Worlds converge and stories diverge in The Industry’s recent opera, Sweet Land, where audience members were separated into different story tracks across L.A. State Historic Park. Directed by Cannupa Hanska Luger and Yuval Sharon, Sweet Land featured a diverse creative team, including scenic designers Tanya Orellana and Carlo Maghirang, projection designer Hana S. Kim, lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, and sound designer Jody Elff. Read about the ghostly projections.
“There are two of almost every position—two directors, two composers, two librettists, two costume designers, and two set designers,” states Orellana.
“It was natural that they also employ two contrasting scenic designers to visually portray the diverging plotlines,” adds Maghirang.
From the beginning, the team designed the production as a collective group. “There was an incredible amount of fluidity across the design elements during the ‘what if’ phase,” notes Orellana. “I think it works a lot like a conversation, where everyone is discussing the same topic but from their individual perspective…I think all the early work of collective conversation shows in how the experience has so many diverging perspectives and yet still feels like they all dance together.”
The resulting design featured a dispersed variety of scenes that led audience members on a physical and introspective journey. “The experience begins at a ‘theater,’ called ‘Contact,’ that is meant to resemble both an opera house as well as a barge, bringing the audience as part of the ‘Arrivals’ onto Sweet Land. From here, the ‘Hosts’ invite the audience of 200 through the experience by splitting them in half, through a series of winding Tunnels, where we begin to see vignettes of the stories we are about to experience,” describes Maghirang. The audience then diverged into the Feast, designed by Orellana, or Train, designed by Maghirang, to experience different genesis stories. Next, the audience converged at The Crossroads for a video and audio art installation. The audience split again to Feast II and Train II, but this time, the stories change. The audience then journeyed through the Tunnels to their final destination, the theater, where Kim cast projections onto the surrounding landscape and North Broadway Bridge.
“Unless they come back for another show, they can only learn about the two other spaces through conversation with audience members from the other track,” explains Orellana. “I like the idea that you wonder what the other members are experiencing but have to accept that your experience of the show will be different than theirs.”
The stories of Feast and Train began in the Tunnels. “As they moved from the theater to either Feast or Train, they watched half of the audience be led through a track they would not experience,” describes Orellana. “The Feast tunnel was inspired by curing/drying houses to begin telling the story of the land and harvesting. The Train tunnels were inspired by mining shafts to begin asking the question: What has been the historical human cost of the Western pursuit of technology?”
The timeline of Feast was non-specific, a “moment caught somewhere between past and present,” notes Orellana, who created a circular set with natural materials and repeating patterns to invoke that feeling. “Often, people imagine that the future is sterile and white, clinical and plastic. But I am interested in imagining a future that embraces nature, the handmade, bright, beautiful colors, and the ability to share space amongst different groups. The Feast set wanted to create a space where we could examine and break open the dominant narrative of how the United States was founded and how that has affected everything following. We kept a lot of the wood raw and with as few cuts as possible so that it can later be donated to other companies. While these sets are large, we also want the material to have many lives after the production is done.”
The audience’s relationship changed from Feast I to Feast II. First, the audience entered an intimate space with warm lighting where the Hosts and Arrivals shared the ritual of breaking bread for the first time. When violence erupted, the space transformed into an arena, and the audience escaped to The Crossroads. “When they return, the space is no longer a place of sharing. The once colorful food is now replaced by buffet trays. Food has gone from an experience of sharing to a solitary one. The warm lighting has been replaced by sterile, clinical tubing, and the audience is no longer participating but completely focused on the center staging. The natural world is not gone from the space but is now in the background, partially erased by the blinding white light. There is a violence to that erasure. Culture has been taken away, and history has been redacted,” explains Orellana.
“Tanya and I fell naturally into which stories we wanted to take part in, and personally, I immediately felt connected to the ‘Train’ storyline, dealing with the mythology of Manifest Destiny, American expansion into the West, and consequently, more Native land, and the creation/expansion of the railroads on the backs of black and Chinese bodies,” Maghirang clarifies. “As an immigrant myself, I wanted to explore visually the myths surrounding meritocracy— that one could carve out a living by working hard in a country that promises success, only to find out that it is on a moving and unattainable target, and particularly that it is built at the expense of another culture.”
This illusion of progress led Maghirang to research optical illusion machines, particularly the mechanism of the zoetrope. “Defined as a ‘device that produces the illusion of motion from a rapid succession of static pictures,’ the directing team and I were immediately drawn to its potential for staging,” he recalls. The team designed a circular structure, locating it near the neighboring railway, so that the sound of the passing train integrated with the performance and sonic landscape. “We created a space that had panels on a track that rotated around the audience, separating the audience (located inside the structure) from the performers (located at the perimeter around the audience), with the orchestra in a central gazebo. The machine is designed to be operated manually, pushing the panels around the audience, the labor of creating the motion being integrated into the performance.”
The mechanism of the zoetrope emulated the sensation of being inside a train car, “looking out of windows as if the railroad itself was being created as you looked out from your seat,” notes Maghirang. “The opera performers would appear and disappear from behind these kinetic panels, and sometimes singing through the slits in between, much like how one would view a zoetrope. The audience is seated on swivel stools in the middle, so that they may control their vantage point, given that the performers would often appear from behind them at any given moment. The overall effect is disorienting and manic, taking cue from the composition of the music in this particular storyline, and even the sound of operating the mechanism coincidentally created the sound of a moving train.”
Since Train’s story revolved around the labor and cost of Western expansion, the creative team left the lumber exposed, to make the set as authentic as possible. “The mechanism is clearly visible, to feel the human cost of creating this monument,” says Maghirang. “We abandoned plans to mask and paint, and what was left was a structure that was unapologetically oppressive that was in stark contrast to the landscape.”
Overall, Orellana felt challenged to make certain she “met the artistry of all the incredible collaborators at the table,” she says. “As a set designer, I feel that it is a gift to be able to hold someone else’s story, and I always want to do it in a meaningful way. In general, it is important to me to not be nostalgic about the past. While I honor history, I do not believe in having visual aesthetics that glorify time periods that have been historically non-inclusive. For me, designing Sweet Land was about carving a place for my visual perspective and contributing to the ongoing conversation.”
“I am eternally grateful to Yuval Sharon and The Industry for inviting me to their table, and to the numerous collaborators involved for sharing their immense talents and stories for us to take part in,” Maghirang concludes. “A special thanks to my technical director Mateo Rudich, and his associates Cole Castine and Josh Esquivel, without whom Train would not be possible. The generosity of the team’s hearts and minds is what made Sweet Land such an incredible journey. Also, thank you to Los Angeles State Historic Park and Anawalt Lumber, who sponsored the production by providing all the lumber for this massive installation.”
The Industry’s Sweet Land is available online. Order the video streaming version of Sweet Land at stream.sweetlandopera.com.