Headphones are part of daily life at train stations, an urban necessity used by commuters to drown out the flurry of action around them. But the other night at Union Station in Los Angeles, as I watched a woman crawl across the top of an information booth while a man's voice from another room whispered in my ear, the headphones I wore became a way to enhance, not ignore, the experience -- like tuning into a pirate radio broadcast where the plot began to come to life before my eyes.
Invisible Cities is an opera by The Industry and LA Dance Project that's staged in public within the station. The show, which runs until November 8, is a fully immersive and sometimes extremely jarring choose-your-own-adventure experience as you wander the dramatic architecture at night, listening to the voices which -- thanks to the wireless sound equipment on your ears -- feel like they're quite literally in your head.
Although this kind of headphone-assisted performance isn't that unusual -- if you went to art school, you likely attended at least one silent disco/rave -- director Yuval Sharon had never seen it done with a live singers and a live orchestra before. "I started thinking about what a performance would be like that could use headphones in a medium that is all about the human voice," he says. "That you could distance yourself from the physical body of the singer, that you could just hear voice of the singer, was an incredibly powerful idea."
To execute the technologically complex idea, Sharon turned to German audio company Sennheiser, which is known for its collaboration with artists. A former bagel shop at the centre of the station acts as Sennheiser's command centre, where engineers produce the performance without seeing any of it in person. Gathering sound from wireless microphones taped to the cheeks of the performers, the engineers create six different mixes which are simultaneously outputted back out to the headphones of the performers, musicians and audience members.
Since the orchestra is sealed in a room away from much of the action, a large part of the engineers' job is constantly monitoring to make sure they're on strong, open frequencies -- and, because it's a train station in a major city, there's a lot of chatter. Any audio drops will result in the performers missing their cues. The biggest challenge was Union Station itself: the thick walls and lead-paned windows of the 1939 building created additional barriers and interference, so the engineers needed to build four separate antenna farms throughout the building (including running a cable in a tunnel beneath the building to reach a courtyard).
The performance began by checking out a pair of wireless headphones from a booth in the old ticket hall of the station (so appropriate). I was told to make my way to the Fred Harvey Room, a former restaurant that's now used as an event space. As I slipped on my headphones, one of those disembodied male voices began reciting a passage in Italian, soothing but also a little unnerving.
When I reached the room, the orchestra was warming up inside of it, and Sharon stepped forward and welcomed everyone. When the performance began we could go wherever we wanted, he said. We'd know if we walked too far astray, because we'd no longer hear the audio (there were also red-shirted staffers stationed at the perimeter, just in case). He also cautioned, somewhat mysteriously, that we wouldn't be able to see every part of the performance. "You'll all miss parts of it, and you'll all have front row seats."
People I spoke to had different strategies for "watching" the opera. Some wandered the building. Some people parked themselves in one place for almost the entire night. I found myself following the performers, either physically -- I'd see them and walk behind them -- or audibly -- I'd hear them sing and walk through the rooms until I found them in person. Sometimes you'd round a corner and everything would get a little Eyes Wide Shut, with ominous music, lots of masks and the feeling that you were stumbling upon a very personal moment between two people.
Most of the time I actually had a really hard time telling who the performers were. The paying audience was all clearly labelled with our headphones. But I encountered dozens of passengers I swore were in costume, some of whom I stopped following when I realised they weren't going to break into harmony. And layered upon that were all the regular sounds and activities of the station -- "ATTENTION AMTRAK PASSENGERS TRAVELLING ON BARSTOW BUS 491 ALL ABOARD" bellowed through the hall during a scene -- which made it much more interesting than just watching an opera on stage.
I discovered that I didn't even have to follow the story to have a transcendent experience -- it was more like I was stepping in and out of different conversations between the music, the public and the building. I walked outside through the garden, stood in the waiting room with the other passengers; I even sat at the bar in the station for a while and took off my headphones, jumping along with the rest of the drinkers when a man in a wheelchair suddenly began singing nearby, his vibrato echoing a capella into the arches of the main hall. (Yes, he was one of the performers -- although I can imagine there will be some interesting stories about passerby who try to become part of the act.)
I almost wish I could have stumbled upon the opera by accident, just to have that moment of discovery. Throughout the evening it was often more fascinating to watch the reactions of the station's passengers. Sometimes it felt like a prelude to a flash mob or, like when I watched a family awkwardly attempt to wheel their suitcases around some oncoming dancers, a clip from America's Funniest Home Videos.
But the most captivated audience members didn't seem to have anywhere in particular to go. These were the people sitting in the wooden chairs of the waiting area, many of them trying to sleep while singers swirling around them.
I managed to capture what might have been my favourite moment of the night, when a man took off his headphones and passed them to another man seated amidst several large bags. His eyebrows shot up when he heard what the rest of us could hear. He smiled as he listened, and he became part of the performance, too.
Top picture: Invisible Cities