Michigan Opera Theatre names Yuval Sharon artistic director

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Michigan Opera Theatre's new artistic director will be Yuval Sharon, officials announced Wednesday, an operatic rising star known for provocative interpretations of contemporary work as well as old. The Chicago-born impresario, 40, succeeds MOT founder David DiChiera, who died in 2018.

Sharon, winner of a MacArthur "genius grant," was artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2016-2019, and is currently artistic director of The Industry in Los Angeles, a company he founded 10 years ago that focuses on experimental works, often staged in highly unconventional locations.

More:New MOT director Yuval Sharon: Detroit 'a real city of survivors'

As evidence of that, Sharon's first act at MOT will be mounting "Twilight: Gods," an abbreviated, socially distanced version of Wagner's "Gotterdammerung," audiences will watch from their cars on six levels of the Detroit Opera House parking deck in October.

Yuval Sharon, the newly appointed Michigan Opera Theatre artistic director, poses for a portrait at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit.

By any measure, Sharon's appointment is a bold move for a small company in the Midwest.

"I can tell you there are opera companies around the world saying, 'How the hell did you get him?'" said MOT board member Gary Wasserman, who played a key role in snagging Sharon. "It's really a coup for MOT."

John Allison, editor of Opera Magazine in London, wrote in an email, "This is very interesting news! It certainly looks like an unexpected appointment," he added, "and promises exciting times at MOT."

Ironically, none of this would have been possible without the pandemic. Sharon had planned to spend this year on sabbatical in Japan, but COVID-19 rendered that moot.

The Los Angeleno belongs to a generation of directors passionately committed to taking opera off its dusty pedestal, and restoring it to its Renaissance origins as a popular, not high-brow, entertainment.

At the Philharmonic, Vice-President for Artistic Planning Meghan Martineau worked with Sharon for three years, and admired his gift for democratizing the discipline.

"Yuval created projects inside and outside the concert hall that felt accessible to people who might not have come to the L.A. Phil previously," she said. "He finds really special windows and avenues into our art form."

Sharon is also bent on anchoring the work he produces in the Detroit community, and that was particularly important to MOT President and CEO Wayne Brown when considering whom to hire.

Yuval Sharon, the newly appointed Michigan Opera Theatre artistic director, poses for a portrait at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit.

"I said I wanted someone who wouldn’t just focus on the opera company, but would also embrace the city," Brown said. In his new artistic director, Brown seems to have found the perfect balance.

"As a city," Sharon said, "Detroit has a really good reputation nationally for its inventiveness, innovation and resilience. The more I’m getting to know the place – it’s a real city of survivors, a place of unbelievable complexity. That's a community I really want to be a part of."

So for the production of "Twilight: Gods," which will star soprano Christine Goerke, Sharon not only hired mostly local singers, but also sought out somebody with a distinctive Detroit voice who could play the role of narrator in the production.

"I wanted to start my tenure here making it clear that Detroit is at the center of everything I do," Sharon said. "So I really wanted to find Detroit voices," and ultimately cast local poet Marsha Music, author of "The Detroitist," as Erda, the earth-mother of the "Ring Cycle."

"I was very honored to be considered," Music said, adding that it was her understanding MOT board member Wasserman had recommended her.

"I guess Yuval googled me, and found my 2015 'Symphony in D' performance with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra," she said, "where I read a piece I had written. I guess Yuval was enthralled."

Sharon was in Detroit for much of June, and has just returned. He'll keep one foot in Los Angeles with reduced duties at The Industry, but will spend a huge amount of time here.

Music said, "I believe he's falling in love with Detroit."

Sharon said he'll probably direct just one production a year at MOT, "to leave room for other people to have opportunities." But one way or another, he'll be tipping the Detroit opera world on its head.

"Yuval redefined what it means to experience opera in Los Angeles," said Benjamin Millepied, artistic director of L.A. Dance Project.

Indeed, Sharon's 2015 world premiere of "Hopscotch," with music by Veronika Krausas, was staged in 24 limousines driving around downtown Los Angeles.

Wasserman saw the production and was struck. "Words do not suffice to describe the experience," he said. "It was overwhelming in every possible way."

Sharon's production this spring of "Sweet Land" was brought to an abrupt end by COVID-19, but not before they were able to film it for a PBS documentary. (You can stream the performance by clicking here.)

While a die-hard advocate for new opera, Sharon is no snob about the classics. He may think "Barber of Seville" is shallow, but he absolutely adores "Marriage of Figaro," and calls "The Magic Flute," which he staged in Berlin, one of the genre's most-profound works ever.

Not that it was received with open arms.

"If you want a good laugh," he said, "read the reviews. I’m very proud of that production, but it was very controversial. But now it’s achieved a kind of cult status."

In his quest for a more-popular, experimental opera, Sharon thinks he might just have landed in the sweet spot with a company that's not as hidebound as its larger cousins.

"Where is change in opera possible now?" he asked. "It's going to be harder at the Met. But a good, mid-sized company like MOT can still pivot."

In taking the reins at the Opera House, Sharon has just one regret.

"It breaks my heart that I never got to meet David DiChiera," he said. "I am so sure we’d have had great conversations and a great time together."


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'Twilight: Gods' - directed by Yuval Sharon

Detroit Opera House Parking Center, 1426 Broadway, Detroit

Afternoons - Oct. 17-18 & 20

Entry to performances will be staggered, with options for various times throughout the afternoon; visit michiganopera.org for specifics

$79 - per car

(313) 237-SING (7464)