Motown, techno, and... opera? Michigan Opera Theatre director on expanding Detroit’s musical legacy
The Michigan Opera Theatre has a new artistic director: renowned opera director and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Yuval Sharon. He’s bringing his experimental approach to Detroit right from the start: his first project at the helm of the organization will be a condensed, drive-in staging of Richard Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, set in a parking structure. Stateside spoke with Sharon, who is succeeding the theatre’s late founder David DiChiera, about his work and his hopes for how opera can evolve in the years to come.
Opera in Detroit
Sharon has done freelance work in cities throughout the world, but he says part of what made his time leading a company in Los Angeles rewarding was building connections with the city over time. He said that same desire for community connection is what drew him to Detroit.
“It’s not me just coming in, doing one project, and leaving, but actually making a sustained effort over the course of several years to truly interact with this community, and I hope the result is a situation in which the DNA of this organization really does evolve and become something that opera can take its place alongside Motown, jazz, and techno as part of the incredible musical legacy of this city,” Sharon said.
An unconventional approach to a traditional form
For Twilight: Gods, audience members will remain in their cars and drive through the Detroit Opera House parking center to experience the production. Sharon, who founded an opera company in Los Angeles called The Industry, said he likes to push the envelope and bring an experimental lens to revered opera classics.
“When I came to L.A. and said I want to start my own company for experimental operas, where we’re going to do operas in warehouses and train stations and moving cars and all of these kinds of things, everyone looked at me like I was crazy. And people still do. But little by little, more and more people have gotten the message and have jumped on the bandwagon,” Sharon said.
A director’s role
Sharon said the first time he started to consider a stage director’s power to bring an opera to life was when he saw a production of the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg in San Francisco. He'd listened to the cast recording in advance and was enthralled. But the actual performance, he said, fell short of what the music had already sparked in his imagination.
“The music was performed beautifully, but the presentation of it, the language onstage, the acting, the stagecraft – all of those things just did not feel like they were at the same level as the music or the text ," Sharon explained. "And that’s when I started to think I wonder what would happen if you started to think about these operas the way that we think about theatrical pieces, and the role that a theater director plays in truly electrifying the work and making an electric connection between the stage and the audience."
Many sectors of American society – as well as its institutions – are navigating significant changes right now, from the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects to calls for action to address racial inequity and injustice. As performing arts venues consider what a return to in-person gatherings could look like, Sharon said the world of opera will have to evolve to survive.
“It will really have to look and feel and sound different after we can come back in the theater, otherwise it will risk feeling kind of irrelevant and outdated. And I don’t believe that’s the case with opera, but I think we have to make a very strong case now for it, because otherwise I don’t see how it’s going to make it,” Sharon said.
Twilight: Gods, a condensed production of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods conceived and directed by Yuval Sharon, will be performed in the Detroit Opera House Parking Center October 17-20. It will feature soprano Christine Goerke and poetry from Detroit writer Marsha Music.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.