Who: Rhymes with Opera
What: Live, virtual sci-fi opera
Where: Rhymes with Opera online
When: Live on Sunday, June 20, $20, 7:00 (available on demand June 22 - July 6, $10)
Why: In 2013, New York-based ensemble Rhymes with Opera presented a fully staged production of composer Adam Matlock and librettist Brian Slattery’s Red Giant, a futuristic sci-fi chamber opera in which three humans take off into space, heading toward parts unknown to escape from a dying planet engulfed by the sun. RWO has now reimagined the show for virtual viewing in its first digital presentation, streaming live on Sunday, June 20, at 7:00. Sopranos Bonnie Lander and Elisabeth Halliday-Quan and baritone Robert Maril will be performing from three different locations, accompanied by the six-member RWOrchestra, conducted by George Tsz-Kwan Lam. The forty-minute work is directed by Ashley Tata, with video design by Eamonn Farrell and set design by Afsoon Pajoufar. David Crandall voices the radio announcer.
“As a lifelong fan of science fiction and a composer enamored of opera as a medium, it only made sense to combine the two when given the opportunity to work on a piece,” Matlock said in a statement. “Of course, in the beginning the scenario — people trying to escape a planet’s surface that has become uninhabitable due to their sun becoming the titular Red Giant — was pure fantasy. But in the nearly decade since this piece was first written, we’ve seen governments and societies struggle to reach a consensus as to whether or not climate change is really happening in the face of readily observable evidence — and it’s hard not to feel that this story has gained some resonance in the face of that. And of course, even in the face of a true existential crisis, humans will still find time to bicker.” Tickets for the live performance, in which Lander streams in from Baltimore, Halliday-Quan from Rochester, and Maril from New York City, are $20; a recording of the show will be available on demand June 22 - July 6 for $10.
White Snake Projects
May 20-25, free with RSVP (suggested donation $25-$150)
In the second edition of twi-ny’s Pandemic Awards, I named White Snake Projects’ Alice in the Pandemic “Best Use of Technology in a Virtual Opera.” The Boston-based company might win the same award in the third iteration of the Pandemic Awards for its follow-up, the emotionally powerful and dramatic Death by Life: A Digital Opera in One Act. The work, which explores systemic racism and injustice in the prison industrial complex, is divided into five scenes based on the stories of real men and women who are currently or were previously incarcerated, with music by five Black composers, along with transitional interludes.
Directed by Kimille Howard with a libretto by show creator and White Snake founding head Cerise Lim Jacobs, Death by Life is highlighted by live performances by tenor Aaron Blake, mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, baritone Nicholas Davis, soprano Tiana Sorenson, and soloist Naomi Wilson (incarcerated for thirty-seven years), who, despite being in different locations around the country, at times appear to be in the same room or cell. The live singing, accompanied by the Victory Players — pianist Nathan Ben-Yehuda, cellist Clare Monfredo, clarinetist Eric Schultz, and Elly Toyoda on violin and viola, with music direction by Tianhui Ng — is absolutely thrilling. The 3D sets, which do have some green-screening issues but otherwise are highly impressive, were created in Unreal Engine by Curvin Huber, with animation by R Cory Collins, lighting by Becky Marsh, sound by Jon Robertson, dramaturgy by Keith McGill, and projections by Paul Deziel.
The seventy-minute show begins with Returning Home,5 based on text by poet and activist Monica Cosby — who spent twenty years in prison — with music by Leila Adu-Gilmore, who taught at Sing Sing. The story follows a woman (Sorenson), released after twenty years behind bars, trying to reconnect with her mother (Bradford) while missing her prison family. In Orange Crush, by Phil Hartsfield — who is serving what is essentially a life sentence and recently earned a bachelor’s degree — with music by David Sandford, a pair of cellmates (Blake and Davis) prepare for a shakedown sweep that is likely to be brutal.
In Yard Time with the Animals, by writer, activist, and BA recipient Joe Dole — who is serving life without parole for a crime he claims he didn’t commit — and composer Jacinth Greywoode, Joe (Davis) tries to save three baby birds as the mother (Sorenson) seeks his help. In When the Time Hits You, based on text by Andrew Phillips — who is in a Kentucky prison for thirty years — and featuring music by Jonathan Bailey Holland, a new guard (Sorenson) reminds an inmate (Blake) that he might die while still incarcerated. And in I’m a Lifer, based on a story by Mary L. Johnson — who is seeking justice for her incarcerated son in Chicago — and with music by the legendary Mary D. Watkins, a man (Davis) is being harassed by cops over and over, and his mother (Bradford) is only making it worse by filing a complaint.
