Think Outside the Opera House, and Inside the Parking Garage

Think Outside the Opera House, and Inside the Parking Garage

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DETROIT — It was around the time when Brünnhilde summoned her horse to ride into a funeral pyre, setting off a world-cleansing fire and flood, that I found myself fighting back tears.

Perhaps it was this performance of the climactic Immolation Scene from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” sung with a frightening blend of ferocity and euphoria by the soprano Christine Goerke. Or perhaps it was the presentation: In Michigan Opera Theater’s “Twilight: Gods” — a drive-through abbreviation of Wagner imaginatively directed by Yuval Sharon, and unfolding on the levels on a parking garage here — Brünnhilde’s steed was a Ford Mustang, in which she sped off into the apocalypse.

Most likely I was just overwhelmed, seven months after the end of live music as we knew it, by an opera performance without compromises.

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic closed theaters and concert halls in March, the performances I’ve seen, whether a livestream or something small outdoors, have seemed to come with a caveat: This is the best we can do, given the circumstances. “Twilight: Gods” — the first project by Mr. Sharon as Michigan Opera Theater’s new artistic director — was obviously created with restrictions.

But it never came off as inhibited. It instead radiated an inventiveness that, even in a normal year, would have made it one of the most inspired American opera productions of the season.

“Twilight: Gods” also offers a way forward for performing arts institutions in the United States, which even on an optimistic timeline are facing closures until fall 2021. With a show inside the Detroit Opera House impossible, Mr. Sharon, known for his experimental Los Angeles company the Industry, made the enterprising move to conceive a production for the company’s parking garage next door.

Where else could something like this be possible? On the hunt for other venue-adjacent programming, I went to Lincoln Center last weekend. It’s a ghost town these days, but there is life just outside its theaters. On Sunday, New York City Ballet dancers laid down a Marley floor for a rooftop performance at the Empire Hotel, and the New York Philharmonic gave its final Bandwagon pickup-truck, pop-up concert of the fall. The day before, I had heard the violinist Jennifer Koh in solo recital under the trees that run along the north side of the Metropolitan Opera.

Ms. Koh’s performance — of Bach’s Second Violin Sonata and short works from her pandemic-era commissioning initiative Alone Together — was part of a series of concerts the center has presented in the grove and on the lawn that slopes above the restaurant Lincoln. It was streamed online, but also offered to a live audience, safely distanced and small: 20 pairs of seats scattered among the trees.

Alone Together is a marvel for a time of crisis. Ms. Koh gathered 20 established composers to donate short new works for solo violin and recommend 20 emerging composers to be commissioned as well. The roster is more inclusive than anything in mainstream classical music.

After the Bach, which was intensely felt but unpretentious, 18 pieces of Alone Together bled into one another as Ms. Koh played through them without pause. Some moments did stand out: the alternately smooth and serrated melodies of Inti Figgis-Vizueta’s “Quiet City”; the bouncing wonder of Angélica Negrón’s “Cooper and Emma”; the modest comfort of Cassie Wieland’s “Shiner.”

Throughout, however, it was difficult to shake the feeling that this concert fell into the category of “the best we can do.” But how much can Lincoln Center do?

On my bike ride to the concert, I passed dozens of restaurants on Columbus Avenue that were at capacity outside for weekend brunch, their tables a fraction of the distance separating chairs at the concert. New York City eateries are open because they were initially crippled by pandemic restrictions — then, through a nuanced risk assessment, were allowed to expand their offerings. Outdoor dining is here to stay through the winter, potentially saving tens of thousands of jobs.

All this, while the New York Philharmonic has not been able to gather at anything approaching full complement on the Lincoln Center campus, even outdoors and without an audience. That the performing arts have not received the same kind of policy consideration as restaurants and other businesses will reverberate through Lincoln Center and beyond, for years to come.

What Mr. Sharon has accomplished with “Twilight: Gods,” though, sends a message that when institutions are hampered by circumstances outside their control — a pandemic, a failure of leadership on both a local and national scale — creativity is more essential than ever.

His production weaves avant-gardism into an institutional framework. Few of Mr. Sharon’s presentations through the Industry have taken place in traditional spaces; “Invisible Cities” brought its audience to a train station, and “Hopscotch” unfolded in cars driving around Los Angeles. The company’s most recent project, the colonialism parable “Sweet Land,” played out in a complex of ephemeral architecture in a state park and, with some slight modifications, could be performed today.

With “Twilight: Gods,” he has moved a typically theater-bound company into its parking garage for a drive-through production that’s something between a chamber opera and a haunted house. Decisions that are logistical — keeping audience members in their cars; providing context through poetic narration by Marsha Music; reducing Wagnerian grandeur to a handful of players — are also fitting. Detroit is one of the country’s car manufacturing capitals (not for nothing does Brünnhilde ride a Ford), and Marsha Music is a local treasure. At one point, the score transforms Siegfried’s Funeral March into a Motown-esque celebration.

The singing, all in Mr. Sharon’s English translation, is startlingly intimate for Wagner. The bass Morris Robinson still booms as the villainous Hagen, yet up close you can also see how, near the end of a generations-spanning cycle of violence and revenge, he carries the weight of the “Ring” saga in his eyes. Sean Panikkar’s honeyed Siegfried is a departure from the brash sound you tend to hear from heldentenors; he’s more sympathetic, more human.

The great triumphs of this production are its acts of adaptation. Ed Windels’s orchestration changes with every scene: a solo cello accompanying Waltraute’s wrenching monologue; a sinister-sounding trio of an electric bass guitar, bass clarinet and accordion for Hagen’s scene with his father, Alberich; a marimba and vibraphones conjuring an aquatic environment for the three Rhinemaidens.

Marsha Music’s narration is Wagner in vernacular, conveyed with both honesty and a playfulness befitting a production that never takes itself too seriously. “This is a real soap opera,” she says in the introduction, an attempt to boil the first three “Ring” operas down to a few conversational minutes. But her interludes also contain the moral clarity of storytelling. Take the stanzas that follow Siegfried’s death:

Most say this story just makes no sense
But I’m here to tell you — in the present tense
That we all have had our own taste of this
That fire hot madness of just a kiss

And we can see today so much disarray and strife
Killing and conflict as a way of life
And the darkness and plague that’s upon our days
and the violence that rules and the chaos that reigns

There are warring souls and so much arrogance
Conflict and killing and great pestilence
To pandemic and plague, the world has succumbed
The end of days — it now has come

That’s as heavy-handed as the production gets; otherwise, Mr. Sharon trusts his audience enough to resist grasping too directly at timeliness. The ending, in which flames and flood give way to a new world — hopefully better than the last — speaks for itself. Something will emerge from this moment of crisis for opera. I hope that, whatever it is, it looks like “Twilight: Gods.”

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