Invisible Cities: A Wireless Opera Comes To Union Station

In the latest production of L.A.’s The Industry, the traditional stage is jettisoned in favor of a larger and less restrictive venue: Downtown L.A.‘s iconic Union Station. This past Saturday saw the world premiere of “Invisible Cities”, a new opera written by composer Chris Cerrone, inspired by Italo Colvino’s 1972 novel of the same name.

The Industry, a young and progressive opera company founded by director Yuval Sharon, has a mission to bring new relevancy to operatic presentations by using inspiration from contemporary experimental theater and performance art pieces. The Industry was founded three years ago, and this is only their second major production here in L.A. Partnered with L.A. Dance Project, founded by noted dancer Benjamin Millpied, “Invisible Cities” incorporates a well-rounded collection of disciplines, both traditional and technical, to fascinating effect.

Invisible Cities (during open dress rehearsal)

Invisible Cities (during open dress rehearsal)

Calvino’s novel imagines a meeting between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo during which the Khan asks Polo for descriptions of various cities in his empire. Polo’s lyrical and imaginative responses make up the context for the opera, providing composer Cerrone with ample opportunity for inspirational color and creative flight. The music itself was superb, blending elements of the traditional with thoroughly modern techniques incorporating found objects as instruments along with elements of playback; a contemporary yet accessible score, and at a length of 70 minutes, also perfect for the contemporary attention span.

To bring “Invisible Cities” fully into the present tense, wireless technology and an unusual venue were the key drivers. Downtown L.A.‘s Union Station, the largest rail terminal in the western U.S., provides the backdrop for “Invisible Cities”, and made no pretense of maintaining business as usual as performers wove their narrative through crowds of travelers waiting for trains or buses. The only thing that differentiates anyone who happens to be in the station from an audience member is a pair of wireless headphones. You see, “Invisible Cities” unique identifier is that it is the world’s first wireless opera, delivering all audio directly to each audience member through personal headphones. The performers are untethered from a traditional stage, and the audience is free to wander around and view any aspect of the performance they might find intriguing; creating a highly personalized experience for each audience member.

Wireless audience

Wireless audience

Thanks to partner Sennheiser, the technological aspect of the production was pulled off without a hitch when I attended a dress rehearsal in mid-October. While modern live performance and wireless tech are old bedfellows at this point, there is no question that the demands of this performance had some unique wrinkles. Specifically, given that each audience member requires a pair of headphones, a strong broadcast signal had to be maintained through a large part of Union Station to prevent any dropouts or weaknesses in the audio signal.

To accomplish this, Bexel, based in Burbank, CA, was brought on board to custom build a managed antenna system to supplement broadcast coverage for both the headphone system and the wireless microphones and in-ear monitors used by the performers. Coupled with Sennheiser’s new Digital 9000 wireless system, there was nary a flaw in sound quality.

While the performance takes place and actively moves around the venue, an 11-piece orchestra provided live accompaniment from another unused part of the station, 1,000 feet from the main performance areas.

Invisible Cities orchestra

Invisible Cities orchestra

The opera begins with the overture, which the audience is invited to watch the orchestra perform; and it’s unusual for sure to be standing in the same room, yet still listening through headphones. Given that the orchestra remains stationary for the duration of the opera, a traditional setup could be employed: A DigiCo D-Rack took all the microphone feeds over fiber, through the garage beneath the station, directly into the control room (in this case an old bagel shop) to be mixed along with all of the wireless signals through a DigiCo SD11 console.

Upon completion of the overture, the audience is invited to walk anywhere they like within the areas of the station where full broadcast signal is achieved. This encompassed quite a bit of real estate, and initially, the audience needed to do a little legwork to figure out where exactly key elements of the performance were actually taking place. This was definitely where the experience became individualized, between four major characters, four additional singers, and eight dancers, there was plenty of intrigue to be experienced; all of which could be heard clearly if not always seen.

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