As with theater and dance, opera has been developing a new life online during the pandemic lockdown. It’s not a replacement for what we had before, and will have after, but some companies have been spurred to creative leaps by the crisis, not merely to raise money and stay busy and relevant, but also to explore what it can look like for artists to work together over Zoom or in person only with those in their pod, in empty theaters, energized by this weird new world.
White Snake Projects’ Alice in the Pandemic reimagined the Lewis Carroll character going down a rabbit hole filled with deserted streets and crowded hospitals, incorporating 3-D animation. City Lyric Opera’s interactive Threepenny Opera asked the at-home audience to bring signs and participate in other ways. On Site Opera’s audio-only To My Distant Beloved took place over the phone, performed for one person at a time. Here Arts Center’s all decisions will be made by consensus was the first Zoom opera, streamed live over the growing platform. Jean-Luc Fafchamps’s Is this the end? found soprano Sarah Defrise playing a teenager on the run through the nooks and crannies of la Monnaie in Brussels, escaping from mysterious masked figures. And Marina Abramović explored operatic endings in her multimedia 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, streamed live in front of a masked, socially distanced audience at Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.
Boston Lyric Opera has made a splash with its highly inventive virtual adaptation of Philip Glass’s 1988 opera, The Fall of the House of Usher, featuring a libretto by Arthur Yorinks based on the 1839 Edgar Allan Poe short story, which was also made into a popular horror film in 1960 by Roger Corman starring Vincent Price. BLO takes a unique approach in telling the tale of twins Roderick (Jesse Darden) and Madeline Usher (Chelsea Basler), who are visited by an old friend of Roderick’s, William (Daniel Belcher), who quickly notices that something is amiss in the mansion. Also on the scene are the Ushers’ servant (Jorgeandrés Camargo) and physician (Christon Carney).
Several distinct visual elements and contrasting narratives make up the opera, as director James Darrah, screenwriter Raúl Santos, and cinematographer Pablo Santiago cut between the Ushers’ impending demise, employing puppets and stop-motion animation, and the desperate journey undertaken by the mute Luna, a young Guatemalan girl attempting to enter the United States, told using hand-drawn charcoal drawings and cutouts. The ninety-minute work includes archival footage of danger, devastation, old television ads, recent news reports of ICE detention centers, and happy families while touching on issues of mental illness as seen both in the nineteenth century and today. The show is bookended by Sheila Vand as a Rod Serling–like host, welcoming us with “Good evening. Not what you expected? Well, there’s nothing to be scared of just yet.” The score was conducted by David Angus remotely; Annie Rabbat serves as concertmaster. Production designer Yuki Izumihara creates a spectacularly creepy atmosphere, with costumes and dolls by Camille Assaf and art direction by Yee Eun Nam.
Produced during the pandemic lockdown, The Fall of the House of Usher looks and sounds great, although the haunting story doesn’t always mesh together, leaving you occasionally scratching your head, and the final twist is likely to both delight and confound you. Perhaps some of your questions will be answered in the live Zoom community conversation taking place March 3 at 8:00. In addition, the interactive digital reading room complete with Easter eggs for a gamelike frisson and an essay on the company’s website expand the experience.
Times Square, HERE Arts Center, and online
January 8-16, free (except for Modulation, $25-$75)
During the pandemic lockdown, theater, dance, and music creators have had to reimagine what they do, transitioning to online works instead of in-person productions, at least temporarily but for longer than initially anticipated. That has given audiences access to plays, concerts, operas, movement pieces, and other live and prerecorded shows from around the world, allowing them to explore disciplines they might not have known much about before the coronavirus crisis. I’ve watched dozens of works by international and American companies that I’d never been able to see previously, and it has been a boon during this challenging time while venues are shuttered.
One January festival that might not have been on your radar is Prototype, an annual collection of experimental opera that usually takes place at such locations as Baruch Performing Arts Center, the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, the Joyce, BRIC House, FIAF, St. Ann’s Warehouse, and festival presenter HERE Arts Center. The ninth season, running January 8-16, has gone mostly virtual, and five of the six events are free, with two that require you to leave the confines of your apartment, one in Times Square, the other at HERE on Dominick St. Below is the full schedule, including live Q&As and discussions with the artists; be adventurous and check out one or more of these works to see what kind of innovation has been happening during quarantine.
