San Francisco Chronicle
By Joshua Kosman
May 26, 2017
Even without scouring the record books too thoroughly, it seems safe to assert that soprano Deborah Voigt has never before appeared in an opera with a cow.
She hasn’t done it now either, at least not exactly — the two performers don’t sing to each other, or even appear in the same scene. But Voigt and her nameless bovine colleague are indeed among the hundreds of performers to make an appearance in “Vireo,” an innovative new opera from composer Lisa Bielawa, a Bay Area native, that is set to make its public premiere in the coming weeks.
How do you get a cow onto the stage of an opera house? You don’t have to. That’s because “Vireo,” a moody, haunting and wonderfully varied meditation on the perceptions of witchcraft and female power through the ages, has been created expressly for the small screen.
And now, after more than two years of strenuous but intermittent labor, the piece is ready to be seen in its entirety. KCET, the Southern California public television station that helped produce it, will air “Vireo” on June 13, and a local broadcast on KQED is set for late July. But even before that, on Wednesday, May 31, the opera will be available for live streaming.
“Vireo,” which boasts a tricky, insinuating libretto by playwright Erik Ehn and dreamlike direction by Charles Otte, isn’t the first opera to be written for television. This is a media combination that goes back as far as 1951, to Gian Carlo Menotti’s once-popular Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
But “Vireo” (or to give it its full, ungainly title, “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser”) may well be the first opera to adopt the episodic structure of network TV. Unlike “Amahl” or Benjamin Britten’s 1970 television opera, “Owen Wingrave” — both of which adhere to the traditional formal shapes of the stage — “Vireo” is conceived in 12 loosely connected episodes that can be taken in separately or together.
“Writing this was like making 12 slices of chocolate mousse torte instead of a balanced meal,” Bielawa says. “I knew that each episode was going to be a whole universe and that I could go all the way with each one.”
The dramatic structure was tailor-made for an episodic approach. Ehn’s libretto, which was based on historical research that Bielawa did decades ago as a Yale undergraduate, focuses on the title character, a teenage girl given to mysterious visions that put her in the crosshairs of witch hunters, doctors and psychiatrists.
Vireo herself, in a quietly masterful performance by teenage soprano Rowen Sabala, is a presence throughout. But otherwise the episodes range widely through time and space, darting from medieval Europe to 17th century Salem and into the present day.
That variety extends to the settings as well, which were shot in locations as disparate as the Yost Theater in Santa Ana, an outdoor setting in New York’s Hudson River Valley, and Alcatraz. The instrumental performing forces also change from one episode to the next.
The episodic nature of the material, Ehn says, was “in the libretto from the beginning, but in powdered form, like a box of Bisquick.” The piece was originally planned some 20 years ago as a traditional stage opera, but it was too big and unwieldy to have any hope of a production.
So the musical sketches languished in a drawer until 2011, when Bielawa had a residency at Grand Central Art Center, a sort of cultural incubator associated with Cal State Fullerton.
“She came here without a project in mind, and I wanted to help her do something that was specific to Southern California,” recalls John Spiak, the center’s director and chief curator. “We were touring different areas of Orange County looking for inspiration, but nothing felt right.
“But there was a certain amount of down time in the evening, and Lisa — who’s not really a TV person — started watching TV in the evening. We turned her on to ‘Arrested Development,’ and that’s when the whole project began to click.”
If Vireo’s travails have anything in common with those of the Bluth family (cue Ron Howard voice-over: They don’t), it is in the anything-goes esthetic at work, and the fluid, handheld camerawork with which Otte places the viewer right in the center of the dramatic action.
“I feel that this new technology is a great way to distribute things to thousands of people who could never be in one city at the same time for a live performance,” Otte says. “But the downside is that the performance isn’t live.
“That’s why I shot it the way I did, with long takes and keeping the camera moving. What you lose in not having a live performance, you gain by putting the audience in proximity to the singers.”
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the creation process, Bielawa says, was the freedom she had to change the artistic direction of later episodes in response to the outcome of earlier ones.
“I loved that I was writing for real people, and so they could be partners in the growth of the role. For example, Gregory Purnhagen, who sings the doctor — the way he developed that character gave me new ideas. It’s a more symbiotic way of creating a score, because the performance of it influences the creation.”
The range of performers, too, grew out of the opera’s piecemeal formal structure. In addition to the principal singers, “Vireo” features appearances — generally for just one or two episodes each — by the San Francisco Girls Chorus (of which Bielawa is artistic director), the Kronos Quartet, the new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, violinist Jennifer Koh and cellist Joshua Roman.
It was individual episodes, Bielawa says, that made that possible.
“The structure allowed us to work with this musical cast of thousands in a way that was easier rather than harder. I just sent out emails to some of my dream collaborators, saying, ‘When are you in one of these three cities?,’ and then we worked around their schedules. So I got to maximize my collaboration with everyone.”
Creating the piece in stages also meant being able to shape it around unforeseen eventualities or opportunities. When Maria Lazarova, the excellent mezzo-soprano who plays Vireo’s mother, was unavailable for one shoot, her character was simply written out of the episode. When Voigt caught wind of the project during a joint appearance with the Girls Chorus and expressed interest, a role for her as the Queen of Sweden was swiftly written into an expansive late episode, filmed in Oakland’s abandoned 16th Street train station.
And that cow? She — along with the marching band that troops past her in the field where she’s contentedly grazing in Episode 5 — was a burst of pure Dadaist inspiration. Bielawa wanted those figures and sonorities in the scene, and as the production moved along, she felt empowered to insist on them.
They help contribute to the distinctive mood of “Vireo,” which partakes of both television and traditional opera in unpredictable ways.
“The piece feels operatic,” librettist Ehn says, “but Mad-King-Ludwig-of-Bavaria operatic. Even as it puts its arms into the sleeves of a pop culture form, its personality is very quirky.”
Vireo: On-demand streaming begins Wednesday, May 31, at www.kcet.org/vireo, www.linktv.org/vireo and on Apple TV and Roku.
To see an excerpt: http://tinyurl.com/lv85kcu
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