[LA Times] A modern opera run at full throttle

‘Songs and Dances,’ modern opera on a warehouse scale

O-Lan Jones and her Overtone Industries fill a onetime auto dealership building with a sprawling melange of art forms and artistic creations that was seven years in the making.

Click to see photo gallery by Christina House.

By Daina Beth Solomon, Los Angeles Times

July 7, 2010

With “Nissan” painted in big, gray letters on its outer wall, a massive, bulky warehouse on Washington Boulevard in Culver City reveals nothing of its new identity as experimental performance. Only upon entering the venue is there any indication of the unusual experience that awaits inside the drab abandoned building — 21 distinct sets spread across 25,000 square feet of space, meant for an audience to traverse scene by scene on a “train” or on foot as the production unfolds.

“Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands,” billed as a contemporary opera, is the newest work by O-Lan Jones and her company Overtone Industries and will inhabit the vacant car dealership for two weeks beginning Thursday.

While site-specific performances are not entirely new to Los Angeles, Jones’ production is likely the most massive in scope and scale.

The work took seven years to develop, runs three hours long, includes the collaboration of 21 writers and 11 composers, is performed by 21 actors and nine musicians, and blends a variety of art forms. Music accompanies the entire performance, and the lines are almost entirely sung. Many scenes feature dancing. The sets look like pieces of sculpture-art. The costumes are not just clothes but whimsical designs made from atypical materials.

Then there’s the unusual element of the audience members traveling from scene to scene and set to set in a train of carts pulled by an electric golf cart. Those with the lower-priced tickets follow the trains on foot while dragging along their folding chairs.

For Jones, named for a character in Pearl S. Buck’s novel “The Good Earth,” the project represents a major expansion from her previous works. “It’s like huge!” Jones says with her voice climbing into its upper register and ending in a characteristic gleeful laugh. “It’s just grown and grown. I’ve worked with other people before, but I’ve never had 32 collaborators.”

Jones’ theater career began with on-stage acting as a teenager in New York. She soon expanded into film and TV acting as well as writing, composing and sound designing, with a focus on new and experimental projects. She is perhaps best recognized as the religious-fanatic organist in Tim Burton’s film “Edward Scissorhands.” Since 1980, Jones has produced about 15 works for Overtone Industries, a company that produces original, collaborative musical-theater works.

With its large size and emphasis on singing, Jones considers “Songs and Dances” an “opera.” She also says that, like operas, the show tackles such themes as “the meaning of life.” The story follows the journey of characters Tom and Sue as they seek to reclaim their identities by means of a device provided by the local Social Security office called the “Story Box.” Described by Jones as “a kind of 3-D Rorschach test,” the Story Box launches Tom and Sue into the “lands,” which hold the pivotal experiences of their lives as embodied in songs, dances, pledges, explorations and rituals indigenous to those turning points.

Jones, however, prefers that the audience surrender to the emotional and sensory experience of each land rather than track the details of plot, which she views as a secondary element.

“Trust that your intuitive understandings are worth something,” she advises. “You don’t have to nail down the meaning in a perfect little box.”

With a similar mindset, Jones didn’t provide much guidance to the writers and composers when she conceived the production seven years ago. She says she likes the word “un-homogenized” to describe the effect she aimed to create by engaging a wide range of writers and composers and encouraging them to “think outside the box.”

The writers, most of whom Jones has worked with before, are poets, playwrights, TV writers and performance artists. They reflect a variety of backgrounds, but most tend toward the avant-garde or at least nonmainstream. Each wrote a different scene.

The composers and their pieces for “Songs and Dances” also reflect myriad styles. Some are classical and choral composers. Others specialize in jazz and rock. Another writes film scores and orchestrations. Then there are the composers who make their own instruments, such as experimental musician Bart Hopkin. For “Songs and Dances,” Hopkin used rocks, gardening tools, oversized slide whistles, and boxes that whine when grated against the ground. Led by musical director David O, a veteran composer and musician, an eight-piece orchestra (on more typical instruments) produces this array of sounds while traveling throughout the venue as the scenes progress. (The musicians must push around individual carts loaded with their instrument, chair and music stand from location to location during the brief musical breaks.)

The visual designs offer another layer of sensory experience. Snezana Petrovic, a prolific designer for films, theater and TV who also does painting, video art and installation art, had the task of designing the backdrops and costumes for each of the 21 sets. Her whimsical creations are distinguished by their materials, which include recyclables such as newspapers, magazines, cardboard pieces, plastic bags, water bottles and soda cans. Her creations include a gown made out of bubble wrap, a tree textured with twisted newspaper “roots,” and a mountain embedded with pieces of brown cardboard to look rocky.

Petrovic brought her art students from Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa to help craft it all but also invited community help in a series of workshops hosted by Overtone Industries at the onetime dealership. Participants included mostly Culver City locals, including passersby who wondered what was going on and stayed to help.

To Jones, it was important for the visual component to appear low-tech and handmade. “There’s something about using simple substances that allows the art to shine through even more,” she says. “If we had made it out of expensive fabric, it wouldn’t have that same transparent quality of someone’s creativity.”

Jones would like to build her list of collaborators by bringing “Songs and Dances” to other abandoned venues and continuing to invite community participation.

“I see us coming to town like the circus,” she says, “perhaps performing ‘at an empty Circuit City near you!'” Jones envisions a long life ahead of “Songs and Dances,” part of the reason she didn’t rush its seven-year development.

During that time, in between working on other projects, Jones edited multiple drafts of the writing and music, hosted workshops to try out ideas, and raised financial support. (The Annenberg Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ahmanson Foundation, the Department of Cultural Affairs and the L.A. County Arts Commission have all contributed to the project.)

Jones thinks that with “all the time and money in the world,” the process could have taken less time, but she really wasn’t in a hurry. “I realized a while back that I’d like to make lasting works of art,” she says. “Not just ripped from the headlines, but something that would resonate with human beings for a long time.”

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