Opera Review: STAR CHOIR (World Premiere by The Industry at Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles)

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by William Keiser on October 11, 2023

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Space pageantry reaches new heights inside Mt. Wilson
Observatory’s 100-inch telescope.


The experimental opera company The Industry is known for their innovative productions, held in unconventional locations. There was Hopscotch — a “mobile opera” that ferried audience members between the LA River, Bradbury building, an Airstream, and in motion through city streets — and War of the Worlds, an adaptation of Orson Welles’ radio drama which performed atop skyscrapers in downtown. But nothing can surpass The Industry’s latest: Star Choir, a space opera performed to live instrumental accompaniment inside the largest telescope at Mt. Wilson Observatory. Running only two days, September 30 and Oct 1, 2023, the opera charts the fictional journey of a group of Martian settlers, inspired by Octavia Butler’s science fiction. The libretto is by co-director Alexandro Segade, the music by co-director Malik Gaines, co-Artistic Director of The Industry with Yuval Sharon and Ash Fure.

Soprano Mikaela Elson

Choreographer Milka Djordjevich is the movement director, but the 65-minute Star Choir requires exacting choreography for the audience long before we enter the space. An email sent days prior instructs us to arrive an hour ahead of time at the fog-shrouded observatory in the San Gabriel mountains. We enter a new, chilly thermocline as we park, sign a waiver, and then either walk ten minutes or take the lemon-yellow golf carts to the compound which houses the telescope. Entering the telescope, a large, white, domed structure, requires ascending a death-defying metal spiral staircase. Then we take our seats in two galleries on either side of the enormous cylindrical structure in the center (the 100-inch telescope, the largest in the compound, works by a process known as interferometry: combining angular imaging from multiple telescopes to achieve greater magnification.) The sci-fi opera makes elegant use of the telescope’s many special features: at the climax of the performance, when the settlers achieve telepathy as a result of exposure to a psychogenic lichen, the rim of the telescope rotates with the performers on it. The previously dark space, lit only by Chu-Hsuan Chang‘s intentional stage lighting and Daniel Leyva‘s video elements, is bathed in sudden daylight as a hatch in the side of the Observatory opens to the elements. The effect, I imagine, is what an eclipse must have felt like in pre-electric times: a miracle, a sudden meeting of earth and heaven.

Soprano Kelci Hahn

The opera itself is the setting to music of Segade’s esoteric, sometimes pseudo-scientific and poetic language, which is sung by The Industry’s eight performers and shown on LCD screens placed at intervals in front of the seats. “Every one of us a sun!” the actors sing, clad in Natalie Barshow‘s white sheet-like garments which are a cross between a toga and a poncho. Accompanied by a six-piece orchestra led by Mark Lowenstein, the singers, playing the space settlers (“no colonialism, just a colony. / We are like honey bees!”), represent the survivors of the human race, and are graced with suitably diverse, futuristic roles and names: “Farmitecht Saanvi,” “Astrozoologist Imani,” “Trendcaster Tônio,” and “Archivartist Koa,” to name a few. The opera’s diversity and optimistic futurism, highlighted by the at-times transparent reach of the libretto (lines like “clear polymer shell sliding back into / its sheath / our gasping lungs released”) are in patches sublime and cheerfully corny.

Tenor Gregório Taniguchi

The opera’s contents follow in a storied tradition of entrapping the desires of the present moment in its futurism: a desire to remake ourselves along the lines of heterogeneousness and integration of technology, as well as an interest in epidemiology and bio-engineering that reflect the pandemic’s reach. My favorite moments come when the opera seems to forget its agenda and speak with a lighter touch, such as when soprano Mikaela Elson and alto Sarah Beaty, now wearing comfy tie-dye, walk together in a pair. Their thin high-note harmonies play over and among one another’s, reaching ever higher before joining the rest of the group again. At its core, Star Choir is a beautiful and peaceful, if not an especially prophetic odyssey into space. It’s a total escape from the dust of everyday life, as it is from the city of Los Angeles, into a celestial realm. This performance is one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring performances I’ve seen: I rate it a 10/10 “must go” when it returns.

Baritone Shyheim Selvan Hinnant

photos of The Industry’s Star Choir at Mount Wilson Observatory by Michael Thomas

Star Choir
The Industry
Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles
played September 30 and October 1, 2023
for more info, visit The Industry

The choir and orchestra

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