Prompted by the Pandemic, Opera Philadelphia Innovates Online
What can an opera company actually do in a pandemic? Yes, some previously planned performances can be converted to live streams, and broadcasts of past productions can be made freely available – if only to remind the public what is missing.
But where some companies may have just resigned themselves to it, Opera Philadelphia boldly spent 2020 commissioning new work and launching its own streaming service. OperaPhila.tv, which debuted in October and is available as an app for large streaming devices, has so far only offered one vintage show: an appealing production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” from 2015 with the then up-and-coming soprano Lisette Oropesa. Everything else, including a new version of David T. Little’s “Soldier Songs,” premiering Friday, was produced during the pandemic. (Subscriptions for the season ending May 31 are $ 99, although individual titles are available to rent.)
Compared to other American companies, Opera Philadelphia claims the cloak to make new material during the pandemic. (For example, the Metropolitan Opera has an extensive digital library of past performances but is postponing premieres to the next season.) However, what is most notable about OperaPhila.tv is not the mere existence, but the strength of the work on offer. It debuted with a sweeping, pre-written recital under the heading of tenor Lawrence Brownlee, and shortly thereafter added another scorching performance – also with Brownlee – of Tyshawn Sorey’s “Cycles of My Being,” a work the company debuted in 2018.
As a performer, Brownlee clearly enjoys the bel canto repertoire (see his Donizetti in this recital) as well as Sorey’s contemporary language. The producers at Opera Philadelphia have clearly found ways to create videos with a special aesthetic that complement the singer’s spectrum.
David Devan, President of Opera Philadelphia, recalled in a recent interview that when live performances stalled last spring to artists and donors, he said, “I don’t want to work my way through this tape” – a key message that doing this has helped make the company a pacemaker for virtual performance.
When the baritone Johnathan McCullough suggested converting a new chamber-sized production of the “Soldier Songs” originally planned for the stage into a film, Devan quickly gave the go-ahead. “We got a scholarship, we found a partner and we filmed it,” said Devan. “I have no idea what we would do with it or where it would go.”
This version of “Soldier Songs”, which appears online about six months and US $ 350,000 later, is a worthy addition to the much too small opera catalog in cinematic form – productions in which camera work and fidelity are equally important. Record performance.
The original live production would have put the protagonist – a soldier whose story comes from interviews with war veterans Little – in a trailer. McCullough, the star and director of the production, suggested it to the Philadelphia Opera This trailer could tour several cities. In the film version, the trailer becomes a place from which the soldier experiences flashbacks and visions.
This cinematic concept gives “Soldier Songs” a fresh – even revealing – shine. Its imaginary playfulness corresponds to the subtlety of the mixture of post-minimalist and hard rock influences. And the film’s exploration of text is also sharp. Little’s libretto portrays the soldier’s character at different ages: as a child playing with toy guns and soldiers; as a teenager playing video games; as a new recruit in battle; as a seasoned warmaker who deals with loss; and finally as an elder coping with trauma.
With quick cuts and impressive imagery, McCullough’s filmed version enables a smoother, more dizzying tour of the character’s timeline. Instead of advancing in the linear fashion of the libretto, the soldier’s full life is often seen in single shots, regardless of the age at which a particular song is dramatized. When the teen is playing militarized video games, we see him stuffing junk food into his mouth while manipulating a controller. Later, when the soldier listens to music during the fight (“Still life with tank and iPod”), he controls the trailer, which also functions as a tank, with the same controller.
McCullough’s vocals were captured live during filming; He sang along with instrumental pieces recorded by music director Corrado Rovaris with members of the company’s orchestra last fall. (It also uses recorded samples that have lived with the work since its inception.) For this version of the film, McCullough wrote a new screenplay with producer James Darrah, whose experience in film production helped offset McCullough’s newcomer to directing.
In my opinion, this production of “Soldier Songs” is one of the best vintage works of filmed opera. (Some exemplary models are the “Salome” of the Vienna Philharmonic with Teresa Stratas and the “Wozzeck” of the Hamburg State Opera with Toni Blankenheim.) Although it is not as sublime as a film, it also belongs in a conversation with adaptations of operas by film directors such as Powell and Pressburgers “The Tales of Hoffmann” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Magic Flute”.
Opera companies have rarely explored this visual realm outside of television shows. On one level, that’s understandable as they have to sell the uniqueness of a live experience. The success of film directors such as Franco Zeffirelli and Anthony Minghella on the operatic stage also suggests that there is a profitable aesthetic dialogue.
Even before the pandemic, the filmed opera was on Devan’s to-do list and went back to Opera Philadelphia’s O18 festival in 2018. It was around this time that the company began investigating a filmed version of its cabaret performance of Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine”. This is expected to be part of the season next fall.
Devan said the company could take a merger of approaches in resuming live performances. “We want to integrate this cinematic work into our real performance world so that you can vote at Opera Philadelphia,” he said. “You can curate a variety of opera experiences yourself.”
Until then, the company will have more virtual premieres of chamber pieces in stock. Four more “digital jobs”, which are being handled by Sarah Williams, the new operations manager, will appear on OperaPhila.tv in spring. Each film was conceived as a 20-minute film with a singer and a few instrumentalists.
These commissions come from some of the contemporary music heavyweights, including Courtney Bryan, Angélica Negrón, Caroline Shaw, and Sorey (again). For opera fans missing out on the thrill of new productions and premieres, Philadelphia’s humble but steady virtual diet is all Content – more than just a pandemic replacement – promises to be one of the best bets in the world.