Review: Europeras 3 & 4 at Detroit Opera

The recent production of the John Cage opera is a reminder of why we are fortunate to have Yuval Sharon at the helm.
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Photograph courtesy of Detroit Opera

Regarding his five-cycle Europeras, John Cage, the visionary American avant-garde composer, is alleged to have said, “For two hundred years the Europeans have been sending us their operas. Now I’m sending them back.”

“He was very much saying, ‘These are your operas,’” says Yuval Sharon, the 2017 MacArthur Grant-winning director who recently staged Europeras 3 & 4 in an inspired production for the Detroit Opera, of which he is the Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director.

That interpretation not only emphasizes the pun in the name; it was also, Sharon says, a way for Cage to create distance between himself “as an American artist coming to Europe and the institution of opera,” which is traditionally European.

Various elements in Europeras 3 & 4, which premiered in London in 1990 and was staged in Detroit March 8-10, are determined by choice and by chance: cast members are invited to choose arias from throughout the operatic canon, which they then perform—one after the other, and frequently simultaneously — without a unified or coherent set, costume, or, most importantly, storyline.

Decisions about where to stand, what to wear, and anything else happening on-stage are left to the I Ching, a form of ancient Chinese divination that became instrumental to Cage’s composition process.

The result, in Sharon’s interpretation, was a ghostly, otherworldly cacophony made up of fragments and scraps of sound, bits of melody occasionally cut off mid-lick.

A numbered grid overlaid the stage, which cast members traversed, each apparently dressed for whichever opera had originally birthed them. In-between, black-clad figures danced or carried in props. A chair was silently introduced to the stage; then a cake was; a woman dipped her finger in the frosting.

Don’t worry about recognizing melodies or making sense of all this, Sharon told the audience; they should wander freely through the sounds they were presented with. Europeras, in any case, seems to have less to do with meaning something (or anything) than with the tactility of experience, the particularities of the physical world.

Cage, Sharon says, “thinks about the basic components that make up music and the experience of music and asks us to question everything about it.”

Coming to a theater to hear music is a convention so basic, for example, it hardly bears questioning. And yet, when Cage is involved, the experience is upended. Periods of silence in Europera 4 prompt the audience to search for sound elsewhere (not unlike Cage’s famously silent 4’33”). In a theater packed with people, of course, there are no true moments of silence: pauses are filled with coughs, throat-clearings, clothes-rustlings, and whispers of skin against skin, as Cage casually subverts the usual audience-performer end of things. Who’s the performer now?

Sharon also thinks Cage had something populist in mind, that “Eur/your operas” can also be interpreted in this way: “These are your operas, members [of] the audience, these are your pieces to do and to experience…however you’d like to experience them.”

Meanwhile, the singers—when they were singing—appeared to be in purgatory, each one stripped of their opera, context, and raison d’être, but condemned to sing regardless.

Europeras might be Cage’s response to centuries of European tradition, but whether he thought this kind of patchwork paper-shredding was all American culture had to offer, or whether he meant to return—irrevocably—all this opera stuff to its original source, isn’t clear: with Cage, it likely never is. His approach is more playfully disruptive than it is narrowly selective.

That makes Sharon the perfect conduit for carrying Cage’s work into the present day. His approach seems simpatico and, in his hands, Europeras 3 & 4 took on the logic of a nightmare, or a child’s cartoon, or both—and that isn’t a criticism.

In 2018, Sharon staged Europeras 1 & 2 in L.A. with The Industry (which he founded and where he is Artistic Director) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Each experience staging Cage, he says, “feels like a complete reset of all my expectations of opera. I hear opera differently, I think about opera differently, and it just gives [me] a sense of so much potential.”

May that “reset” play out like a palate cleanser not only for Sharon but for his audiences, the Detroit Opera, and the city at large. I felt utterly unmoored by Europeras 3 & 4, as though I were sitting up on Mars. I’d like to feel that way more often.

Next up for the Detroit Opera is composer Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, an interpretation of a Lars von Trier film directed by Tom Morris and conducted by Stephanie Childress, which premiers Saturday, April 6; and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, which Yuval Sharon will also direct, with the company’s new music director, Roberto Kalb, stepping in to conduct, beginning Saturday, May 11.

For more information on Detroit Opera, including their just released 2024-25 season of opera and dance, visit detroitopera.org and read even more arts and entertainment at hourdetroit.com