While the operatic stage has been responsible for sharing some of the world’s most famous stories, it’s still regarded by many to be an artistic medium that is inaccessible to the general public. For years now, there has been a push by artistic directors from around the world to both rebrand the art form and bring it back to its community-focused roots. In the case of Yuval Sharon, Michigan Opera Theatre’s new openly gay artistic director, he is no stranger to taking a modern, more accessible approach to operatic performance.
Besides being a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, recipient of the 2014 Götz Friedrich Prize in Germany for his production of “Doctor Atomic” and the first American ever invited to direct at Bayreuth, Sharon is the founder of The Industry, a Los Angeles-based opera company. Under Sharon’s direction, it earned a name for itself by expanding the public’s perception of what opera can be through its experimental works. Perhaps most notably, The Industry debuted performances like “Invisible Cities,” which took place in Los Angeles’ bustling Union Station, and “Hopscotch,” which was showcased via 24 moving vehicles around downtown LA. Now, Sharon is bringing his passion for the craft and artistic ingenuity to Detroit through a never-before-seen interpretation of Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods,” now ‘Twilight: Gods,” on Oct. 17, 18, 20 and 21. In light of social distancing requirements as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, guests will view the opera as they drive their vehicles through the Detroit Opera House parking structure.
In the middle of “frantically trying to increase ticket capacity” after the show sold out in 32 hours, Sharon made time to chat with Between The Lines about his inspiration for the unique performance of “Twilight: Gods,” why he’s eager to feature LGBTQ storylines in upcoming shows, queer thinking in opera and his plans to make Michigan Opera Theatre the “most progressive opera company in the country.”
Due to the immense interest, are you looking to expand how long “Twilight: Gods” will run?
It’s going to be difficult to do that, and yet, we are exploring it. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy a Broadway show or anything like that where we can say, “OK, we’ll keep it going.” Also, the thing that I’m very excited about is trying to figure out how we can add a free component to this, and what we’re exploring now is that the last rotation of certain performances might be projected onto the wall of the opera house and we might invite people to watch it for free from the street level. And I would really love that because that feels really in line with something that I’m very passionate about and definitely want to bring with me to MOT, which is this notion that opera can really be an art form that’s really close to the life of the street. I think we tend to think that Opera is this elevated art form that’s in an ivory tower (laughs) and only speaks to a certain elite, highly educated and Euro-centric type of audience, but I actually think that there’s a lot more possibility in opera that’s much closer to our own community and closer to our own time.
How will the socially distanced performance work?
Even though it’s live and really close to them, people will still hear the piece transmitted on their FM radios so that they can stay in their cars and stay socially distanced. And I think it’s actually going to contribute to part of what’s going to be a fascinating experience. It’ll be eight cars at a time that move through this parking structure and they each see several different scenes of the opera playing out on different levels of the structure. So as eight cars go in and they move to the next level, eight additional cars will move into the parking garage and the scene will start again. So, the singers and instrumentalists repeat the same scene over and over and over again, but the audience experiences one narrative that takes them through. Brunhilde is only on the top level, but we’ll see her in a couple of ways before to prepare for her and they’re pretty specific to individual characters. The connecting tissue for all of this will be new poetry written by Marsha Music, who is a true Detroit legend. She’s a really great writer who is retelling the story for us and connecting all of the various scenes through this experience so that people can understand the context through which they are seeing this.
You’ve had to be creative during the pandemic in how you present this upcoming show. Do you think that COVID-19 will change how people approach presenting opera because they’ll be forced to adapt?
I really hope so! (Laughs) Let me put it this way. I love the Detroit Opera House. I think it is a beautiful building and it is clearly the chief asset of Michigan Opera Theatre, this wonderful hall. But I don’t think that precludes us from exploring other avenues of what opera can be. I think that we can sometimes think of opera so monolithically like it’s always 19th-century Italian pieces that take place in a theater (laughs), but actually, the wonderful thing about opera — and the reason that I believe in it as an art form so much — is because it can be so many things. It can really be a connection to the past and it can be a vision of the future. It can be something that’s completely in English written by an American composer and it can be in an African language. There’s so many kinds of opera, and I would love an opera company like MOT to embrace all of that, you know? Inside the theater, outside the theater, in a parking structure or in one of those beautiful gilded 1920s skyscrapers in Detroit with these incredibly beautiful lobbies. It can and should happen everywhere, and that’s something I’d very much like to explore. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to be doing “La Bohème” or some of the classics, it’s just that we’re going to look at it in a fresh way and we’re going to allow these classic works to have some really exciting contemporary dialogue partners.
What drew you to opera initially? Was your perception always that opera is a space that is more equal than people might imagine?
