Confronting Opera as an “Inherently Colonialist Art Form,” Yuval Sharon Brings New Work to L.A.

Renowned opera director Yuval Sharon returns to The Industry, the company where he began his career, for The Comet / Poppea. The new piece is quite the mashup, weaving together Monteverdi’s 1643 opera The Coronation of Poppea and W.E.B. Du Bois’ short story The Comet. The work — composed by George Lewis with a libretto by Douglas Kearney — opens Friday and runs through June 23 at Los Angeles’ Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.

“The juxtaposition of these two pieces allows us to create a kind of constantly shifting relational field between this baroque opera and a contemporary aesthetic,” Sharon says of his latest collaboration. “We’ve created a space for these worlds to bleed into each other, to somehow contradict each other and contrast with each other, sometimes resonate with each other, to rhyme with each other.”

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Monteverdi’s Poppea focuses on the titular character’s efforts to become queen by convincing Emperor Nero to divorce his wife, Octavia. Meanwhile, The Comet, an apocalyptic tale written in 1920, concerns a Black man and a White woman in New York City who emerge as the only survivors after a comet strike has wiped out humankind. Their intention to repopulate the planet is put on hold when they learn that only the city’s population has been compromised, but the rest of humanity lives on.

“If you wipe away all the social structures surrounding humans, could the human race be more just? Could the color line be lifted? I think Du Bois was speculating on a future that might lead to more equality. The destruction may be a step toward more social justice, a cleansing,” says Sharon.

The Comet is about the power of whiteness and what happens when you remove the basis for the power of whiteness from society,” adds Lewis, a professor at Columbia University and MacArthur genius and Guggenheim Fellowship winner who pioneered computer music with Voyager, an improvising software that jams with humans. He has recorded or performed with notables like Gil Evans, John Zorn and Laurie Anderson.

Nardus Williams, left, and Amanda Lynn Bottoms, in rehearsal for The Comet / Poppea, on May 31, 2024, at Baryshnikov Arts Center, NYC.
Nardus Williams, left, and Amanda Lynn Bottoms during a rehearsal for ‘The Comet / Poppea.’

“Poppea and Julia [a character] in The Comet are related figures, like doppelgangers,” he offers. “We’re causing the rhyming of history. So what happens is you have sources of power, intrigue and ultimately a kind of parallel universes that intersect at one point. So, they relate to his idea of double consciousness in Du Bois.”

Double consciousness is how Du Bois describes the conflict between how Black people are viewed by the white majority versus their own understanding of identity. “One ever feels his two-ness,” Du Bois wrote. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

“Imagining how a performance of Poppea could get interrupted and intersect and contrast with a brand new piece could create that experience of double consciousness for the audience who’s trying to hold these two stories and two realistic fictions at the same time,” says Sharon, who originally planned to juxtapose The Coronation of Poppea with one of Du Bois theoretical texts. But when Lewis introduced him to The Comet, the pair recognized the potential of coupling the two narratives.

With a rotating stage, audiences are presented with shifts in design and sound, creating musical disorder between Lewis’ and Monteverdi’s music from which a new opera is born requiring on the part of the audience what Lewis describes as “a constant swimming through partial truths.”

Sharon is co-founder of The Industry, the city’s ragtag cutting edge opera company that became a 2014 Pulitzer finalist with the site-specific Invisible Cities staged in L.A.’s Union Station under his direction. His 2015 follow up, Hopscotch, an opera set in various locations and cars, was another acclaimed outlier on Sharon’s ascension to opera’s biggest stages. He is the first American to direct at Germany’s vaunted Bayreuth Festival (Lohengrin in 2018), and is artistic director of the Detroit Opera where he has worked since 2020 staging acclaimed productions like John Cage’s Europeras 3 & 4 and Twilight: Gods, his take on Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, in the company’s parking lot.

“Opera is an inherently colonialist art form,” observes Sharon, who sees unignited promise in his chosen medium. “The only potential is if we do these radical interventions like we’re doing. This is an opportunity to say we’re going to see what this opera still has to say about America, about race, about power. We’re not going to present it as distanced from all that. We’re going to get into this messy and uncomfortable space where these two rhetorics are going to be interchanging.”

Sharon is part of a burgeoning modern tradition in opera spurred by producers like Beth Morrison, whose annual Prototype Festival plays a central role. With ticket sales lagging in the post-COVID reality, even venerable institutions like The Met have begun to embrace the new. Their 2024-25 season featured six recent productions including Jeanine Tesori’s Grounded, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick and John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra.

“What about the composers that are dead, why are we doing those pieces?” asks Sharon. “We should not be doing them just because they’re masterpieces. We should be doing them because we want to explore what they have to say to us right now. That’s a different attitude than how the institution of opera thinks about it. As we were piecing this work together, it was very much meditating on why do we do these old works. And do we have to do them in the old style or can the very form of the old pieces be constantly renegotiated? Changing the experience of the work outside the opera house is a way of getting out of the institutional. None of us knows what the future holds. But this feels like a resonant field of exploration.”

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