Inside Seven
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The 110 Freeway (Arroyo Seco Parkway) on Opening Day in 1940.

110 Freeway: Could the Fat Lady Sing for its 70th Birthday?
by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 07/2010

Freeway makes its opera debut.

[Click on photos to read captions.]

Most of us try to tune out the noises we hear when driving the freeway. But those sounds are music to the ears of Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman. And not just any music—they are the stuff of opera.

Karpman was commissioned by the LA Opera last year to create a work inspired by and centered around the 110 Freeway. "The 110 Freeway was the city's first freeway, connecting Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, growing as the city grew until it eventually extended all the way to the Harbor,” said Stacy C. Brightman, LA Opera’s Director of Education and Community Programs. “The story of the 110 is the story of our city, and we were eager to explore what the city of Los Angeles means to the diverse communities that this historic freeway has touched.”

Karpman immediately drafted writers M.G. Lord and Shannon Halwes as librettists and creation of the multi-media opera ONE-TEN, which will include projections, video art and a “freeway chorus,” began. “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,” Karpman said. “This is not your daddy’s opera.”

The music is made up of “drive-by traffic sounds,” like the sound of windshield wipers, car horns, the squeal of brakes, the din of trucks, etc., Karpman said, adding that capturing the sounds (which she does with the assistance of a sound designer) is the easy part. “The hard part is making it sound like music.”

Freeway noises form the background of the musical structure but the opera’s theme is 70 years in the life of the communities surrounding the freeway. It begins when and where the freeway does and will end in present-day San Pedro. “People don’t realize what an incredible history this freeway has,” Karpman said. “Every moment of construction was an important point in California’s past.”

The roster of characters so far (currently four but more will be added as the opera moves forward in time) are embodiments of certain groups at various times. There is Lew Zelman, a Caltech freshman and aspiring rocket scientist who falls in love with Susan Tanaka, a Japanese-American art student. World War II is on the horizon so we know things won’t be easy for this couple.

The other characters are Oscar Gutierrez, a jazz musician whose story will highlight the vibrant music community of Central Avenue that lasted from the 1920s to the mid 1950s, and Shirley Norman, an African-American journalist working for a Black newspaper modeled on the pioneering California Eagle. After the Zoot Suit riots, Shirley becomes radicalized by the 110 Freeway extension, which cut through the city of Watts and reinforced traditional segregation lines, leaving journalism for politics.

But the same roads that separate also connect. “These freeways are our rivers,” Karpman said. “Asking why an opera is set on the freeway is like asking why ‘Huckleberry Finn’ is set on a river.”

The work-in-progress was first presented last November in two workshops, one at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the other at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park. It is expected to be completed next spring, Karpman said.

The three artists get together to work on the piece about once a week and more often in times of intensive development. Karpman mentioned that future characters might possibly include a Caltrans worker.

The Pasadena Freeway (Arroyo Seco Parkway) was completed December 30, 1940. In honor of its upcoming 70th birthday, some kind of performance will take place, but whether it’s at an actual venue or on the web is still being determined.

In the meantime, the opera’s development is being chronicled in fascinating detail on the Los Angeles Magazine blog CityThink. Not only do Karpman, Lord and Halwes discuss the creative thinking behind the work, but also the various historic events that shape it. To hear some of the arias, as well as follow the characters, see historic photos and travel through some lesser-known byways of the city’s past, go to

The California Department of Transportation is an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, particularly as they relate to our transportation facilities. However, we have no affiliation with the ONE-TEN opera nor do we endorse or promote any particular private artistic endeavor.

Third from left, Laura Karpman; second from right, M.G. Lord; far right, Shannon Halwes. The photo was taken California African-American Museum, November 2009. A 1940 view of recently opened Arroyo Seco Parkway featuring Avenue 64 and York Street bridges with a view to the San Gabriel mountains. Rose Queen Sally Stanton helps cut the ribbon for the SR-110 (Arroyo Seco Parkway) opening in 1940. Out of the past and into...Infinity and Beyond. The 110 at the 105.