(Laughs) No, I think my first encounter with opera was probably one that a lot of people could sympathize with. I remember seeing my first opera and I remembered feeling like it seemed to be a kind of alien landscape. And it was in another landscape. It’s people from another time behaving in such strange ways and I didn’t really quite understand it and I didn’t really feel comfortable being there. And yet, the more that I started to investigate it and thinking about the potential of opera and maybe also the difference between the art form and the way that it’s usually performed or usually presented at least, I did start imagining what opera looks like when it’s closer to our time and closer to our communities. And when I got to know opera better, I started to see that there really was this impulse toward an almost carnival-like approach to the way it connected with audiences. And in Venice in the 17th century, there were really these competing opera houses that were probably closer to what Broadway musicals feel like, this feeling closer to a popular entertainment rather than how we experience it now. So, there is in its history this past where opera really is of the people, and I think that that is a really powerful way forward for opera in America, which needs to claim its own identity differently than how it’s presented in Europe.
Your works in Los Angeles were described as “radically collaborative bulwarks against historical revisionism.”
Such a great phrase! (Laughs) I’m impressed by that!
Was that description used in reference to not putting new storylines within classic works or something else?
I think that’s been in reference to my work with my company in Los Angeles, The Industry, and really creating brand-new pieces and doing it in a way that truly embraces the collaborative nature of opera that is not such a — we tend to think of opera as surrounding one person of genius where everything emanates from that person and they are the dominant voice of what happens on stage. And I think that that really has had a negative effect on opera overall because it’s reduced us to thinking about a kind of monolithic or certainly myopic view of artistic creation. In the case of opera, where there is somebody writing music, there is a composer, a poet, a choreographer, a designer, both a costume designer and a set designer and then the architecture of the performances happening, there are so many different points of view. And that’s not even to say anything about the people playing in the orchestra or singing on stage. And all of these points of view find this convergence in one point in time when this performance happens. And that is the thing that is so thrilling about opera: all of these people from many, many walks of life can come together and agree to do something together that is perfectly coordinated and that can be so magical when it works out. And that is something that feels like it points away, toward a kind of future that we’re all hungry for, which is much more participatory, much more representative of the city that we live in and a place where everyone has a voice. That’s something that I think opera can model. And I think that’s a power that I think is quite unique to opera and one that I would like opera to claim.
I spoke to tenor Michael Fabiano last year and he spoke of being open to portraying LGBTQ roles in opera but not altering “the intention of the libretto” by not changing stories for “new social implications.” However, he gave an example of giving the character of Rodrigo a kiss when he played Don Carlo because of existing interpretations of what the relationship between the two men could be. What are your thoughts on potentially reimagining classics?
I would only say that I’m not terribly afraid of — I wouldn’t call it adding a storyline, I would call it interpreting the piece. And that happens anyway. We interpret the piece whether or not it is strictly written in the story or whether it’s something that our sense of story leads us to believe these two characters are having sort of a love affair — even if it’s not spelled out. And there are ways that actually drawing them out in a production can be something that is very exciting because it asks us to look at these pieces in brand-new ways. I’ve seen many productions that have suggested that characters like Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” is obsessed with his friend Lenski (laughs), and that’s why he had no interest in Tatiana. And, funny enough, that’s hardly a contemporary suggestion. All the way back in Pushkin’s time, the original poem, before it was an opera, people already kind of understood that that might be what is happening. So, there is this feeling that this is not necessarily a new imposition. And it is, I think, certainly the responsibility of the stage director to offer a strong interpretation of the work. And that does mean making some choices and that does mean you are shaping the experience, but it does not mean it is the only way that this piece can happen. It would be great to see “Eugene Onegin” in another time when maybe that’s not mentioned at all and maybe Tatiana’s the one who’s in love with some other character (laughs). But I think opera being a living art form is embracing this notion that you can absolutely, with love for the music and text, draw new ideas out of it and present new ideas with that.
Do you have any LGBTQ-specific performances in the works?
Yeah! It’s funny, opera has such a great history with queer culture in so many ways. Whether it is these kinds of operatic idols and divas that have become obsessive fixations (laughs), or whether it is that so many stories represent cross-dressing in such wonderfully normal ways, or male characters being played by female singers or increasingly vice versa. So, there is a lot of queer thinking that underpins opera, and I think that I would love to keep embracing that. But, you know, I think that there will certainly be, as new pieces are written, more and more exploration of stories that do explore LGBTQ narratives. And I would love to support that with my general attitude of wanting MOT to be the most progressive opera company in the country.
Then I assume it’s no mistake that “Twilight: Gods” is about dismantling an old order and system.
It is! Very much. That’s why I chose this piece, because it is fundamentally a piece that is about the tearing down of something, and it’s a strong woman that does it. Basically, she sets fire to her father’s palace because it is no longer serving humanity. And she sacrifices herself for that revolutionary act. And this is not an idea that I was sitting on for years, this is absolutely a response to the time. It’s a piece I’ve loved for a long time, but it’s a piece that I don’t know I ever really understood until living through this period with our twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism flaring up. So, with both of those things calling us to think differently about everything, opera is part of that conversation. I would like opera to lead that conversation and not just respond to it but actually offer a way forward.