piece of high-tech performance art. Audience members wandered around and amidst the action, temporarily perching against a tiled wall, or taking a seat next to a bewildered traveler.

Invisible Cities
Audio technicians spent months setting up an elaborate network of antenna farms to enable the two-way audio of the Invisible Cities production.

Regular eye contact was made between audience members as they felt their way around the new format, but never with performers. Despite the close quarters, the fourth wall was never broken.

And the headphone factor should not be undersold; the result of hearing the performers in such an intimate way was beguilingly unfamiliar. Set inside the vast, historic space with hundreds of other people, we heard the live audio in a way that felt at once personal and communal, passive and active, immediate and displaced. The performers brushed past us as they moved throughout the station, their vocals beamed back to the mother brain, where they were mixed with the orchestra and layers of sound design before being beamed right back into our headphones.

Evan Shamoon
Bystanders look on with a mix of amusement, fascination, and confusion.

The opera was written by Christopher Cerrone. Its narrative centers on explorer Marco Polo, who must report to an elderly Emperor Kublai Khan about his travels to cities far and wide. Polo’s fanciful descriptions are imagined and fantastical, appropriately expressed through dance in a way that feels modern and relevant. The themes converge in a satisfying way, offering the audience a chance to contemplate the essence of travel as they wander through Union Station, playing with our subjective experience of environment and time as we move through public space in a uniquely private way.

Invisible Cities makes its public premiere at Union Station on Saturday, Oct. 19 for a limited run through Nov. 8. For more information, visit www.InvisibleCitiesOpera.com/tickets.

This story, "World's first live 'wireless opera' baffles commuters at L.A.'s Union Station" was originally published by Macworld.

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