American opera and theater director Yuval Sharon has earned one of the most prestigious – and lucrative — honors in the arts world. He was announced, early Wednesday morning, as a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of the so-called “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, which comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000 purse. He joins 23 others, representing a broad range of talent in the arts, humanities and sciences. Musicians Rhiannon Giddens and Tyshawn Sorey are also among this year’s winners.
Sharon, still in his 30s, founded The Industry, an experimental opera company based in Los Angeles. He was singled out for, as the foundation cited, “expanding how opera is performed and experienced through immersive, multisensory and mobile productions that are infusing a new vitality into the genre.”
Labeled as “opera’s disrupter in residence,” Sharon plays with concepts of reality and fiction in his headphone opera Invisible Cities (by Christopher Cerrone), which is set amid real life commuters in a Los Angeles train station. The production was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist. He’s also paired CGI technology with traditional staging in a reanimated version of Leoš Janáček‘s The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera originally inspired by a comic-strip.
But perhaps no production lives more outside-the-box (literally beyond the four walls of an opera house) or is more worthy of the MacArthur “genius” moniker than Sharon’s Hopscotch. With a team of six composers, six librettists, over 125 performers and a fleet of limousines, the “mobile opera” unfolds across the city of Los Angeles with audience members and musicians inside vehicles and assigned to specified locations. A lone trumpeter, for instance, offers solos from atop an abandoned water tower perched on the sixth floor of a warehouse. New Yorker critic Alex Ross compares its scope and ambition to Wagner’s four-day, 15-hour Ring cycle, describing Hopscotch as “a combination of road trip, architecture tour, contemporary-music festival and waking dream.”
Sharon graduated as an English Literature major (with a minor in dramatic arts) from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. Before starting The Industry, he worked as an assistant director on productions at the Los Angeles Opera, the San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera and abroad at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and at Berlin’s Komische Oper.
Earlier this year, Sharon was announced as one of the producers at the 2018 Bayreuth Festival in Germany. It’s the first time the all-Wagner music fest has named an American to produce an opera. His latest work, an operatic adaptation of Orson Welles’ radio drama War of the Worlds (with music by Annie Gosfield) premieres at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and on the streets of L.A., on Nov. 12.
Note: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awards these grants, is among NPR’s financial supporters.