The Comet / Poppea
Nardus Williams and Anthony Roth Costanzo in The Industry’s The Comet / Poppea at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary | Credit: Austin Richey

As audience members for The Industry’s new show, The Comet / Poppea, filed into the Wonmi WAREHOUSE at the Geffen Contemporary at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday night, the staff reminded us to note the designations on our tickets — east or west. After making my way eastward down a makeshift corridor, I found a seat stage left in the fourth row. Around the curve of the half-moon set that faced me, I could just about glimpse the doppelganger audience seated to the west.

In a recent interview with SF Classical Voice, director Yuval Sharon discussed sci-fi and opera’s shared speculative power. The Comet / Poppea, his latest production, invites speculation in more ways than one. Set on a turntable stage, two operas unfold at once — Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 class satire The Coronation of Poppea, which tracks its protagonist’s developing affair with the Roman Emperor Nero, and The Comet, a new work by George Lewis, adapted from a proto-Afrofuturist short story by W.E.B. Du Bois. In that tale, a Black man and a white woman find themselves the sole survivors of a celestial catastrophe.

The Comet / Poppea
Davóne Tines in The Industry’s The Comet / Poppea at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary | Credit: Austin Richey

There were (at least) two ways to experience Friday’s premiere. It was, by design, impossible to catch every detail of both works — each line, each nuanced gesture from the star-studded cast — from one perspective. The eastern audience was treated to longer direct stretches of The Comet than its counterpart. What was happening just out of view? Through absence, Sharon ensured it was impossible to view one side without constant awareness of its interplay with the other.

In this setting, the two constituent scores found moments of synthesis, analysis, and genuine play in counterpoint, helped along by Douglas Kearney’s ingenious blended libretto. Only occasionally — at its most feverishly simultaneous — did the enterprise verge on cacophony.

Most importantly, the two works together show the ways in which their main characters’ “striving” (Du Bois’s word) toward newfound power is tempered by the reassertion of old power structures, each story deepened and highlighted by the presence of the other. And the two operas, disjunct in their settings and their particulars, felt at home on one stage.

The Comet / Poppea
Flutist Emi Ferguson (foreground) with fellow instrumentalists in The Industry’s The Comet / Poppea at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary | Credit: Austin Richey

Lewis’s additive score is distinct from his first opera, Afterword, in its embrace of aleatoric structures. In the program book, he refers to The Comet’s music as existing “as potential rather than as a complete description of the experience.” But his music is taut as ever, inserting itself in agile and fluid dialogue with Poppea, and the assembled players handled Lewis’s gestural language with aplomb.

Animated figures burst from the apogee of the continuo band’s delicate ornamentation. Emi Ferguson’s bass flute added sinister heft, which did not cloud the admirable lightness from harpsichordist Gabriel Crist, Baroque cellist Eric Tinkerhess, and theorbist Jason Koji Yoshida — the corps responsible for Monteverdi’s accompaniment. And string textures like harmonic glissandos and high flutters past the upper reaches of the fingerboard added deft touches to several of the Baroque arias.

Moments of stylistic mimicry, almost in the style of punch lines, served to underscore loaded text. “When I swear I’m fixed to leave, I know I’m nearly there,” sings Du Bois’s Jim against a burst of Aaron Copland-like Americana. It quickly sours to dissonance as he finishes. “And yesterday they would not have served me here.”

The Comet / Poppea
Kiera Duffy in The Industry’s The Comet / Poppea at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary | Credit: Elon Schoenholz

The Comet’s singers, too, seemed to understand Lewis’s music intuitively and intimately. Davóne Tines, in his turn as Jim, delivered densely syllabic lines strongly but not stridently — his lyricism, glimpsed in brief snatches in this score, was also stirring. Opposite him, Kiera Duffy’s Julia struck a perfect balance between fragility and severity.

Strong singing was also at the heart of Poppea’s greatest successes. The opening quarrels of the goddesses of Love, Virtue, and Fortune (Joelle Lamarre, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, and Whitney Morrison) were among the evening’s most breathlessly entertaining moments. Elsewhere, Anthony Roth Costanzo’s impeccable rendering of Nero’s smarm was met coyly by Nardus Williams’s Poppea.

Infatuated and in pursuit, Nero sings to Poppea, “Like a line, I return to the center” — one of the lines in Kearney’s libretto to feature in both Poppea and The Comet. Clever borrowings like this, deployed judiciously throughout the work, heightened moments of thematic overlap as the narratives grew toward each other.

The Comet / Poppea
Anthony Roth Costanzo and Nardus Williams in The Industry’s The Comet / Poppea at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary | Credit: Elon Schoenholz

Sharon’s staging was often similarly catalytic. At one point, the eastern audience watched Julia’s initial encounter with Jim — the moment, brimming with tense possibility, was set over foreboding diminished chords. Meanwhile, Poppea relished a less fraught sense of possibility just out of sight (“Love and Fortune are fighting for me?”) — the wrinkles in her ascension yet to be revealed. The contrast was doubtlessly just as stark from the opposite viewpoint.

However, the mechanics of the turntable set itself, designed by Mimi Lien, were loud enough as to be disruptive, sometimes requiring singers to strain and sometimes threatening to drown out the delicate continuo. The noise was especially unkind to higher voices, notably the talented Williams, whose delicately sumptuous tone was often encroached upon and thinned by distance.

But no one sets aside a well-worn record because of a little noise. And The Comet / Poppea, much like a great record, is full of music that speaks clearly amid the crackle.

Performances of The Industry’s The Comet / Poppea continue through June 23.