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L.A. lost Yuval Sharon to Detroit. Here's what we're missing — and what we might win back

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L.A. lost Yuval Sharon to Detroit. Here's what we're missing — and what we might win back

Ten years after founding the Industry, America’s most mind-changing opera company, Yuval Sharon in 2020 improbably accepted the role of artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre. He now divides his time between sustaining the Industry in L.A. and disrupting opera in Detroit, where he changed the formerly conventional company’s name to Detroit Opera. But that’s not all that he divides.

Detroit still gets traditional opera in its traditional opera house, although imaginatively spruced up, like the time Sharon staged Puccini’s “La Bohème” backward (Acts 4, 3, 2 and 1 in that order). But he also takes opera entirely out of its comfort zone. This month Sharon chose the lovely but underused 400-seat Gem Theatre, around the corner from the grander Detroit Opera House, for a sensational new production of John Cage’s “Europeras 3 & 4,” an unpredictable cornucopia of run-of-the-mill opera refashioned through chance operations into an outright operatic circus.

A few days later, Sharon announced his next Industry innovation, “The Comet/Poppea,” slated for June at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary in L.A. Here Sharon will adapt Cage’s “Europera” principle — the allowance for all aspects of opera to unpredictably collide — with an epoch mashup juxtaposing scenes from Monteverdi’s 1643 “The Coronation of Poppea” with those from a newly commissioned experimental opera by George Lewis based on a 1920 science fiction short story by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Sharon has, in fact, been slowly taking up a Cagean operatic challenge. A dozen years ago, he startlingly staged a quasi-operatic interpretation of Cage’s 1970 “Song Books,” an almost-anything-goes theatrical endorsement of Thoreau’s call for anarchy that included the great opera star Jessye Norman. It was part of a San Francisco Symphony concert in which conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ job was to make a smoothie.

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In 2018, during Sharon’s three-year stint as artist-collaborator at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sharon combined the orchestra’s resources with those of the Industry to mount Cage’s “Europeras 1 & 2,” originally written for Frankfurt Opera in 1987 and meant to deconstruct the full resources of a big opera company. To make it local, Sharon produced his “Europeras 1 & 2” on a Sony Pictures soundstage in Culver City, taking advantage of props and costumes from classic films.

Cage followed “Europeras 1 & 2” with a a pair of chamber operas for an avant-garde theater festival in London. Long Beach Opera is the only company in America to have attempted “Europeras 3 & 4.” A yet smaller-scaled fifth “Europera,” which is well suited for college music departments, gets around more and has been done several times since 2011 at Loyola Marymount University, making the Greater L.A. area the only place in the world where all five “Europeras” have been performed.

The “Europera” essence is the paying attention to what is, rather than belaboring relationships. Cage did not reimagine the past but simply accepted the fact that we are surrounded by old things and old music. There is nothing unusual about hearing an aria in your car and passing a building from another era. Does anyone think it odd to be sitting on a modern sofa while listening to a turntable housed in a 19th century hutch?

In all the “Europeras,” props, costumes, arias and movement, as well as entrances and exits, happen in arbitrary fashion. Singers are on their own. They sing whatever arias they like in the public domain, without regard to anything else around them. The audience is on its own as well. You pick out what you want to hear, see what catches your eye, focus your attention at will. “Europera” is your opera.

“Europera 3” employs six solo singers, two pianists playing tidbits from Liszt opera arrangements and a dozen 78-rpm turntables. “Europera 4” reduces the numbers to a mere pair of singers, a single piano and an antique record player. Sharon raided Detroit Opera’s storage rooms for costumes and props. He scoured local stores for old 78-rpm opera discs and borrowed a Victrola from a patron. The backdrop was a large projection of a digital clock.

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Chaos was not the result. Instead, a listener was invited to home in on a forest of opera, noticing this or that — maybe you recognize it, maybe you don’t. But like nature, everything felt like it had a purpose, multiplicity a matter for celebration. The devotion of the six singers mesmerized.

