EPISODE 1: An Opera About a Freeway

Composer Laura Karpman and librettists M.G. Lord and Shannon Halwes reveal the creative process behind their multimedia opera, ONE-TEN

The 110 freeway turned 70 in December 2009. To commemorate this event, LA Opera offered composer Laura Karpman a wacky commission: create an opera about it. So began ONE-TEN. (ONE-TEN the blog evolved at LA Magazine’s “CityThink” and is reproduced here at WordPress.)

Karpman knew how to make a freeway sing, but she didn’t know how to make it speak. So she called her favorite writers—M.G. Lord and Shannon Halwes—and asked them to find a story where there didn’t seem to be one.

M.G. Lord (author, cartoonist, analog enthusiast):
I love the growls and clatter of the freeway, but for me to be interested in a story, it has to be about people. My dad was an aerospace engineer, and I knew that the Jet Propulsion Lab’s rocketry pioneers tested their first engines in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco—not far from where construction began on the 110 freeway. So the first character I conceived was a student at Caltech who wanted to be a rocket engineer. 

Shannon Halwes (lyricist, polymath, digital detective):
We wanted a cast that reflected the cultural diversity of Los Angeles, and we needed them to have grown up together. They and their families live in Boyle Heights—one of the few L.A. neighborhoods in the 1930s that did not have restrictive housing covenants, a place where Jewish Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans could live side by side, and the place where Laura’s father grew up.

Laura Karpman (composer, oracle, workaholic):

How do you make music out of a freeway? You open your ears. We’ve all spent so much time being frustrated on the 110, but how much time have we really spent listening to the 110? There is music everywhere!

Lord: We didn’t agree on everything immediately. Laura envisioned something abstract. She started working with filmmaker Kate Hackett on images and audio that dealt with the freeway today. Shannon and I wanted to travel through time and space with our characters. Seventy years—a lifetime. We wanted to tell what happened to Los Angeles in a lifetime.

Halwes: I shuttled between the warring camps, negotiating the equivalent of an arms-control agreement. Because we were all friends, we survived the creative conflict. The abstract story would take place on the freeway itself; the characters’ stories would unfold on the off-ramps. 

Karpman: As I worked, the piece became about mash-ups of multiple musical styles, drawing from waltzes to midcentury jazz to hip-hop. You’ll hear a ’40s radio chorus mixed with fierce traffic grooves. This is not your daddy’s opera.

Meet two of our characters, Lew Zellman and Susan Tanaka. Lew is a Caltech freshman who wants to be a rocket engineer. He’s in love with the girl next door, Susan, an art student. This would be no big deal today, but interracial marriage was illegal in California until 1948. Is their love doomed?

Witness creative “smackdowns” involving Karpman, Lord, and Halwes: How will they finish this thing without killing each other? Can a mash-up of La Bohème, music video, and Mary Worth really work?

Check out the Overture here:

Laura Karpman, a four-time Emmy-winning composer, writes music for film, television, theater, video games, and the concert hall.

M.G. Lord, author of The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice, Forever Barbie, and Astro Turf, teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC.

Shannon Halwes is a lyricist, screenwriter, and filmmaker.

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