There are two shows left, on May 22 and 25 at 7:30. Be sure to tune in early to see the “Freedom Cost” artwork by educator, minister, community organizer, and death row inmate Renaldo Hudson (and check out the online “To Breathe” exhibit) and listen to songs by the Oakdale Community Choir, consisting of men inside Oakdale Prison as well as on the outside. And stick around for a postshow talkback with members of the cast and crew of Death by Life that goes behind the scenes of how the production was created — with Jacobs teasing that they have something more in the works for the fall.
Who: Works by and/or featuring Moko Fukuyama, Joshua William Gelb, Gabrielle Hamilton, Jace, Elmore James, Jamal Josef, Katie Rose McLaughlin, Sara Mearns, Zaire Michel, Zalman Mlotek, Alicia Hall Moran, Patrick Page, Barbara Pollack, Seth David Radwell, Jamar Roberts, Tracy Sallows, Xavier F. Salomon, Janae Snyder-Stewart, Mfoniso Udofia, Anne Verhallen
What: This Week in New York twentieth anniversary celebration
Where: This Week in New York YouTube
When: Saturday, May 22, free with RSVP, 7:00 (available on demand through June 12)
Why: In April 2001, I found myself suddenly jobless when a relatively new Silicon Alley company that had made big promises took an unexpected hit. I took my meager two weeks’ severance pay and spent fourteen days wandering through New York City, going to museums, film festivals, parks, and tourist attractions. I compiled my experiences into an email I sent to about fifty friends, rating each of the things I had done. My sister’s husband enthusiastically demanded that I keep doing this, and This Week in New York was born.
Affectionately known as twi-ny (twhy-nee), it became a website in 2005 and soon was being read by tens of thousands of people around the globe. I covered a vast array of events – some fifteen thousand over the years – that required people to leave their homes and apartments and take advantage of everything the greatest city in the world had to offer. From the very start, I ventured into nooks and crannies to find the real New York, not just frequenting well-known venues but seeking out the weird and wild, the unusual and the strange.
For my tenth anniversary, we packed Fontana’s, a now-defunct club on the Lower East Side, and had live music, book readings, and a comics presentation. I had been considering something bigger for twenty when the pandemic lockdown hit and lasted longer than we all thought possible.
At first, I didn’t know what twi-ny’s future would be, with nowhere for anyone to go. But the arts community reacted quickly, as incredible dance, music, art, theater, opera, film, and hybrid offerings began appearing on numerous platforms; the innovation and ingenuity blew me away. The winners of twi-ny’s Pandemic Awards give you a good idea of the wide range of things I covered; you can check out part one here and part two here.
I devoured everything I could, from experimental dance-theater in a closet and interactive shows over the phone and through the mail to all-star Zoom reunion readings and an immersive, multisensory play that arrived at my door in a box. Many of them dealt with the fear, isolation, and loneliness that have been so pervasive during the Covid-19 crisis while also celebrating hope, beauty, and resilience. I’ve watched, reviewed, and previewed more than a thousand events created since March 2020, viewing them from the same computer where I work at my full-time job in children’s publishing.
Just as companies are deciding the future hybrid nature of employment, the arts community is wrestling with in-person and online presentations. As the lockdown ends and performance venues open their doors, some online productions will go away, but others are likely to continue, benefiting from a reach that now goes beyond their local area and stretches across the continents.
On May 22 at 7:00, “twi-ny at twenty,” produced and edited by Michael D. Drucker of Delusions International and coproduced by Ellen Scordato, twi-ny’s business manager and muse, honors some of the best events of the past fourteen months, including dance, theater, opera, art, music, and literature, all of which can be enjoyed for free from the friendly confines of your couch. There is no registration fee, and the party will be available online for several weeks. You can find more information here.
Please let me know what you think in the live chat, which I will be hosting throughout the premiere, and be sure to say hello to other twi-ny fans and share your own favorite virtual shows.
Thanks for coming along on this unpredictable twenty-year adventure; I can’t wait to see you all online and, soon, in real life. Here’s to the next twenty!
Through May 31, $10-$25 each, $25 streaming pass for four shows
If you haven’t been following Opera Philadelphia during the pandemic lockdown, then you’re missing some of the best work of the past fourteen months. Formerly known as the Opera Company of Philadelphia, which was founded in 1975, the troupe usually performs at the Academy of Music and the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center. But with venues shuttered, last fall they started streaming dazzling short films that will be available for viewing through the end of May.
Their breakthrough was David T. Little’s fifty-minute Soldier Songs, which focuses on a soldier suffering from PTSD, living alone in a small, sad trailer in the middle of nowhere (actually Chester, Pennsylvania, near the 1777 Battle of Brandywine). Played by Johnathan McCullough, who directed the piece and wrote the screenplay with producer James Darrah, based on interviews with veterans from five wars, the soldier is trapped in his pained, overwhelmed mind, unable to escape the battle. His loneliness and isolation evoke what so many people have been feeling since the Covid-19 crisis began. In uniform, he crawls desperately across the grass, sings while holding a toy soldier (“Good guys, bad guys / Get to choose who will die,” he repeats), and looks at old photos and letters, leading to a harrowing conclusion. Soldier Songs is gorgeously photographed by Phil Bradshaw, and Little’s music and libretto will hit you in the gut.
