Director of the Year:
Yuval Sharon

By John Fleming

Yuval Sharon is renowned for his dazzling artistic innovation. In 2010, he founded The Industry, a Los Angeles company devoted to experimental work; he was the first American director to work at the Bayreuth Festival, with his 2018 staging of Lohengrin. Now, as artistic director of Detroit Opera, he is taking the 51-year-old company in a bold, new direction.

2023 Muscial America Director of the Year:<br>Yuval Sharon
Photo © Casey Kringlen

When Yuval Sharon was in high school, he was more passionate about theater and film than opera, something he dutifully attended with his late father, Ariel, a nuclear engineer. “My dad was interested in opera, and needed someone to come along with him, and I was the one,” says Sharon, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, the eldest of three children of parents who emigrated from Israel. 

Going to Lyric Opera of Chicago became a father-son routine, but because what he mostly saw were “old pieces in old productions,” Sharon didn’t really connect with opera until, on a trip back home from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was studying literature and theater, he went to Lyric’s 1997 premiere of Amistad. Anthony Davis’s opera about a rebellion on a slave ship was a revelation.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, operas are still being written! And they’re about different topics, not just fairy tales and royalty,’” Sharon says. “And the music of Amistad was so different from anything I had heard in opera. I have always admired Anthony, because he was the first contemporary opera composer who touched me.” 

When Sharon, now 43, came to Detroit Opera (which shed its former name as Michigan Opera Theatre in a rebranding he initiated), it was a priority of his to produce a revival of Davis’s long-neglected 1986 opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. He figured the story of the civil rights hero would strike a resonant chord in Detroit, a predominantly Black city where Malcolm had deep roots, and he was right. In May, with Davóne Tines in the title role, the company gave three electrifying, nearly sold-out performances of X in the 2,700-seat Detroit Opera House.

“Everything on our stage has to feel connected to the life of the city of Detroit, and X exemplifies that better than anything we’ve done,” Sharon says. “It’s the benchmark for what I want to see happen here.” The Detroit production, directed by Robert O’Hara, will be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 2023.

Another 2022 highlight was the premiere of Sharon’s staging of La Bohème, with its acts presented in reverse order. It puts the Bohemians not on the “inevitable path toward death and loss, but is about what made their lives worth it in the first place, which was love,” he says. Bohème with a happy ending was the company’s first live performance in the opera house since before the pandemic.

Sharon assumed his Detroit post in 2020 during the darkest days of COVID, and he made a sensational entrance with the premiere of Twilight: Gods, his hour-long, drive-through adaptation of Götterdämmerung done in the company’s parking garage, with Christine Goerke singing Brünnhilde. It was an inspired response to the challenge of performance under pandemic protocols, drawing upon Sharon’s Wagnerian expertise combined with his mastery of the daunting logistics of site-specific operas he did in Los Angeles with The Industry. 

His productions there included such audacious works as Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities, set in Union Station, with attendees listening on wireless headphones; Hopscotch, a “mobile opera” by six composers for an audience that traveled in limousines from scene to scene; and Sweet Land, a work about California’s Indigenous people, co-created by Sharon and five other artists—including Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Du Yun and Raven Chacon—whose run in a historic park was cut short by the pandemic.

Sharon lived in Berlin for a year after college and interned at Deutsche Oper, where the music director was Christian Thielemann. Some 15 years later, Thielemann conducted the Lohengrin that Sharon staged at Bayreuth. Early in his career, two opera directors he assisted especially influenced him. One was Achim Freyer, the German director whose 2010 Ring Cycle for Los Angeles Opera brought Sharon to the city. The other was British director Graham Vick, with whom Sharon worked on several productions, including Tannhäuser at San Francisco Opera in 2007. 

“Something I learned from Graham was to think about the entire opera from the perspective of each and every character as they appear onstage. Where do they come from? Where are they going? What keeps them engaged in a scene even if they have only one line in it?” he explains. “That kind of thinking is what I saw Graham do to a superb degree for Tannhäuser, which has so many characters and so many scenes that need to be animated. It was the first time I saw a piece from the operatic literature treated with that kind of care for the singers’ perspective. It doesn’t matter if you have an amazing concept and a great composition if the singers are not turned on by what you are doing. The singers, in the end, are the soul of your work.”

In 2017, Sharon received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and while an interview with him is certainly erudite—sprinkled with references ranging from Ancient Greek history to Brechtian political theater and Orange Is the New Black—it is punctuated by good humor and laughter. His résumé is full of daring work. In Germany, he won the Götz Friedrich Prize for his 2014 production of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic at Karlsruhe Opera. His direction of Peter Eötvös’s Three Sisters at Vienna State Opera in 2016 is what attracted the attention of Bayreuth’s Katharina Wagner when she needed a director for Lohengrin. He did nine projects with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his three-year residency topped by Meredith Monk’s masterpiece, Atlas.

Sharon is juggling responsibilities in Detroit and Los Angeles, where he continues with The Industry as part of its artistic director cooperative. Detroit Opera’s 2022-23 season opened with his high-tech The Valkyries, the third act of Wagner’s Die Walküre staged in the spirit of a video game. He is directing two productions elsewhere in 2023: the premiere of Proximity—a trio of works by Daniel Bernard Roumain, Caroline Shaw, and John Luther Adams—at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo for Santa Fe Opera.

Amid all his multitasking, Sharon remains focused on what he feels called to achieve in Detroit. “From the beginning, I have thought that I have to develop a world premiere on the stage of the opera house, one that will tell an important Detroit story. I have an idea, but it is going to take time to develop. That is truly the next big challenge for me.”

John Fleming is past president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Musical America, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he was performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.