Nardus Williams and Anthony Roth Costanzo (L to R) in The Comet / Poppea (2024), performance documentation from the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Image by Austin Richey, courtesy MOCA and The Industry

Poetry in motion

“The Comet / Poppea” — two operas for the price of one, kind of, sort of…

by Bondo Wyszpolski

[This is a review of a new work presented by The Industry, a company that reimagines how operas can be presented. “The Comet / Poppea” played for two weekends in Little Tokyo.]

Yuval Sharon is an enlightened impresario who continues to stretch the boundaries of that old warhorse known as opera. I haven’t seen all of his productions, but I well remember observing him observing the audience from the shadows during a performance of “Invisible Cities,” staged inside of Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. He’s a smart and gifted young man who has earned the respect of the artistic elite (which, as you’ll see, brings along its own baggage).

And so, a few years later, we have a curious mash-up, a somewhat disagreeable word with unpleasant progeny. This new endeavor has been financially backed by people or organizations with deep pockets, and it has also attracted actors/singers and tech people who are greatly accomplished. The sets, the lighting, the costumes, the musicians, et. al, are first rate.

“Poppea” is actually a heavily abridged version of Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” which premiered in 1643. It has a cast of mythological characters, not unlike “Orfeo” and “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria,” but is focused on Emperor Nero’s determination to divorce his wife Ottavia and then take Poppea as his bride. This sounds like the same playbook used by other self-centered leaders, from Napoleon to Trump. In the process, people die or are banished. Same old, same old. There’s more to it than that, of course, as the full opera barely fits on three CDs.

Laurel Irene and Cedric Berry (L to R) in The Comet / Poppea (2024), performance documentation from the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Image by Austin Richey, courtesy MOCA and The Industry

“The Comet,” newly composed by George Lewis, and with a libretto by Douglas Kearney, is based on a short story that W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1920. A comet grazes the Earth, seemingly just over New York City, and it expels a noxious gas that kills anyone who was out in the open. However, Jim Davis, a black messenger, was below ground, in a vault, and Julia, a young white woman from a well-off family, was in her darkroom developing photos.

In the story, they drive around, going here and there, looking for other survivors, but in this adaptation they’re in a ritzy and apparently exclusive restaurant, hence Jim’s “And yesterday they would not have served me here.”

To drive home the point that racism is our focal point, Kearney inserts a few lines from another source so that Jim can recount being asked to leave an opera, ostensibly because he’s black and those near him were white.

Anthony Roth Costanzo and Nardus Williams (L to R) in The Comet / Poppea (2024), performance documentation from the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Image by Elon Schoenholz, courtesy MOCA and The Industry

So here we are, two highly abbreviated operas (90 minutes, no intermission), each one separated from the other and thus occupying one-half of a constantly revolving turntable. The set for “Poppea” is a brightly-lit, white-tiled bathhouse with a white wall that’s covered with ceramic flowers. The singers are decked out in white togas and gowns. On the other side, the dimly-lit restaurant has patterned, dark red wallpaper, and apparently a killer view. There are corpses at the tables, diners who were snuffed out by the gas.

The set keeps rotating, like a slow-moving carousel. It never stops. There is an East audience and a West audience, each on risers but on opposite sides of the venue (the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA). Both groups see the same show, but different slices of it. The 10-piece orchestra, conducted by Marc Lowenstein, is off to one side, mostly hidden from view. Both works are performed simultaneously, although the vocals rarely if ever step on each other’s toes. The words are projected on several screens, one set in white and the other in egg-yolk yellow so that the stories can be followed, even when the action of one isn’t visible.

And you may well wonder, is this a stroke of genius or a fancy gimmick? Does it enhance our experience or does it to some extent handicap it?

I suspect that people will debate this. There is a visual narrative here, and if half of the show we’re watching is obscured from our sight then surely we’re not getting the whole picture. The director writes that this invites “associations, dissociations, collisions, and confluences” and hopes that “the creation of an ambiguous space” will enchant us by way of its juxtaposition.

