Invisible Cities

New tech helps L.A. performance troupes bring culture to the train station

It’s billed as the future of opera, live performance, technology and art, at least according to German audio company Sennheiser. But to judge from “Invisible Cities,” the new opera for wireless headphones performed in L.A.’s Union Station, the future of immersive theater is already here.

The collaboration between The Industry and L.A. Dance Project operates 24 Sennheiser wireless microphones in its orchestra pit, 16 wireless mics strapped onto performers (with each of the eight performers double-mic’ed), 160 audience headphones and 15 in-ear monitors for the wireless feat. The tech allows “Invisible Cities” to break the boundaries between musicians, audience members and casual passersby, expanding the stage into the public space at Union Station.

“Technology, which we often think has a way of distancing us from everything around us and separating us from everybody else around us, can actually be a force that brings us together,” director Yuval Sharon told press Nov. 15 before that night’s performance. “And we can have experiences that allow us to be individuals and allow us to be in our own isolated world, but among a larger group, and allow us to also notice the world around us in an even more powerful way.”

Here that’s made possible by a fiber-optic digital modulation system (set up in the front of house, disguised as a bagel shop in the middle of the station) that took ten years to develop, as well as four antenna farms that had to be built throughout the building. Because they couldn’t have cable through in the building, the wires had to be run out from behind the control room, down the staircase, underneath the parking lot and up through the parking entrance.

“We have about 2,500 feet of wire to make something wireless,” broadcast service provider Bexel’s Rod Allen joked.

The show — written by Christopher Cerrone and based on Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel — follows Marco Polo’s descriptions of new cities, but has no set narrative. Because each person’s experience differs as they roam the train station on a collision course with actors, terminal passengers and transients seeking shelter, each person’s interpretation of the drama varies as well.

“The piece, which is so intimate and so warm and so fragile, would best be suited being heard as if it’s being whispered in your ear,” Sharon said. “It’s a story that’s really meant to take you to a very internal place. It’s not about a traditional narrative and more about experience as narrative.”

Although most passersby are bemused when they find themselves in the midst of a live show, they’re not always so welcoming. “During the final dress run, one guy just started beating up another guy with one of the chairs and we had to stop the show,” said lead sound designer Martin Gimenez.

After assurances that there’s no right or wrong way to see the show, the 11-piece orchestra began playing in a detached event space outside the main station. Once the Harvey House doors opened, the audience was free to explore and observe the performance as they saw fit. Many people trailed the performers; others stationed themselves in a single spot during the entire show while some wandered aimlessly throughout the building, listening instead of watching.

“I’ve often thought that one of the joys of opera is that your ears get to watch and your eyes get to listen,” Sharon explained. “The more you can create scenarios in which that confusion of the senses, that cognitive dissonance, becomes a part of your experience, that’s a way which we can expand all of our senses.”

Some people took off their headphones to be fully present in the moment. Others even shared the expensive technology with passersby who were unaware of what they had stumbled into. Some bystanders watched gleefully, but the majority went about their business, whether that was sleeping in an armchair or wheeling a bike through the crowd.

The most unanticipated audience response came from a patron who decided to join the performance. With headphones perched on his head and a coffee cup in hand, the theatergoer joined a group of dancers marching in the hall.

More irksome than that was the woman taking iPhone pictures inches away from dancers’ faces to capture their beads of sweat. Maybe technology can be intrusive, after all.

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