January 8-16 (live event after January 8 show at 8:00, $75), $25
Modulation, featuring works by thirteen composers investigating isolation, identity, fear, and breath during the pandemic.
January 9-16 (live event January 12 at 5:00), free
Out of Bounds: Times3 (Times x Times x Times), by composer Pamela Z and theater artist Geoff Sobelle, site-specific sonic experience in and about Times Square.
January 9-16 (live event January 14 at 5:00), free
Ocean Body, multimedia presentation set in the waters of the Gulf Coast, composed and performed by Helga Davis and Shara Nova, directed and filmed by Mark DeChiazza, with embodied sculpture by Annica Cuppetelli, HERE Arts Center, advance RSVP required.
January 10-16 (live events January 10 at 8:00 & 9:00), free
The Planet — A Lament, staged song cycle and live dance about the creation of the world and impending environmental disaster, composed and performed by Septina Rosalina Layan, directed by Garin Nugroho, and choreographed by Joy Alpuerto Ritter, with Mazmur Chorale, Serraimere Boogie, Rianto, Heinbertho J. B. D. Koirewoa (Douglas), Pricillia EM Rumbiak (Elis), and Paul Amandus Dwaa (Becham).
January 10-16 (live events January 16 at 11:00 & noon), free
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, based on a rawlings’s book about sleep, dreams, moths, and butterflies, composed by Valgeir Sigurðsson, directed by Sara Martí, and choreographed by Valgerður Rúnarsdóttir, with text by a rawlings and animation and video art by Pierre-Alain Giraud.
January 10-16 (live events January 16 at 1:00 & 3:00), free
The Murder of Halit Yozgat, film about the assassination of Halit Yozgat in Germany in 2006, composed by Ben Frost and Petter Ekmann, directed by Frost, choreographed by Sasha Milavic Davies, with a libretto by Daniela Danz, and featuring Sabrina Ceesay, Mathias Max Herrmann, Nicolas Matthews, Tahnee Niboro, Gudrun Pelker, Yannick Spanier, and Hubert Zapiór.
Who: Malena Dayen, Karen Lancel & Hermen Maat, Caitlin & Misha, Katelyn Halpern, Paul Pinto, divinebrick, Chris SooHoo
What: 3D live, interactive experience
Where: New York Live Arts
When: Saturday, December 5, $7-$15, 1:00 - 4:00
Why: On October 10, EdgeCut introduced us to the remarkable NowHere platform for the first part of its collaboration with New York Live Arts, “Captivity,” five hours of short performance works, discussions, and networking in which audience members navigated through different levels in order to watch livestreamed events in little pods and hang out with curators, creators, and other visitors in their pods. You could steer through fantastical landscapes, float in space, and pull up next to another pod and talk about where you’d been so far or where you were off to next, with cameras on so your face is visible on the front of your pod. I’ve tried just about every form of online entertainment while we’re all sheltering in place and arts venues are closed, and nothing else comes close to this one, even given various hiccups that require patience.
The second iteration, “Sanity,” takes place December 5 from 1:00 to 4:00, a more manageable three hours that will feature four unique rooms. In the Growth Room, you can catch director and singer Malena Dayen's opera While You Are with Me and the bright and colorful Living Room music video of dancing television heads by multidisciplinary artists Katelyn Halpern and Paul Pinto; in the Worry Room, you can let out steam with Caitlin & Misha’s Infinite Worries Bash, a participatory installation of electroacoustic piñatas that inquires, “Can the destruction of these interactive worry vessels create space for clarity?”; in the Transformation Room, you can meditate to divinebrick and Chris Soohoo’s Performance Prayer; and in the Kissing Room, you can share private moments courtesy of intimacy agents Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat, who ask, “Can we measure a kiss and what kissers feel together?”
