Below is our review of Sweet Land, an experimental opera by The Industry.
A frightening, haggard woman with long, black-and-white hair lurches to life before my eyes. She struggles to find breath. She begins to speak – quietly at first. It’s hard to understand.
She points to the two wooden structures from which we emerged earlier. She gathers the strength to form a complete sentence, and shrieks in a terrifying tone:
“Go back to where you came from!”
Sweet Land is an experimental opera created and produced by The Industry, an art collective founded by Yuval Sharon. The story concerns a meeting of two worlds, immediately bringing to mind the first contact between European settlers and the Native Americans – though there are also echoes of African and Indian colonialism as well as direct commentary on modern-day racism.
The show opens on a group known as The Hosts – the indigenous people of what will later be called Sweet Land. The place is named by The Arrivals, who may as well be called “The Invaders,” as they are shown quite plainly to be a malicious, corrupting force. What starts as a tense partnership between the two tribes devolves into something much darker, and as the show progresses we find ourselves experiencing the past and present simultaneously.
Sweet Land unfolds in five parts, inside of bizarre wooden sets strewn around the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Upon check-in, audience members are assigned to one of two tracks: “Train” and “Feast.” The score features two composers – Raven Chacon and Du Yun – as well as two librettists – Douglas Kearney and Aja Couchois Duncan. Each section sees these collaborators paired up differently, allowing every audience member to hear from each artist at least once.
The production cannot quite be considered immersive, though some elements are there. One of The Hosts during the “Train” segment wandered among the audience and hissed in guests’ ears. The audience is addressed directly a few times, mostly to help usher them from place to place. Other than that, it is mostly a stage show – though the stage itself is quite remarkable – a kind of reverse theater-in-the-round with the actors on the perimeter and the orchestra occupying the center. There are also a number of surprising staging elements that should be left unspoiled.
The physical setting of Sweet Land – Los Angeles State Historic Park, which many Angelenos may not even be aware of – is by far the most memorable element of the production. Because of Sweet Land’s wild aesthetic – in which just about anything goes – everything feels like part of the show. Trains roll by, helicopters pass overhead, the sun sets, the wind blows. Very often these things seemed to happen on cue – a truly magical effect. The finale of the show uses eye-popping projection mapping to transform the park into something truly surreal and unforgettable.
Everything in Sweet Land is a jumble of colors that seem to resist blending together – from the costumes to the lighting, and especially to the music itself. The score incorporates a great number of genres and influences, but insists on keeping its composers’ voices separate. There are obvious references to rock and roll, jazz, and blues – all genres created and developed by artists of color. But the prevailing style is that of modern avant-garde classical music, which for most of its history has been the domain of white male academics. Given the scarcity of composers of color in the classical world, it’s thrilling to see Native American composer Chacon and Chinese-born Du Yun representing Los Angeles on the national stage.
Chacon and Yun’s compositions share a number of traits, especially their love of thick clusters of horns and strings. Both of their sections seemed to alternate between atonal moaning and surprisingly groovy rhythm breaks. Chacon’s music evolves slowly, staying well out of the way of the vocals, which are clear and up front. Yun’s music is more manic, with jarring transitions and overlapping vocals. Douglas Kearney’s libretto is highly poetic, with striking and unusual imagery, while Aja Couchois Duncan’s lyrics are a bit more musical, using repetition to create memorable moments. All of these artists have an obvious and immense talent, and their scores are expertly performed by two small ensembles conducted by Marc Lowenstein and Jenny Wong.
The cast is incredibly strong, with a number of exceptionally powerful voices. Carmina Escobar impresses as Coyote, whose experimental vocal techniques draw from long-lost Native singing styles as well as modern noise music and performance art. I constantly found myself waiting for the booming baritone of Richard Hodges (Preacher) – one of the most gorgeous voices I’ve heard in many years. Lindsay Patterson Abdou (Bones) had a similar effect on me, with her deeply emotional performance as Bow. Having seen many operas from the back of a theater, it was almost frightening to experience such a mighty sound from just a few feet away.
For many people, opera is notoriously inaccessible, and Sweet Land will not do much to alleviate this issue. Though the music is very well-written, it is cold and dissonant. The story is filtered through many layers of abstraction, and intentionally frustrating. It would be difficult to recommend Sweet Land to many people as it is a deconstruction of a form that most have never seen to begin with. The ticket price, too, will prevent many from seeing how far opera has come. It is somewhat ironic that this pricey show is staged at a public park, where families are playing nearby but not allowed near the open-air stages. However, it does have two draws for new opera fans – its length, at a brisk 85 minutes, and its dazzling special effects, which are often enough to keep the interest up. If you’re already well acquainted with modern classical music (which probably means you’ve got an arts degree hung up somewhere), you’ll likely find lots to love here, and a truly ambitious work.
There are a few other issues that keep Sweet Land from being the thrilling future opera it could be. The pre-show entertainment – an improvisation between two percussionists – is downright dreadful, and starts things on a sour note. The costuming is well beyond my comprehension – aside from one gorgeous character, the outfits are gaudy and uninteresting. The long walks between sets in the cool night air are pleasant and most welcome, but little is done with them. There are a number of missed opportunities for details that could truly elevate the production.
As a whole, Sweet Land is a challenging show for people who like challenging shows. It asks a great deal from its audience, but for those who connect with it, there is much to discover. While it begins with some hesitation, the second half is vibrant and memorable. It will appeal to artists and musicians on the bleeding edge, as well as those looking for an abstract take on a dark part of American history. There’s nothing easy about confronting the sins of our past, but with Sweet Land, The Industry takes up the task with ferocity and grace.