For “Europera 4,” Sharon impressively enticed two stars, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Each has a stunning, polished stage presence and knows it. Cage might have preferred less showiness, but here they felt bigger than life, capable of moving a listener to tears.

The “Europeras” needed nothing more, but Sharon is a maximalist and pleasingly welcomed into the mix two dancers. Their presence became a reminder of just how much cooperation is needed. “Europeras” are an exercise in social interaction — all elements animate and inanimate, visual and aural, coexisting, each remaining true.

I attended a Friday night performance, the first of three. Sharon attracted the audience every American opera company lusts after, filling the Gem with what appeared to be an eager and open-minded mix of well-dressed opera patrons, new-music fans and curiosity seekers, along with a contingent of out-of-towners not wanting to miss history in the making. Both “Europeras” received excited standing ovations.

“Europeras” work as well as they do because Cage ingeniously set up strategies that focus our attention on the unexpected. Detroit’s “Europeras” worked as well as they did thanks to Sharon’s genius. He is famously the strategizing mastermind of “Hopscotch,” the 2015 opera staged around downtown L.A. with the audience riding in limos.

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So maybe there was some cosmic sense to it all. That same Friday night while “Europeras 3 & 4” were being performed, Lewis, the composer of the upcoming “Comet,” was leading a public discussion with Christian Wolff on the latter’s 90th birthday at Judson Memorial Church in New York. Over more than seven decades, Wolff has been one of the most extraordinary strategist-composers in history. The teenage Wolff astonished Cage when he first studied with him in the early 1950s, becoming the youngest and now final surviving member of Cage’s legendary New York School of composers.

The following evening at Judson an arresting New York ensemble, String Noise, presented a birthday marathon concert at Judson in tribute to Wolff, who, along with being an immutable experimentalist, is a noted classical scholar who had a career as a professor at Harvard University and Dartmouth. His father, Kurt Wolff, was a famed publisher who worked with Kafka, Jung and a great many others.

Along with younger musicians who have avidly and brilliantly taken up Wolff’s music, the marathon included older Wolff colleagues, such as composer David Behrman, who performed on a laptop an incandescent electronic piece, “CW90,” written for the occasion.

Wolff’s music does not, for the most part, look back. It explores possibilities and does so with such rigor and invention that Cage often said he learned more from Wolff than Wolff did from him. The marathon covered the full range, beginning with the first piece Wolff showed Cage, “Duo for Violins,” from 1950. It explores a combination of three pitches. The material for Wolff’s newest score, “What If?,” which had its premiere at the concert, consists of 97 “mostly quite short items for use by from 2 to around 20 performers.” It is up to them to determine what, with whom and when.

Wolff has devoted his life to a study of the ancients. His musical heritage is unequaled by any composer today, in his connection to both the old and the new. And all of that has made him the living, questing embodiment of the musical question: What if? You never know what you’ll get, but I’ve never heard it fail to be arresting at the very least, At their best, Wolff’s what-ifs can be enlightening both sonically and, in the interaction of performers, socially.

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In 1997, New York University, a Washington Square neighbor to Judson, published Stuart D. Hobbs’ “The End of the American Avant Garde” as the 37th volume in its “The American Social Experience Series.” The New York School shows up on page 165.

But what if just the opposite of this heedless obituary for the avant-garde is true? What if we are entering a new era led by the likes of Sharon? What if we can utilize history not with the superficial irony of postmodernism but allow the past to be the past — something that is part of us but not holding us back? What if we follow the example of Christian Wolff? That extraordinary weekend suggested we should.

In the meantime, stay tuned for “The Comet/Poppea.” And check out the website of Issue Project Room, the presenter of the Wolff 90th-birthday celebration. Recordings of the conversation with Lewis and the historic marathon concert will be made available once edited.

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Movie Reviews

Música (2024) Review

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Música (2024) Review

Música explores how surroundings and upbringing shape us, offering a view of the world through others’ eyes.