Curated by Heidi Boisvert and Kat Mustatea, the EdgeCut program, which originally convened at the New Museum’s NEW INC incubator for art, tech, and design for in-person presentations, is now seeking to expand and redefine the virtual 3D experience during the pandemic lockdown, exploring the question “How do we create collective experience and transformative gatherings in this moment of ‘a crisis within a crisis’ that speak to transition, change, healing, humanity?” The works were chosen through an open call; the finale of the trilogy, “Humanity,” is scheduled for February 13, 2021. Tickets range from $7 per room to $15 for the full experience, which has to be seen to be believed.
Who: Sara LaFlamme, Sara LeMesh, Michael Parham, Rachelle Pike, Gretchen Pille, Mary Rice, Thomas Walters, Shane Brown, Geddy Warner, Shanelle Valerie Woods, the Curiosity Cabinet
What: Live virtual two-part performances
Where: City Lyric Opera Zoom
When: Thursday - Sunday, October 29 - November 15, viewing $12, live audience with toolkit $24, 8:00
Why: In Die Dreigroschenoper, or The Threepenny Opera, one of composer Kurt Weill’s goals in his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht was to bring opera, primarily an art form enjoyed through the centuries by the wealthy, snobbish elite and royalty, to the common people, making the story and music accessible and the production affordable. During the pandemic, technological online innovation has accomplished just that organically, with such shows as White Snake Projects’ excellent Alice in the Pandemic, which sent the protagonist, an ER nurse, down the rabbit hole in search of her coronavirus-infected mother, journeying through an animated video-game-like dark and empty wonderland, with the singers performing live (October 23-27, free); Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s version of Beethoven’s Egmont, with the masked, socially distanced musicians playing in a New Jersey bandshell, accompanied by narrator Liev Schreiber and soprano Karen Slack (October 17-22, $15); Here Arts Center’s Zoom opera for all decisions will be made by consensus, a short work broadcast live on Facebook and Zoom about a Zoom meeting (April 24-26, free); and On Site Opera’s To My Distant Love, an adaptation of Beethoven’s six-song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, delivered via email and cell phone (June - August, $40). Meanwhile, the Met, which will be closed through at least next summer, has been streaming more than 150 video and audio recordings of performances dating back to the 1950s (initially free, now $4.99 each or $14.99 monthly).
So it makes sense that City Lyric Opera (CLO), founded in 2016 by Megan Gillis and Kathleen Spencer to “provide a one-of-a-kind experience for audience members by welcoming them to the operatic art form without judgment, expectation, or financial burden,” is taking on The Threepenny Opera itself. “With the Dreigroschenoper we reach a public which either did not know us at all or thought us incapable of captivating listeners,” Weill explained way back when. “Opera was founded as an aristocratic form of art. If the framework of opera is unable to withstand the impact of the age, then this framework must be destroyed.” Weill and German playwright and librettist Brecht adapted John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, translated by Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lover at the time, adding several songs based on works by fifteenth-century French poet and thief François Villon. The work, set during the Victorian era, premiered in Berlin in 1928; it was a Broadway failure in 1933, in a translation by Jerrold Krimsky and Gifford Cochran. However, Marc Blitzstein’s 1952-54 English translation became a hit and is the version we know today, and the one that will be used by CLO, which was scheduled to stage a full, in-person production this season. It has now been reimagined for the internet, being livestreamed in two back-to-back parts, Thursday to Sunday from October 29 to November 15. Tickets are $12 to watch and $24 with a live, interactive toolkit that incorporates the audience into the narrative. (Glow sticks, anyone?) The piece was developed at Here Arts Center, where director Attilio Rigotti and scenographer Anna Driftmier worked with the cast socially distanced in separate Covid performance boxes, each with its own design and lighting.
