Worth a Re-Read Today: Hopscotch, the World’s First Opera for Cars

Yuval Sharon, a Pulitzer Prize finalist who created the “world’s first opera for cars,” was today awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Read Nicolas Stecher’s first-person account of Hopscotch in action on the streets of LA.

byNicolas Stecher|
Worth a Re-Read Today: Hopscotch, the World’s First Opera for Cars

Yuval Sharon says Hopscotch is the “world’s first opera for cars,” brought to life inside limousines traveling across the very real streets of Los Angeles. We sent Nicolas Stecher to investigate.

Sometimes things hit you at a time and place where their importance is heightened. Other times you read a novel or see a movie, and while you may find it momentarily engaging, the themes flicker across your mind weightless, transitory and inconsequential, a colorful butterfly passing through a garden.

But sometimes—sometimes that very same book, perhaps one single line, may set off a cognitive bomb, a fissure of thought that cracks deep into your consciousness. Call it an epiphany. It may not even be the quality of the work, but more the observer’s place in his life. His exact intersection; at what crossroads he finds himself.

Which is where I find myself trying to absorb Hopscotch, the most bizarre, unique, indulgent, ambitious artistic endeavor I’ve ever witnessed. It is “the world’s first opera for cars,” or so its creators—cryptically dubbed “The Industry”—claim.

Hopscotch is, at its core, about choices. It’s about the ruthless duality of what could have been, and what is instead. It is about fate. And it all unfolds during a blacked-out limousine ride through the trash-riddled streets of my adopted hometown.

Jason H. Thompson

During each performance, two-dozen limos crisscross downtown Los Angeles simultaneously, separated into three different 90-minute routes with eight chapters each. Every route is a standalone operatic performance, where audience members jump out of one limo into the next, sometimes stopping at locations (Libros Schmibros bookstore, Mariachi Plaza, 2nd Street Tunnel, Million Dollar Theater, Bradbury Building, etc.) to experience a chapter in the organic, living city. Not only is each chapter unique, but you view them out of order, non-sequentially, shuffling already esoteric puzzle pieces into a narrative that is, at times, very difficult to decode.

Hopscotch is an incredibly intimate and yet infinitely vast experience. From being locked in the tight confines of a high school prom limo with a small group of awkward strangers (only four to a car), you find yourself taking an elevator up to the wide pool deck of the Toy Factory Loft. The vast, grey L.A. skyline stretches out before you; on a distant rooftop a quarter-mile away, a lone trumpeter plays forlornly, his blue notes broadcast to the deck underfoot.

There are wandering accordion balladeers, cellists and beat-boxing harp players that look like they were pulled straight from a Charlie Parker quartet. There are sad Mexican girls singing quinceañera torch songs, and a women barking angrily at voiceless strangers on the phone. There are people falling in love, people disappearing. The limo rattles and shakes, the story literally rocked by the pocked asphalt under wheel. Could this experimental opera have taken place anywhere but the City Of Angels?

These 24 real-live chapters are further augmented by 10 animated chapters online, which punctuate landmark moments in Hopscotch’s narrative, allowing people around the globe to build a loose framework of the opera’s story. The animations help shape a chronological, more traditional structure. But the in-car chapters are much more nebulous, difficult to decipher—abstractions of dance, performance and music more so than structure points. The former, more defined ink illustrations; the latter, watercolor pastorals brushed in between.

In both animations and action, a motif repeats: A thousand streets lead into one great road, and no gate blocks your way.

Jason H. Thompson

As with any artistic endeavor this ambitious, Hopscotch can be excessive, occasionally stumbling over potholes of its own pretentiousness. Realize that’s nearly impossible to avoid; only the all-time greatest artworks tackle the Great Existential Riddle without tripping. Macbeth it most certainly is not, but Hopscotch is unquestionably meaty in concept, thought provoking in themes and sonics and gargantuan in logistical execution. Imagine timing two-dozen vehicles driving around public (possibly gridlocked) roads, with over 100 performers and 96 audience members to coordinate and keep track of, synchronized to the minute. The operational endeavor alone is worthy of recognition.  

The idea of the vehicle, and motion both figurative and literal, is central to the themes in Hopscotch. Inspiration for this multidisciplinary opera sprang directly from cars; they were initially imagined to be the very platform of the opera. Envisioned and directed by Yuval Sharon, founder of The Industry, Hopscotch took shape while working out the kinks of his last mega-ambitious project, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist Invisible Cities. Sharon was embedding opera into everyday life by staging Invisible Cities in L.A.’s Union Station during regular working hours; audience members walked around the Thirties art deco terminal wearing Sennheiser Momentum headphones, listening to singers and an orchestra only they could hear. Meanwhile, commuters ran to platforms, businessmen ate steak frites from Traxx restaurant. Clueless travelers and the everyday homeless population interwove with dancers, performers and audience members.

