There’s something about Italo Calvino’s novels that makes them seem inherently musical. Maybe it’s the omnipresent interaction between precise mathematical structure and human intuition that recurs again and again in his writing. Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which finds Marco Polo narrating his travels to Kublai Khan, has a prescribed combinatorial chapter structure that dictates what kind of cities Polo describes and when, but the content of those chapters is so imaginative, so free. The structure becomes a kind of window frame that both enables and restricts what we see.
At LA’s Union Station last Sunday, November 17, I saw composer Christopher Cerrone’s opera based on Calvino’s novel, also called Invisible Cities. Wisely, Cerrone doesn’t copy the book’s structure, instead focusing on five particular cities. But as produced by the opera company The Industry and directed by Yuval Sharon, the event brilliantly captured both the ephemerality and rigor of Calvino’s writing. The Industry first grabbed people’s attention last year with a production of Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City, which featured a sprawling set composed of individual parts designed by different artists. Invisible Cities managed to be at once more extravagant and subtle, with the audience listening to the live performance on wireless headphones while wandering freely through an actual, historically scenic train station. The singers and dancers moved through the station too, with varying degrees of conspicuousness.
This means that anyone who saw the opera had a unique, unrepeatable experience—or, in Sharon’s words, everyone had a “front row seat.” But the fragmentary nature of this experience that makes it so compelling also makes it difficult to review. I can’t really evaluate the whole opera; I can only evaluate my experience of it.
Thankfully Cerrone’s music provides a powerful throughline for the entire duration. Less overtly dramatic than a typical opera score, there is an undercurrent of placidity to his music even at its most frantic and furious. It mirrors the benignly distant character of Calvino’s writing, unmoved by or removed from the cities’ inhabitants in a way, a kind of storm’s eye, an observer in a world of actors.
As the opera progressed, I felt unsure if I was an observer or an actor myself. After a brief instrumental overture, we wandered into a courtyard where a woman in white holding a large, shallow bowl sang long, lyrical lines. Crossing through the station into another courtyard, we came upon a stoic man in a wheelchair. While he wasn’t singing at the time, he was clearly part of the production. But this line was not always clear. When we re-entered the station, there were several audience members clustered around some chairs where two men were sitting. One looked bewildered, while one was sleeping or pretending to sleep. We had clearly just missed something, but what?
After that we found the bar, which became our stationary vantage point for much of the opera. We saw businessmen on smartphones moving in lockstep, dancers in military uniforms, and some kind of confrontation between the man in the wheelchair and a man in Italian Renaissance garb. As we watched, the man in the wheelchair stood, unsteadily, leaning on a cane.
Finally we returned to the ticket booth area where we began. Most of the audience seemed to be clustered here now, mesmerized by a line of dancers on the counter. A man emerged from the crowd that I recognized as the man in the wheelchair, but he was walking now, and dressed in resplendent robes. It was Kublai Khan. I prepared to follow him to his next destination but the music ended, and the opera was over.
I was left with an immediate desire to see the opera again, but unfortunately, appropriately, this was the final performance in a two-month run.
I should mention that on Sunday, the opera was preceded by a special performance of Cerrone’s Memory Palace, a work for percussion and electronics performed by Ian David Rosenbaum. Based on sounds from Cerrone’s childhood, the piece has a remarkable economy of materials, with subtle variations of a haunting motive threaded through five movements lasting 25 minutes. Rosenbaum’s performance was exceedingly sensitive to these subtleties. The piece was performed in commemoration of translator William Weaver, who brought most of Calvino’s novels to the English-speaking world.