Opera is taking new forms, and its survival may depend on it

Michael Andor Brodeur

THE WASHINGTON POST – A strange package arrived on our doorstep last week. Strange because it didn’t contain masks, or disinfectant wipes, or even another jar of that chili-crisp paste we keep blowing through. It was a box of opera.

The Beauty That Still Remains: Diaries in Song is the latest experiment by the New York-based On Site Opera, a company that stays true to its name, even as it eschews that most foundational of operatic conventions: the stage.

It’s also the latest example of the many ways opera is reinventing itself amid a pandemic that kept houses shuttered for the better part of a year. Without audiences filling rows in real life, opera companies are experimenting with ways to keep fans engaged.

Since 2014, On Site put on productions of classical and contemporary operas at barbecue joints, soup kitchens, libraries and wax museums in the name of liberating the form from the confines of the concert hall. And since the onset of the pandemic, and the closing of venues in general, the company adapted by adopting quasi-virtual strategies for presenting its most recent productions.

In the spirit of social distancing, To My Distant Love split Beethoven’s lovelorn song cycle An die ferne Geliebte into personalised phone calls. Homebound audience members assumed the role of the “distant love” and received an over-the-phone serenade from a soprano or a baritone, depending on individual fancy.

‘The Beauty That Still Remains: Diaries in Song’ is a mail-order opera put on by On Site Opera, which uses diaries of historical figures as libretto. PHOTO: ON SITE OPERA

The Beauty That Still Remains takes this indirectly direct approach and slows it down – perhaps more than originally intended – by employing the United States (US) Postal Service as a medium. Every two weeks, audience members receive a new “diary” in the mail, each based on a different song cycle: Leos Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Vanished (based on the journals of Osef Kalda), Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (what it says on the tin) and Juliana Hall’s A World Turned Upside Down (based on the diaries of Anne Frank).

Presented as a trio of elegantly designed folios, each diary contains handwritten diary entries (which function as librettos), photos, pamphlets with essays on the works and notes on the performers (which include mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi, soprano Chantal Freeman, tenor Bernard Holcomb and pianist Howard Watkins), and QR codes that link listeners directly to the music.

Even for those already familiar with the song cycles, the diaries open a beguiling new entrance. Their physical heft in your hands lends the music a new, tactile dimension, and the private ritual of listening and leafing through the pages imparts an uncanny intimacy that extends beyond the crisp closeness of the recordings.

In style and substance, The Beauty That Still Remains engages our current collective state of isolation as a source of inspiration. But putting opera in a box is just one way companies are trying to think outside it.

Since 2013, the New York City-based Beth Morrison Projects has teamed with Here Arts Center to produce the Prototype festival, “committed to surprising our audiences and confounding their expectations through content, form, and relevance”, according to its posted mission. In normal years, this meant commissioning and presenting works that subversively tweak the parameters of opera theatre and music theatre, gathering up what might be considered the fringes and pulling them toward the centre.

But as the early waiting-game days of the pandemic gave way to the uncertainties of summer, and as BMP was forced to cancel 10 touring productions, a pair of realisations set in: Covid-19 wasn’t going away any time soon; and the festival was no longer a just a lab for experimentation – it was more like a triage unit. “What if?” urgently turned into “What now?” So, true to its name, Prototype set about imagining prototypes.

According to Morrison, BMP General Manager Jecca Barry and Here Arts Center Founding Artistic Director Kristin Marting – who together serve as co-directors – the original in-person line-up for the festival included multiple world premieres by composers including Huang Ruo, Taylor Mac and Du Yun. None of the works could survive the transition to digital fully intact, so the three opted to start fresh.

“What we came to was that we need to make something that’s for now, because this is an extraordinary time,” said Marting. “Artists are going to be saying very different things right now than they’ll be saying a year from now.”

They started soliciting ideas and projects that could come together quickly from a vast network of artists and composers, steering clear of works in progress morphing into virtual adaptations in favour of freshly conceived projects.

“Instead of asking one composer to write a 90-minute work,” says Barry, “what if we were asking a number of composers to write shorter works that were very specifically responding to 2020?”

The result is a festival that takes full advantage of the temporal and spatial flexibility of the virtual, while plotting new ways for viewers to experience opera in person. The flagship offering is Modulation, a “digital self-guided exploration” of our current predicament across three themes (Isolation, Identity, Fear) and through the work of 13 composers including Jojo Abot, Sahba Aminikia, Juhi Bansal, Molly Joyce, Paul Pinto, Joel Thompson and Angélica Negrón.

Several other artists in this year’s lineup opted for a similar streaming/on-demand approach. Valgeir Sigurdsson and poet A Rawlings joined forces for the visually arresting Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists. Composers Ben Frost and Petter Ekmann and librettist Daniela Danz teamed with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten for a “cinematic portrait” of their opera The Murder of Halit Yozgat. And director Garin Nugroho and Papuan composer/performer Septina Rosalina Layan created a new song cycle The Planet – A Lament, which combines film, dance and the 14-voice Mazmur Chorale of Kupang to create a mythic exploration of the devastation wrought by a tsunami.

Other offerings this year treat the exile from the stage as a form of liberation, experimenting with ways to bring audiences and music together again in real space. Composers Helga Davis and Shara Nova (aka My Brightest Diamond) teamed with director Mark DeChiazza and artist Annica Cuppetelli to create Ocean Body, a cinematic diptych presented as an installation at Here’s main stage space and available by appointment to individual viewers. And composer Pamela Z joined forces with theatre artist Geoff Sobelle for Times3 (Times x Times x Times), a site-specific soundwalk composed for visitors to Times Square – which, as anyone who watched this year’s ball drop might concur, could use a soundtrack other than Sinatra in 2021.

“If you can subvert the expectations of the form,” said Morrison, “then you’ve created an openness and an open mind within your audience. And then you can actually expand the definition of the form.”

If the notion of “expanding” opera’s audience through phone screens and laptops seems more like a constraint, consider this: An intended LA Opera production of Du Yun and librettist Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone would have reached about 1,100 people over two nights in a sold-out theatre. Once it was moved online, over 22,000 people watched.