Wireless headphones turn LA’s Union Station into an opera stage

An opera performance typically only requires three things: A virtuoso cast, an orchestra and an attentive audience. However, the needs of Invisible Cities, a high-tech experimental opera from The Industry and LA Dance Project include multiple antennas, an elaborate control room wired with fiberoptic cable, and dozens of wireless headphones.

That’s because the original production is performed in a public space — specifically, Los Angeles’ historic Union Station.

As an audience member participating in Invisible Cities, here’s what you get: A pair of Sennheiser headphones, tuned to a frequency broadcasting a sharp yet fragile symphony, while all around you, performers (wearing microphones and wireless headsets) mingle and wander the Union Station terminal and outdoor patios. To follow the story of Marco Polo describing his explorations to Kublai Khan, you follow actors who intrigue you, letting the audio guide you to various unexpected tableaus, all of them eventually cumulating for an epic finale at the ticket counter.

As a person who happens to be catching a train or bus from Union Station, here’s what you get: The opportunity to watch a bunch of people wearing headphones as they follow around opera singers, who are inexplicably singing into the vast space of the terminal.

While Invisible Cities is quite different from any opera production you might have seen before, the event is as much a technological feat as it is an artistic feat. During a press event held during dress rehearsals for the production, director Yuval Sharon said that while he’d had the idea for a mobile opera for a while, it wasn’t until Sennheiser came on board as a “creative partner” that the project became feasible.

For Invisible Cities, on a technological level, is more than just headphones for audience members. The “engine room,” located inside an out-of-business bagel shop in the terminal, monitors the singers’ sound levels and is connected by a thousand feet of fiber optic cable to a separate room, where the 11-piece orchestra performs the music. A custom-built managed antenna system connects the dozens of microphones, in-ear monitors and headsets, which are receiving two transmissions in and two transmissions out, in case of any issues.

The afore-mentioned bagel shop/control room.

The afore-mentioned bagel shop/control room.

Because the location provides no shortage of challenges. Any time a film or television production is shooting nearby, there’s a danger that its walkie-talkies will jam the broadcast signal. Due to lead in the building walls, antennas are needed both inside and outside the terminal. Plus, after every performance, the antennas and cabling need to be broken down until the next show, so that Union Station can serve its usual duties unhindered.

However, the effort may just be worth it. What makes Invisible Cities such an interesting experience is the use of technology to enable performance in a public space. Theater productions such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More have experimented with the idea of an ambulatory audience, but the combination of headphones and live performance means that any public space, given the right implementation, can become a theater.

And there’s something profound about that element — it’s one thing to be moved to tears by an aria while sitting in a dark theater, quite another to experience the same emotions in a brightly lit hall, surrounded by people. Oddly, though, what makes it work are the headphones — somehow, having your own individual listening experience creates a sense of intimacy, even amongst the crowds.

All evening, tourists and travelers were watching the clumps of people following around performers in costume, and for a brief time I was one of them; I happened to show up a little early for the press event, which meant I got to observe the first of the evening’s dress rehearsals from the point of view of pure spectator.

It was an odd experience — incongruous opera, essentially performed a capella. But with or without headphones, Union Station is still a beautiful place, with beautiful acoustics. And their voices carried.

Invisible Cities runs until November 8th; all shows are currently sold out, but according to the official site, there is a “possibility” of extended performances.