No two people are the same, everyone has differences.  Physically families seem to show similarities but even they are not carbon copies of one another.  This is not only true for our physical appearance but also how we think and feel. We all have our own opinions and our views of the world at large are not completely alike.  Factors such as our upbringing, the part of the world we are from and those older individuals who help shape us, play into how we see everything and everyone around us.  For Rudy, this also includes his love of music.

Rudy (Rudy Mancuso; The Flash) sees the everyday world differently.  While other people may see two guys in the park playing basketball, Rudy experiences a drum rhythm keeping the beat as the ball bounces against the pavement.  Similarly, others would see a girl swinging back and forth on a swing set while Rudy hears the melody of a song as the swing squeaks with each rotation back and forth. For the musician in him, it opens his eyes and mind to songs that play incessantly in his head.  For the regular guy, it is often distracting and interferes with his daily life.

Rudy gets distracted while in class when talking to his girlfriend, Haley (Francesca Reale; Stranger Things), and even when he is having dinner at home with his mom. So when Haley dumps Rudy, the last thing Rudy needs is to meet someone new.  Enter Isabella (Camila Mendes; Riverdale)…the beautiful, intelligent, Brazilian, young woman working at the fish store.   Spending time with Isabella opens Rudy up in ways he never thought possible but when Haley wants him back he starts dating both ladies at the same time, and the results are disastrous. At the same time, these two women have just opened Rudy up creatively which helps him to expand his puppet show and become successful in the arts.

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Mancuso not only stars in the film but co-wrote and directed it as well.  As his feature film directorial debut, he does a very good job.  He exposes the audience to the world around him but shows it from a different perspective.  As demonstrated previously, the jackhammer breaking apart the street or the bus tires as they run over the rough and uneven streets all create a song in his head.  One only he can hear but one which he visually attempts to show us.

Mendes is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the “Gringa” Haley as Mancuso’s Mother, Maria (newcomer Maria Mancuso), likes to describe her.  She has an authenticity to her that helps the audience connect to her character.  Reale does a good job playing the rich, white girl who pretends to be sympathetic towards Rudy’s ethnicity but who simply doesn’t “get it”.  Mancuso’s mother playing his mother was a smart but risky choice.  She manages to pull it off though.  Rudy is a star and director of his own story and is the master both in front of and behind the camera.  It will be interesting to see if he could do as good a job as director with someone else’s work.

Música not only allows the audience to view the world from someone else’s eyes, but it also punctuates the idea that our surroundings and upbringing help us to meld into the person we ultimately become.  The writing, directing, soundtrack, cast, etc. pull the viewer in from almost the beginning and hold their attention for the hour-and-a-half run time.  With humor and heart, Mancuso adeptly brings the audience into his world and his mind and, not only leaves us wanting more but expands our horizons to attempt to get us to “think outside the box”.

Grade: A

Música images are courtesy of Amazon Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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Review: Phish mounts a human-scale spectacle at Las Vegas Sphere

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Review: Phish mounts a human-scale spectacle at Las Vegas Sphere

The massive LED video screen that forms the interior surface of Sphere can be used to transport audiences to the tops of mountains, to outer space, to beneath the feet of an elephant standing as tall as a 20-story building.

On Friday night, Phish turned the place into a car wash.

Playing the second date in a sold-out four-night stand at this state-of-the-art venue just off the Las Vegas Strip, the veteran jam band from Vermont took full advantage of the technological capabilities that cost the building’s mastermind, Madison Square Garden Entertainment Chief Executive James Dolan, five years and more than $2 billion to bring to life last fall.

At one point in the nearly four-hour gig, the 160,000-square-foot screen — said to be the highest-resolution in the world — became a starry night sky so crisply rendered that you could almost believe the roof had retracted; at another point, Sphere transformed into an underwater kelp forest with sunlight streaming down from the top of the dome. The venue’s sound system was just as impressive, with a finely detailed mix and seatback haptics that allowed you literally to feel the oomph of bassist Mike Gordon’s low notes.

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Phish’s show Friday was the second date in a sold-out four-night stand at Sphere.