Sharon and producing partner Jason Thompson tried to come up with something even more difficult and complex to pull off. Something to make tying up Cities’ loose ends feel like a comparative breeze.

“L.A. completely inspired the entire project; L.A. is one of the principle characters of the piece. Because as you’re an audience member you look out the window and you notice the life of the city, and it’s exactly that which we take for granted the most, especially when we drive,” Sharon tells me, explaining just how integral Los Angeles’ glazed commuting is to the essence of Hopscotch. “A big part of this project was asking the audience to turn their attention outwards, to take away that sense of destination, so you don’t know where you’re going. And to notice the street life.”

Jason H. Thompson

During our first in-car chapter, leaving Boyle Heights’ historic Hollenbeck Park, we took a limo that had its windows obscured with thick black plastic. No light, no city. There was no destination or world outside. After swaying around through countless blind turns, we ended up at a trendy loft space, eyes flooded with sunlight. The whole thing felt like a bohemian abduction—the exact sort of wild disassociation that Sharon was reaching for.

“By disorienting the audience’s experience of the city, we want Hopscotch to consider driving a metaphor for understanding identity, community and love,” he explains.

Hopscotch took two-and-a-half years to develop, tweaking and amending between six different writers and six music composers. A Central Hub—designed by Southern California Institute of Architecture faculty members—is a crucial component of Hopscotch, offering the scattered car opera a central meeting nexus. At this Hub, all 24 chapters are broadcast live and looping, on flatscreens and with audio headphones, via Sennheiser’s guidePORT system.

The effect is watching a life lived simultaneously, of watershed moments in one’s existence played on repeat, echoing forever. Time is a flat circle, a crushed can of Lone Star beer. A thousand streets lead into one great road, and no gate blocks your way.

Hopscotch begins, as many things do, with an accident. A crash. An angry motorcycle rider and a distracted girl, a meet-cute rendered in twisted metal and flared tempers. For the opera, this scene is portrayed in an empty parking lot with the limousine circling an ornate wooden sculpture of a crashed car and motorcycle on its side. Lucha, the guilt-ridden protagonist, stands next to her car in a yellow dress and apologizes profusely as the rider, Jameson, calms down. The spark of a monumental relationship ignites.

Jason H. Thompson

New doors are always opening in science, leading to rooms with dimensions we couldn’t previously perceive. Sometimes when I ride I feel as if I’m going to tip over into one of these rooms, enter it and use it to go back to all the points where I made choices that split my life in two. Re-examine choices, make different ones, forever change the outcome of my history.

A rider. A motorcycle. A singular mass experiencing velocity down a spatial path. The fulcrum of a turn; the feeling of centripetal force as you lean your body to pivot the mass. Any motorcyclist has felt this inimitable sensation; Jameson uses it to express his love of applied physics, the universe’s single language.

Quantum reality, the Multiverse, fractals—the idea that every organism is a mirror reflection of the other, filtered by the variables of its existence. The concept of parallel dimensions has been well investigated, especially of late, in everything from Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi treatise Interstellar to the crotch humor of Hot Tub Time Machine. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but sometimes… sometimes it makes you think.

A full quintet of musicians now sits in our car, following the melody of a Spanish guitarist, smiling widely. Their proximity to me—I have to avoid the stabbing motions of a violin bow—brings everything into a hyper focus. The music is loud; shit is getting heady. I look out the window of the Lincoln MKC stretch SUV I’m currently riding in. We’re passing the crumbling tombstones of Evergreen Cemetery, carved with Kana epitaphs of the early Japanese community who helped build this city. Who knows; maybe this esoteric nonsense is just making my brain swim because I’m going through some personal crisis. But something’s vibrating. I unbutton my collar and lower the window to let in some air. L.A. is cool today, a bit overcast. I can feel the humidity beading up on my forehead.  

At the wrong time, I would view this same opera with different eyes. It might seem indulgent, pretentious, overwrought. But not with the eyes I put on this morning; today it resonates. I see the great road ahead, no one blocks my way. The limo continues hurtling down Caesar Chavez Boulevard, mariachis blaring inside the tight cabin. Potholes rock underwheel, but we move forward, undeterred.

All showings of Hopscotch are sold out, although extra performances are being added through Nov. 22. If you can’t pay for a ticket to sit in a limo, swing by the Central Hub for free.