Be sure to check out the extras, including a behind-the-scenes video and the interviews that were used in the film. In addition, on May 25 at noon, McCullough will be discussing the making of the work at a free online talk hosted by the Independence Seaport Museum.
The Island We Made is another gem, a ten-minute film that begins with cinematographer Matthew Schroeder scanning across an elegantly designed home before focusing on a character portrayed by gender-fluid drag queen Sasha Velour, spectacularly adorned in glittering silver jewels from head to toe, striking makeup, and a long, flowing yellow gown. (Oh, those eyebrows and lips!) With haunting music by Angélica Negrón and production and direction by Matthew Placek, the story explores the matriarchy, with Karen Asconi as the grandmother, Eva Aridjis as the mother, and Josephine Aridjis-Porter as the daughter. Eliza Bagg sings the vocals, with Bridget Kibbey on the harp. It’s a stunning work that will send chills up and down your spine.
Featuring music composed by Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw and words by writer Anne Carson, We Need to Talk is a superb complement to The Island We Made. In a ramshackle, claustrophobic space with white-brick walls, soprano Ariadne Greif, in pajamas and a robe, wearing thick red lipstick, encounters a pail of water, a shattered ceramic pitcher, a copy of a book about Walt Disney, apples, and furniture that she moves across the floor with a fury. She looks directly into the camera and sings live, “You were nude / You were intangible / You were unconvincing / You were vague,” her prerecorded voice delivering the lilting background vocals. Meanwhile, an offscreen Carson, sounding like it is coming out of an old radio, recites lines from the same poem, including “You were ghosting around as if a mystery of Hymen,” in a kind of call-and-response dialogue with Greif. Directed by Maureen Towey, the ten-minute We Need to Talk gets under your skin with its surreal, almost Buñuel-like abstract narrative that delves into the nature of isolation while not being afraid to be occasionally playful.
Pianist and composer Courtney Bryan’s Blessed travels from New Orleans to New York to Philadelphia as soprano Janinah Burnett and vocalist Damian Norfleet perform a hymn, at one point whispering, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake / For theirs is the kingdom of heaven / Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you / falsely on my account,” lines from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Christian Bible, often known as the Beatitudes. (“Beatus” is Latin for “blessed” or “happy.”) Director Tiona Nekkia McClodden includes shots of Burnett and Norfleet at lovely outdoor locations, photos of the score, a visit to a church that celebrates the good deeds done by prison reform worker and educator St. Frances Joseph-Gaudet, and snippets of the rehearsal and recording sessions that were held over Zoom with sound designer Rob Kaplowitz. Blessed was created in direct response to the events of the past fourteen months, from the presidential election to racial injustice at the hands of the police, but it is anchored by the belief that the meek will inherit the earth.
Opera Philadelphia is also streaming Tyshawn Sorey’s twenty-minute Save the Boys, in which countertenor John Holiday and pianist Grant Loehnig perform the 1887 title poem by abolitionist, writer, suffragist, teacher, public speaker, and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Performed in the homey Rittenhouse Soundworks studio in Philly in which the masked Loehnig and the unmasked Holiday are socially distanced, the piece begins, “Like Dives in the deeps of Hell / I can’t break this fearful spell / Nor quench the fires I’ve madly nursed / Nor cool this dreadful raging thirst / Take back your pledge / You’ve come too late! / You can’t save me from my fate / Nor bring me back departed joys / But you can try to save the boys.” These digital commissions are only available for the next few weeks; don’t miss them.
Who: New Camerata Opera
What: Virtual world premiere
Where: New Camerata Opera Zoom
When: Thursday, May 6, and Saturday, May 8, $40-$160, 8:00
Why: On March 18, 1990, thieves broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and got away with thirteen masterpieces worth half a billion dollars; you can learn more about the still-unsolved crime in the new Netflix documentary This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. Immersive specialists New Camerata Opera will be pulling off its own interactive, virtual museum heist this week with the premiere of The Brooklyn Job. Written and directed by Sarah Morgan Ashey, the piece, debuting May 6 and 8 at 8:00 over Zoom as part of the sixth annual New York Opera Fest, mixes prerecorded elements filmed and edited by Erik Bagger with live performance, featuring sopranos Samina Aslam and Barbara Porto, mezzo-sopranos Eva Parr, Julia Tang, and Anna Tonna, tenors Victor Khodadad and Bagger, baritones Stan Lacy and Scott Lindroth, and bass Kofi Hayford. Dan Franklin Smith is the music director. New Camerata Opera has presented such online works as Julie, the nine-episode Ives Project, and The Prince von Pappenschmear, a Prequel during the pandemic lockdown; The Brooklyn Job is a participatory opera that invites viewers to take polls and, for an additional fee, order a cocktail box (by May 3) that comes with a Woman in Gray, Sunlight Effect, or Rhubarb Spritz, spiced caramel popcorn, and an art-focused interactive program guide.
