It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night in Union Station, Los Angeles’ iconic art deco train station. Most of the seats in the main atrium are occupied with weary passengers and homeless people. A lone operatic singer in a flowing white tunic sings into a headmic as she walks slowly through the lobby, trailed by some 200 audience members donning headphones. Suddenly, a line of dancers run and twist through the crowd. The audience disperses, some following the dancers, others the singer, to different parts of the station.
For four weeks this fall, The Industry opera company, L.A. Dance Project, and Emmy Award-winning audio manufacturer Sennheiser engaged in a grand creative and technical experiment—mounting Invisible Cities, the world’s first large-scale opera for wireless headphones.
The sold-out run was not only an inventive way to promote these emerging artistic companies, but also gave Sennheiser—whose participation was mandatory for pulling this off—a chance to showcase its state-of-the-art wireless multichannel mic and headphone system, and brand it in a unique way with a broader audience. The production even garnered interest from officials from Bordeaux, France to possibly recreate the event in their train station.
"Technology, which we often think is distancing us from everything around us, and separating us from everyone around us, can be a force that brings us together," says Yuval Sharon, The Industry's artistic director and Invisible Cities director. "We can have an experience that allows us to be individuals in our own isolated world, but among a large group and also allow us to notice the world around us in a powerful way."
Adapted by composer Christopher Cerrone from the 1972 novel of the same name by Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities imagines explorer Marco Polo’s descriptions of fantastical cities to Emperor Kublai Khan. The hour-long interactive opera spread out across the station’s cavernous rooms and outdoor courtyards. Audience headphones piped in live music performed by an on-site orchestra ensconced in one room, and voices from performers milling about the station—all mixed by two sound engineers in yet another location. The interactivity extended further as audience members shared their headphones with bemused bystanders—watching their confusion turn to delight with the full experience.
Although the opera had been workshopped since 2008, Sharon approached Sennheiser a year ago to collaborate on the technical side. "It was an interesting if not unbelievable project to me," says Stefanie Reichert, Sennheiser’s director of strategic marketing. "I had no idea what that would be."
But it wasn’t unfamiliar territory either. Sennheiser wireless microphone and high-end multichannel systems are used in Broadway to circus-style performances where actors might dangle in mid-air. "That’s were wireless mic technology is totally key," says Reichert.
The project’s the biggest challenge was mitigating the interference from surrounding radio frequencies from mobile devices, EMS broadcast systems, TV transmissions, etc. by constantly switching to clearer channels. Sennheiser and The Industry's lead sound designer E. Martin Gimenez accomplished this with arrays of antenna farms scattered around the station and newer technology offering greater agility in switching frequencies. "A typical theater has very directional sound. But this is the equivalent of five theaters, generating sound all around you, across a vast space," says Reichert. "We needed to get reliable high-quality wireless sound to the audience no matter where they were."
To that end, audio engineer Andrew McHaddad had to invent an in-ear monitor amplifier specifically for this production. "There wasn’t a commercially available product that would provide the service that we needed, which was amplifying those signals up to a level where we could distribute them throughout the station," says audio mixer Nick Tipp. "It’s one thing to have an antenna aimed at a stage of singers with in-ear monitors. But we needed to amplify the sound so it could travel 2500 feet, along all kinds of cable, and to many antennas.
Meanwhile, Tipp premixed and programmed 200, 32-channel audio snapshots for as many scenes into an audio console. During the performance, an assistant conductor following the score triggered the snapshots, while Tipp manipulated finishing touches. "Andrew’s challenge is making sure all the interference is minimal and everyone can hear each other in terms of the signals," says Tipp. "My job is to create mixes for each person so they can perform with each other, as well as an orchestra that's 200 yards away and a conductor that’s not visible."
From a marketing standpoint, the production not only appealed to the typical Sennheiser user—30 to 50-year-olds interested in art, innovation, and technology—but expanded some of its brand awareness to 20 to 30-year-old demos, who might not go to see an opera, but would go to see something cool happening at Union Station.
"It’s been one of the most effective projects we have engaged in," says Reichert. "It been a confirmation for us that these types of engagements, where your product is part of the consumer experience, offers a much deeper impression than mass branding through celebrities or putting a logo up at a music festival."
On Dec. 12, a documentary exploring the creative process behind on Invisible Cities will air in Los Angeles on KCET and nationally on LinkTV as part of the station's Artbound series that includes a multimedia companion exploring the opera's artistry and development. More information about the special is here, including a link to a live stream during the broadcast.