ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
To experience an opera, you join a few hundred other people in a big theater. The ones closest to the performance are the best dressed. And you watch and listen to performers up on stage behind an invisible fourth wall. Wrong, says Yuval Sharon, and today we can call him a genius for saying so.
Sharon has been awarded a so-called genius grant by the MacArthur Foundation for, as they say, expanding how opera is performed and experienced through immersive, multi-sensory and mobile productions - for example, "Invisible Cities."
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "INVISIBLE CITIES")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (As character, vocalizing).
SIEGEL: This is adapted from a novel by Italo Calvino and performed in Los Angeles' Union Station. The miked singers, the audience with wireless receivers and headsets and real life passengers waiting for their trains mingle together in the station. Yuval Sharon, welcome, and congratulations.
YUVAL SHARON: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here.
SIEGEL: We just heard a little bit of Invisible Cities and my attempt to describe that opera. There's a much more complex work you've produced called "Hopscotch..."
SIEGEL: ...In which there are multiple plots. And the opera unfolds in different locations in Los Angeles. And the audience travels from location to location. Do I have that right?
SHARON: Yeah. It's a notoriously difficult project to kind of summarize because it did take place in sort of 24 cars and locations all around Los Angeles. And you know, I think that when people hear about that project or if they hear about "Invisible Cities," you know, they can come across a little gimmicky sounding, or they can sound like it's kind of a cool stunt or something really fun to do. But something like "Hopscotch" or "Invisible Cities," I really aimed to try and bring something that seems inaccessible just from the idea of the word opera and try and bring it right into the fabric of our experience of everyday life.
SIEGEL: I've read a quotation of yours which says in part that there's a lot of fear in the opera world.
SIEGEL: And I was wondering if you're producing an opera like those you've made, I would have a fear of a very loud PA announcement in the railroad station.
SHARON: (Laughter) We had lots of those.
SIEGEL: You had lots of those.
SHARON: Oh, sure.
SIEGEL: The people that get lost in Los Angeles - you're caught in the traffic jam.
SHARON: Oh, that happens. Yeah, that happens, too.
SIEGEL: All of this happens.
SHARON: Oh, yeah.
SIEGEL: And that's just part of the experience.
SHARON: Well, I think it's part of being open to what is unpredictable and what is out of your control. And I think that's one of the things that we can really look to art to do - is how we can remain open to the experience of our lives and the experience of the cities that we're in, not look with preconceived notions but actually try and expand our own perceptions of what's around us.
SIEGEL: But when you said there's a lot of fear in the opera world, you also said all fear is manufactured.
SIEGEL: What did - what do you mean by that? Who is manufacturing the fear?
SHARON: Fears and prejudices and overreactions and oversimplifications - they all go to narrow our minds. And those are being done by people with a specific agenda. And I think when a piece of art can actually open us up to what we don't know and what we don't expect and help us see the world from a different perspective, I actually think we get closer to the essence of what it means to really be alive and really be part of a community with other human beings. And I think that is so essential now more than ever.
SIEGEL: The grant - several hundred thousand dollars - straight to the casinos, or what do you intend to do with it?
SHARON: (Laughter) Yes. Well, one of things that it really will enable me to do is to actually take a break. I know it sounds (laughter) - it sounds...
SHARON: Maybe it sounds counterintuitive. It's something I've wanted to do, but I never knew how to do that financially - how to just take time off and not work at all. It wasn't financially feasible up until now. And so the first thing I thought to myself is, oh, this creative break that I actually really think I need to make sure I'm planning properly for the next phase of my creative life is now realizable. And for that, I'm so grateful.
SIEGEL: Well, Yuval Sharon, congratulations on winning the MacArthur genius grant.
SHARON: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: And we are obliged to note that while we are not geniuses, NPR also does receive funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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