April 15 - June 30, $24.99 - $29.99
Every spring for more than forty years, the Schubertiade has celebrated the work of Austrian composer Franz Schubert through concerts, exhibitions, lectures, and discussion. Overlapping with the 2021 Schubertiade, which runs April 28 to May 2, is an unusual, immersive hybrid production called The Wandering, available online April 15 through June 30. The multimedia presentation uses film, music, props, postcards, and photography to explore Schubert’s creativity and sexual orientation.
In his 1992 New York Times article “Critic's Notebook: Was Schubert Gay? If He Was, So What? Debate Turns Testy” about a 92nd St. Y symposium on the composer, Edward Rothstein wrote, “As for the issue of homosexuality, Mr. [Maynard] Solomon's case is compellingly argued, but I defer to scholars for a final verdict. The most vexing problems arise in judging the musical importance of the composer’s sexuality. Mr. Solomon asserts, for example, that Schubert’s homosexuality demonstrated a ‘resistance to compulsion’ and that it revealed a ‘heroic region in Schubert’s personality.’ But while Schubert obviously possessed a profound knowledge of suffering and isolation, heroism seems alien to his compositions, imported from some contemporary views of sexual ‘unorthodoxy.’”
Conceived by actor and curator Calista Small, baritone and actor Jeremy Weiss, designer Charlotte McCurdy, theater artist Christine Shaw, filmmaker Lara Panah-Izadi, and animator Zach Bell, The Wandering, which delves into Schubert’s suffering, isolation, heroism, and sexuality in abstract ways, is meant to take place over four days, although you can proceed at your own pace. Each day features a short film starring Weiss as the Wanderer, a curious man traversing a strange landscape, with music by Schubert played by pianist Marika Yasuda and German lyrics sung by Weiss. (English translations by Julian Manresa are available.)
In the Matthew Barney–like films, which can be viewed only once — there’s no going back after you start each one — cinematographer Frank Sun follows the Wanderer as he encounters a series of mysterious characters out on the road, in a forest, in the historic Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, Illinois, and at the landmark Wright in Kankakee home in the Illinois woods: Bambi Banks Couleé as the Performer, Ethan Kirschbaum as the Doppelgänger, Daria Harper as the Crow, Small as the Crystallography Denizen, and Josh Romero as the Gardener Denizen. Directed by Panah-Izadi, the films, ranging between six and ten minutes apiece, are beautifully shot tone poems incorporating music, theater, and dance, with choreography by Craig Black, sound by Jared O’Brien, costumes by Casey Wood (the Doppelgänger outfit is particularly impressive), sets by Rachel Cole, and hair and makeup by Erica Martens.
After watching each individual film, you open a packet you received in the mail (well worth the additional $5 cost) containing an object for you to interact with, poetry, letters, pre-addressed stamped postcards you can fill with drawings and/or words and send, QR codes for augmented reality (by Sahil Gupta), and various prompts surrounding your personal “wunderlich,” which can mean “wondrous,” “queer,” “odd,” “fantastical,” or “whimsical.” Several tasks involve going outside, taking a photo, and posting it to the gallery on the main site, known as the Prism (the web design is by TanTan Wang), which features a perennial meditative soundscape. There’s also a page where you can listen separately to the songs, which include “Wandrers Nachtlied,” “Die Krähe,” “Die Gebüsche,” “Nacht Und Träume,” and “Ganymed.”
Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797 and died there at the age of thirty-one, having produced more than 1,500 works, from orchestral overtures, operas, and symphonies to lieder, cantatas, and song cycles. In an 1822 letter the composer sent to his friend and maybe lover, Austrian actor, poet, and librettist Franz von Schober (and which is excerpted in the show’s packet), he describes a dream he had, explaining, “I wandered into a distant land. . . . For long, long years, I sang songs. When I wanted to sing about love, it turned to pain. When I wanted to sing of pain, it turned to love. Thus, love and pain divided me.”
Weiss responds with his own letter to Schubert, writing, “Your music was the first thing I turned to in a moment of crisis during a pandemic. Thank you for writing of your pain, and of your love. Did you ever learn not to let them divide you? Might we?” It’s a question a lot of us have been asking, especially during this last, tumultuous year.