Operas set in Los Angeles are exceedingly rare creatures. The ultra-modern metropolis would seem like an odd fit for an art form that isn't generally known for embracing the contemporary. But in the case of the opera "America Tropical," the history of L.A. provides an epic backdrop on which musicians harmonize the city's past and the present in poetically time-bending ways.
"America Tropical" covers 200 years of Los Angeles history, from the city's founding in the 1780s to the Rodney G. King beating and aftermath of the early 1990s. The opera premiered in San Francisco in 2007 and will have its L.A. premiere this weekend, with three performances scheduled for downtown L.A., USC and the Autry National Center.
The opera, written by playwright Oliver Mayer and composer David Conte, takes its title from the once controversial 1932 mural by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. "La America Tropical," depicting a crucified Native American, was an instant scandal after it was unveiled at its location in what is now downtown's El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.
The mural was quickly painted over and remains out of view today, despite a multimillion-dollar conservation effort by the Getty and the city that is going on nearly 20 years as a result of financial squabbling and other delays.
In the opera, the mural serves as a thematic nucleus for the city's racial strife. Mayer's libretto begins with the mural's preparation and then time-hops between the late 18th century, when the original settlers moved into the area, and 1991, when a passerby used a video camera to capture L.A. cops beating King along a roadside.
The opera explores race and class as twin themes joined at the hip. "I thought that one of the biggest injustices throughout history is how we treat our working people, and that started here in 1781," said Mayer.
The L.A. playwright is an associate professor at the USC School of Theater, and "America Tropical" represents his first foray into opera. "L.A. deserves an opera and it hasn't had one," he said. "I wondered why we don't celebrate ourselves more."
Mayer originally received a commission by Thick Description, a theater company in Northern California, to write an opera. Long an admirer of Siqueiros, he decided to focus on the artist's L.A. mural, and the completed opera premiered in 2007. The L.A. production, directed by Nathan Singh and performed by USC students, coincides with an exhibition of Siqueiros' work at the Museum of Latin American Art and a multimedia show at the Autry about the artist's time in L.A.
The Friday performance of the opera in downtown L.A. will take place at Pico House, a block from where the Siqueiros mural stands.
Conte said the score is eclectic and draws on different styles to reflect the different time periods of the story. For the sections set in the early '90s, the composer used a Minimalist style to convey the feeling of contemporary life, while the scenes in the 18th century have a folk influence.
"The work is universal in its themes. It's about the building of a city and a city that's torn apart by racial tension," said Conte in a phone interview from San Francisco.
He said one of the musical influences for the opera was Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park With George," which also tells a time-shifting story about a tortured painter.
With a running time of about an hour, "America Tropical" packs a lot of history into a brief span. The opera, which is sung in English, pulls together its various narrative threads until they converge in an abstract melding of time and place. The crucified Native American in the mural comes to life — as a female — and descends from the cross to unite mankind in a call for peace.
When the opera opened in 2007, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle called it "an often compelling folk-opera meditation on race, class and other social divisions that culminates in a muddled declaration of faith." A reviewer for SF Weekly wrote that the opera "tries to tell too many stories in too short a time frame."
The original Siqueiros mural in downtown L.A. remains under wraps, with no date set for an official unveiling. In September, organizers broke ground on the third and final phase of the conservation project: the installation of a shelter, viewing platform and interpretive center near the mural.
The Getty expects the construction of the structures to take two years.