Laurel Irene inThe Comet / Poppea (2024), performance documentation from the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Image by Austin Richey, courtesy MOCA and The Industry

In short, he would like to see us intellectually engaged, and the pairing of the two works indeed does that to some extent. There’s a sense that the passing of the comet has briefly opened up a portal in the timestream, playing on the idea that linear time is an illusion and that everything that is, has, or will happen, is in actuality playing out at the same moment — naturally beyond our comprehension, but it is an oft-stated theory. So one could say that, for the duration of this show, 1920, 1643, and (of course) 2024 are all rotating together, simultaneously.

I’m probably reading more into this than is actually there, but Sharon’s operas do make us think, and they do open up new doors. I’ll grant him that.

But this kind of split-screen approach without a screen is somewhat dubious, although it works well enough in novels and even in movies that cut back and forth. There were moments that were not entirely clear to me (although reading the libretto of “The Comet” helped), because the set was facing the other audience. Probably an inverted V-shaped setup might have worked better, with the audience able to see both sides at once, even at the expense of their having to swivel their heads back and forth.

Apart from the notion that some people have all the cookies and others don’t, I think it’s somewhat of a stretch to find multiple similarities between “Poppea” and “The Comet.” Even so, the production was certainly a breath of fresh air. In years past, Long Beach Opera tried new angles as well (the Belmont Shores swimming pool comes to mind); LA Opera, naturally, is more constrained (they’re unlikely to stage “Billy Budd” off Fisherman’s Wharf in Redondo Beach, for instance).

W.E.B DuBois’s story circles around the theme of racism, and for a few hours Jim and Julia, poor man and rich woman, black and white, seem to consider one another as equals and apparently even contemplate the idea that it may be up to them to, as librettist Kearney puts it, “repopulate humankind.” This seems pretty far-fetched, surrounded as they are by corpses and concerns about their loved ones, but the idea is that maybe it takes something of apocalyptic proportions for the races to regard one another as equals.

In the program notes, Sharon, who not only directed but conceived this production, says that he kept finding himself “thinking about one of opera’s most intractable problems: the sense of privilege and elitism attributed to the genre.” The goal also, he writes, is to “force open” and “investigate” opera’s “anti-elite potential — pointing out its tendencies towards exclusion while offering up a counter-proposal.”

Nardus Williams and Anthony Roth Costanzo (L to R) in The Comet / Poppea (2024), performance documentation from the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Image by Austin Richey, courtesy MOCA and The Industry

There’s something rather disingenuous about this, because “The Comet / Poppea” isn’t being performed in Leimert Park, Watts, or Compton. I don’t mean to say that many in the African American community wouldn’t be interested, but overwhelmingly opera is attended by and supported by a white, upper-middle class and educated audience. The only black person I recall seeing at the performance I attended was a woman who unapologetically brushed by me before we entered the venue. And there were certainly more black people in the cast than were in the audience. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of politically incorrect, but that’s the nature of the beast and more so of productions like this which are even more elite and therefore less inviting than “La bohème” or “Madama Butterfly.”

I’m not forgetting the groundbreaking operas by Terence Blanchard and Anthony Davis. But I feel that Sharon will have to go on thinking about privilege and elitism for years to come; and good luck with that, buddy. The audience you have now is likely to be the audience you’ll always have, and one you can’t afford to lose.

The cast rotated just like the turntable, and on the evening I attended Julia was sung by Laurel Irene and Jim by Cedric Berry, with Anthony Roth Costanzo as Nero and Nardus Williams as Poppea. Everyone was well rehearsed, these singers and the others in “Poppea.”

Presented over two weekends, The Comet / Poppea sold out its performances and will be making its way to the East Coast. It’s unlikely to enter the operatic repertoire, but like many of The Industry’s other endeavors it should be remembered for what it attempted and to some degree achieved. ER

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