(Alive Coverage)

Yet Phish’s production — the second by a band to play Sphere after U2’s opening engagement — wasn’t about excess or grandiosity; it was homey, friendly, deeply quirky. After the car-wash bit, which replicated the experience of crawling through one, a gigantic dog appeared and proceeded to lick what looked like the other side of the screen in slow motion as the band performed its song “You Enjoy Myself.”

The approach certainly differed from that of U2, whose 40-date residency launched in September and ended last month. Built around the Irish group’s 1991 album “Achtung Baby,” U2’s show riffed on big ideas about celebrity and media and the intersection of politics and capitalism; it used Sphere’s eye-popping tech to uphold the band’s distinct brand of rock-star heroism, reasserting U2’s place in a cultural lineage stretching from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley to the Beatles to Prince.

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For Phish, perhaps music’s biggest cult band, Sphere wasn’t a means of self-glorification but of community-building: One thing you thought about over the course of the band’s two sets and an encore was how tiny the players looked onstage — the same size, in other words, as any of the 18,000 or so people in the crowd. Even when the screen would show a close-up of one of the players — Gordon, singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman — the image would be warped almost beyond recognition.

Jam bands, of course, have a long history of elaborate visual presentations. Ahead of Phish’s run in Vegas, fans of the band wondered online whether its lighting designer, Chris Kuroda, would have the space to do his thing properly amid Sphere’s digital overload. (The answer was kind of.) So it makes sense that Sphere might become a destination for other acts in the tradition; indeed, next up at the venue is Dead & Company, which will begin a 24-show stint in May after saying that its 2023 tour would be its last.

Phish surrounded by visuals at Sphere in Vegas.

Phish performs.

(Rene Huemer / MSG Entertainment)

With no fear of being overshadowed by the room, Phish leaned into Sphere’s immersive potential with an assortment of water-themed visuals: hundreds of swimmers floating in doughnut-shaped inflatables atop the waves of a rippling sea; marine life darting through the columns of a vast sunken monument; a psychedelic waterfall pouring over a cliff that seemed almost untouchably far away from wherever you were sitting in the steeply raked amphitheater. As part of a production team parked behind dozens of glowing monitors in the middle of the room, Abigail Rosen Holmes, Phish’s creative director, manipulated these images in real time, responding — sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically — to the twists and turns of the band’s improvisations.

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In a funny twist, Phish’s lack of anxiety about being upstaged by what was happening on Sphere’s wraparound screen — the members themselves seem well aware that they’ve never been much to look at — meant that Friday’s show actually felt like it was about music, which was clearly the point for a band that famously never repeats a set list.

“Bathtub Gin” was jaunty and playful, with McConnell threading a bit of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” into the song’s fabric; “Lonely Trip” was a lilting ballad with one of the evening’s few convincing vocal turns from Anastasio. “Split Open and Melt,” which came just before the evening’s intermission, was the highlight of the concert: a demented boogie-rock freak-out that landed somewhere between early Sonic Youth and electric-era Miles Davis.

For its encore, Phish played the plaintive “Wading in the Velvet Sea” as photos stretching back to the band’s beginnings in the mid-1980s flickered across Sphere’s screen, and for a moment the musicians seemed to be indulging in the kind of rock-god mythologizing the rest of the show resisted. Then you realized that most of the pictures depicted these guys in various humble backstage scenarios: just four lifers getting ready to go to work for their people.

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Movie Review: “Abigail” Now Playing at Boone Regal

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Movie Review: “Abigail” Now Playing at Boone Regal
April 22, 2024 “After last week’s heavy, serious, ultraviolent “Civil War,” I needed a movie like the lighter, sillier, also ultraviolent “Abigail.” Is this film as intelligent and thought-provoking as last week’s offering – a film that still rules the box office, by the way? No. Is this film going to leave much of an impact on popular culture? Probably not – it doesn’t do much to stand out from similar movies, some from the same people that made this movie. But would I pick “Abigail” over “Civil War” to watch in my free time because it’s much more fun? Oh, yes.  Read more
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