The company features baritone Justin Austin as Macheath, tenor Kameron Ghanavati as Filch/Smith/Ensemble, baritone Philip Kalmanovitch as Mr. Peachum, soprano Sara LaFlamme as Polly Peachum, soprano Sara LeMesh as Lucy Brown, baritone Michael Parham as Jackie “Tiger” Brown, mezzo-soprano Rachelle Pike as Mrs. Peachum, soprano Gretchen Pille as Dolly, mezzo-soprano Mary Rice as Bob/Berry, tenor Thomas Walters as Jake, baritone Shane Brown as Walt, tenor Geddy Warner as Matt, and mezzo-soprano Shanelle Valerie Woods as Jenny. The conductor and music director is Whitney George, leading the Curiosity Cabinet: Jared Newlen (reed I: clarinet, alto sax), Ben Solis (reed II: clarinet, alto sax), Hugh Ash (trumpet I), Clyde Dale (trumpet II), David Whitwell (trombone), Markus Kaitila (piano/celeste/harmonium), Joe Tucker (timpani, percussion), and Justin Rothberg (banjo, guitar). With its bitingly satirical view of capitalism and societal norms, The Threepenny Opera should feel right at home online in 2020, as we are all sheltering in place, in the midst of health and economic crises and a contentious presidential election where decency, humanity, wealth inequality, health care, and the social contract are on the ballot.
Who: Roberta Gumbel, Susan Kander, Chip Miller, New Morse Code (Hannah Collins, Michael Compitello), J. T Roane, Erica Richardson, Teona Pagan, Yael Meegan
What: Virtual opera
Where: Baruch College online
When: October 23, 9:00 am - October 29, 10:00 pm, free with RSVP (donations accepted); live discussion Thursday, October 29, free with RSVP, 6:00
“Mobility is essential to freedom,” historian Gretchen Sorin says in Ric Burns’s new PBS documentary, Driving While Black, based on her book Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights. “It allows us to understand the way that African Americans have moved forward in this country and the way that African Americans have been pushed back.” The phrase “driving while black” is a loaded one that white Americans will never fully understand; they don’t have to have “the talk” with their children about what to do when stopped by a police officer. Baruch Performing Arts Center and Opera Omaha have teamed up to explore the issue in the virtual chamber opera dwb (driving while black), streaming for free October 23-29. Previously presented in a 2019 concert version, dwb has been reimagined for the internet, featuring a libretto by soprano Roberta Gumbel and music by Susan Kander; the fifty-minute piece is directed by Chip Miller and is performed by Gumbel and New Morse Code, the duo of cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello, with videography by Four/Ten Media and audio by Ryan Streber and Oktaven Studios.
“This March was to have been the New York premiere of dwb (driving while black) at Baruch Performing Arts Center,” BPAC director Ted Altschuler said in a statement. “It is a musical provocation to engage with the essential conversation of our day: racial justice. Live performances are paused for the moment, but the need for learning and dialogue is not. Given the brevity of the piece and the uncertainty of live performances, our organizations are collaborating to help create a high-quality version of dwb directed explicitly for streaming presentation. Not everyone has the capacity to create content in this moment, but the conversation this piece provokes is urgent. As an arts center located on one of the most diverse public university campuses in the U.S., we exist to promote inquiry and discourse, something we will encourage via post-performance events.” On closing night, October 29, at 6:00, there will be a live discussion with Gumbel, Arizona State University assistant professor of African and African American Studies J. T Roane, Baruch College assistant professor of English Erica Richardson, and students Teona Pagan, the president of the Black Student Union, and journalism major Yael Meegan.
Alice goes down a very different kind of rabbit hole in Alice in the Pandemic, a virtual opera from Boston-based White Snake Projects. The production seeks to push the envelope of technological innovation during the Covid-19 lockdown as performers — and their 3D avatars — sing from wherever they are sheltering in place. The show features a libretto by creator Cerise Lim Jacobs, with music by Jorge Sosa, direction by Elena Araoz, and art by Anna Campbell; the cast includes Carami Hilaire as Alice, an ER nurse at Fair Hospital; Eve Gigliotti as Mrs. Lee (Alice’s mother, who falls ill) and other characters; and Daniel Moody as the White Rabbit, who Alice meets in the subway. Tickets are free with advance RSVP; there will be live shows October 23, 25, and 27 at 7:30. The sixty-minute digital opera will be told in ten scenes in one act, leading the audience on a wild ride through an alternative wonderland and a health crisis that is all too real.