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Yuval Sharon Reflects on The Industry’s production of John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

Joyous, anarchic, sometimes even silly: on the surface, our production of Europeras 1 & 2 might trick you into believing it was little more than a comedic romp through operatic history. An audience member who wandered into Sony Pictures Studios’ Stage 23 and left smiling may not know what a profound and invigorating experience the piece offers its interpreters. For that matter, even loyal supporters of The Industry may not know how deeply our work has been shaped by the influence of John Cage.

Europeras was my second production of one of Cage’s works: the first was a high-profile presentation of his Song Books with Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony in 2012, featuring Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara as soloists. The experience was a turning point in my artistic life, both in and of itself and also for the fact that it happened just two months before The Industry’s first production (Crescent City in a warehouse in Atwater Village). So Cage’s work and the beginnings of The Industry are woven together for me, and in the productions that followed, I saw the seeds of the Song Books sprout in ways I would not have been able to anticipate.

I thought I knew all about Cage’s philosophy by studying his book Silence in college and seeing performances of his works whenever they were programmed (sadly all too rarely). But the experience of actually working on one of his pieces revealed to me how little I knew about what Cage was actually about. His love of chance is well-known, but until I personally relinquished all control to chance  — and therefore all ego-driven judgments and selections — I never realized the spiritual exercise at the heart of his work. Instead of the conventional mode of directing, where one sets up all the aspects of a production to resonate with each other to convey an intention or trigger a reaction, Cage demands you turn off the decision-making instincts that you believed defined your role. The results cannot be anticipated, and the audience is left free to construct whatever meanings he or she wishes from the tapestry of sights and sounds. As Cage liked to say, where most composers provide answers, he liked to pose questions.

Before the Song Books production, I wrongly associated Cage’s pieces as improvisatory, imagining that the chaos of a Cage performance was the result of a free-for-all methodology. But improvisation turns out to have very little to do with it: his works demand discipline. Cage chastised performers that went out of control for the sake of showing off: Julius Eastman’s production of Song Books had Cage pounding his fist on a table and shouting, “Just because you are free doesn’t mean you can do any Goddamn thing you want!” The performer must, therefore, follow Cage’s instructions seriously and carefully, and when you are asked to make a decision, you stick to your choice no matter what you might later think might make it “better” or “funnier.” It’s not easy to accomplish, but when you do, you realize that the notions of “better” or “worse” are constructs that get in the way of appreciating life for what it really is. Instead of chaos, Cage’s works offer a feast of dedication, where even simple everyday acts — typing a letter, making a smoothie, bouncing a ball — are performed with full, loving attention, no matter who is watching (or how they are reacting). There’s no “hamming it up” or offering a commentary on the absurdity of their activity, nor is there any purposeful interaction with performers undertaking another action: since everything is interconnected and created equal, any further emphasis is unnecessary. The result can be sublime and quietly uplifting.

Fans of The Industry’s projects might now start to make some connections between Cage and some of the tactics we have pursued, like the relinquishing of control, which lead me to ponder what it would mean to do pieces in public spaces where nothing can be predicted and the performers must be ready for anything. Or the embrace of indeterminacy, as in the non-linear experience of Hopscotch, where audiences saw the same scenes in any number of different possible orders. Or in our attempts to erase the boundary separating art from everyday life, as in Invisible Cities, where the singers sang among the bustle of commuters in Union Station and audience members observed a field of people, wondering who among them is a performer. As Cage said, “Theatre takes place all the time, wherever one is, and art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case” — a quote we placed prominently in the Invisible Cities program.

Would any of The Industry’s projects have been conceived if I hadn’t engaged so deeply and directly on Cage’s Song Books? While so many factors have influenced our projects — Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, Jacques Ranciere and Guy Debord’s philosophy of spectatorship, and Los Angeles itself — I believe that no influence has been more strongly felt on this company than Cage. As such, producing the first new production of Europeras in America was a profound tribute and a meaningful chance to contribute to his legacy. 

Los Angeles Philharmonic Association – Cage, Europeras at Sony Studios Photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

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