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Air raid sirens, a theremin and the L.A. Phil come together for 'War of the Worlds' opera

War of the Worlds opera director/librettist Yuval Sharon.
War of the Worlds opera director/librettist Yuval Sharon.
LA Philharmonic
War of the Worlds opera director/librettist Yuval Sharon.
Conductor Christopher Rountree.
LA Philharmonic
War of the Worlds opera director/librettist Yuval Sharon.
Composer Annie Gosfield.
LA Philharmonic

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Downtown Los Angeles is the setting for an ambitious opera adaptation of Orson Welles' 1938 radio drama, "War of The Worlds" on Nov. 12 and 18. 

"War of the Worlds" is being presented simultaneously inside Disney Hall and at three outdoor locations in downtown L.A. At these sites, Sharon and his team have repurposed three World War II-era air raid sirens, which will be incorporated into the performance.

The opera was written and directed by Yuval Sharon of The Industry Opera Company, the group behind the operas "Hopscotch" and "Invisible Cities," which unfolded outside the confines of the concert hall.

Frame host John Horn and producer Michelle Lanz caught an early rehearsal and spoke with composer Annie Gosfield, conductor Christopher Rountree and creator Yuval Sharon. 

Interview Highlights: 

On adapting the text for this production of "War of the Worlds":

Sharon: The libretto is actually very true to the original radio broadcast, with some changes specific to Los Angeles and some changes specific to our time. But I liked the fact that you can't quite pinpoint what year we're in as the piece is going on. It feels like it floats between 1938 — the original year of the broadcast — and our current time. I really like that. Sometimes the language is very stilted and feels like it comes from World War II. And other times it feels like it's happening right now. And I think that move back-and-forth from our time to an old time — I hope what it does is help alert the listeners and the audiences that they never get too complacent with where they are in the world of this piece, that they have to keep finding their footing. Instead of moving along with the hysteria and getting swept away with the hysteria of the moment, that alienation of going back-and-forth is something that keeps us aware.

On how the music blends musical and environmental sounds:

Rountree: What Annie has written is so poly-stylistic. I think there's this lounge tune in the beginning, which is part of where the orchestra goes haywire. There is a sound of a machine, but it's made by a person — for high soprano. It's so challenging that I think someone gets to try it once a day and then their voice runs out. So what Annie's written is an incredible vehicle for that. There are all these samples that are happening. There's the sound of a theremin, which kind of sounds like a soprano, and a violin and ... it's almost dated now. It's like this thing from the '60s and '70s.

On creating the sonic vocabulary for "War of the Worlds":

Gosfield: What you might call non-musical sounds have always been a very important part of my work. But not so much as a pre-conceived notion of, This is what I'm going to write. But I hear many things as music that are not necessarily music, and grew up listening to my parents old tube radio tuned in to static and tuned between the stations. So being able to incorporate this into music is just natural to me. I have this huge library of radio samples from the Cold War and from World War II that I got when I did some research at the American Academy in Berlin. So some of those 1938-era recordings will work their way into this, coming through the airwaves from Mars, some in Disney Hall itself. Part of the idea was mixing this otherworldly sub-ensemble — percussionist, theremin and keyboards and the soprano — and just trying to see how we could represent Mars and how we could represent transmissions from Mars.

On the site-specific elements of "War of the Worlds":

Sharon: Beyond Disney Concert Hall there are these three siren sites. For some of the audience, they'll be outside on the street listening to this concert being broadcast through these sirens that haven't made noise in 30 years. So, all of a sudden, they're experiencing this in a very different way. We chose downtown as the centerpiece for the entire production. The audience will be sat in parking lots in a sort of installation that's specific to that particular scene. It's more about downtown as an entity rather than the individual street corners. We're [designing] each of them so that they're all quite different. If you see the piece twice and you see it once from siren one, [then] if you come back and see it from siren two, you're going to see a different character live and you're also going to be in a different environment as well. So each of the four experiences is very unique and separate and independent, but every siren site and Walt Disney Concert Hall is creating this piece together. 

On the perception that classical music is detached from reality:

Sharon: The concert hall, which we usually think of as holy and sanctified and separate from the life of the street and the life of a community, is — in this case — being infiltrated by the sounds of the street. The noise and these voices are taking over what we normally think of as a very safe space. And we're looking at that in a very ironic way with this piece, which is that music is somehow protected and there's no touch from the outside world and outside worries — that actually the safest place you can be is in the quiet sanctuary of the concert hall. Sometimes it's great to have that escape into music, but I actually think — and especially in times like ours — we need to remember that we go to these cultural institutions, no matter whether they're on a hill or whether they're on a street, that we go there to try and learn about our own humanity and try and understand what we're going through and the challenges that face us. So I think it's a really important time to be attacking that boundary between culture and the life of the street and that realizing that life of the street can become the oxygen for that culture.

On how the perception of this piece might have changed due to the political climate:

Sharon: To me, with every new tragedy and uncertainty that's happened since the libretto was written, which was about a year ago, every new change in our current situation — politically and socially — has completely shifted how I think about this project and what the tone of this project is going to be, especially with the siren sites. In many ways, the libretto was being written when it seemed like the primary crisis was fake news — that we can't trust the information that we're hearing. "War of the Worlds" in a way became what we thought, post-election, would just be a sharp satire of the fact that so many people don't think critically of the information that we receive and that "War of the Worlds" was, in many ways, the very first piece of fake news to have challenged its audience, and in many ways failed in that way to wake an audience up to think about what they're hearing. In many ways, I think to myself, This is actually why we look to art. We look to art to try and find solidarity with each other and to realize that we're in this together, and if there's going to be a solution to the current crises that we're finding ourselves being attacked by, day in-and-day out, it's going to be by sticking together and creating something that allows our audience to reflect on what that means in a way that isn't just safe — that actually does go to the heart of the matter. With every passing day, I feel like it's more and more urgent that we do a piece that's just like this.

On encountering red tape from City Hall during the planning of "War of the Worlds":

Sharon: That's something that I actually love about doing projects in L.A. because L.A. has government officials that love this kind of stuff and get excited about it. So I found very willing partners throughout City Hall and elsewhere. And this entire concept began during "Hopscotch," working with someone in City Hall for some of our permissions. He was working in [Councilman Jose] Huizar's office and said, You know, there are these sirens that are all around downtown L.A. Actually, there's 200 of them all over L.A. and you should really do something with those. Those are just ripe for some sort of artistic disruption. That's what spun out into what "War of the Worlds" was. You can find your inspiration anywhere.

For more information and for tickets go to the LA Phil website!

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