Eerie strings. Witches and a young protagonist constantly facing exclusion and a deep sense of fear. Throughout its two-plus hours, “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser” plays on themes of oppression, fear, and marginalization with a score will haunt you long after.
But audiences for this new opera by Lisa Bielawa won’t encounter these eternal themes in the traditional setting of an opera house or in a set structure like a two-hour night at the theater. In fact, “Vireo” is very much the first of its kind – a 12-part episodic TV-opera that airs this month.
It all started as far away as 25 years ago and as recently five years ago. Bielawa told OperaWire that her interest in the subject matter first developed during her studies at Yale as an undergrad
“I discovered the Surrealists’ fascination with hysteria and that led to an inquiry into groups of men, such as Surrealists, neurologists, priests, statesmen, etc., who had published or gone on public record as experts in whatever discourses gave them the authority to define young girls’ visionary experiences and behaviors,” the composer revealed. “I was overwhelmed by the amount of documentary evidence I found of this sort of system: young girl’s ‘vision,’ followed by a team of experts analyzing her, [followed by] new theories about what to do to ‘cure’ her. It seemed, after I finished the paper, to be a more emotionally robust topic, and so when I met [librettist] Erik Ehn and fell in love with his writing, I realized I was in the presence of someone who could give these girls’ stories operatic dimensions, and really serve the emotional underpinnings of their experiences.”
But it wouldn’t be until a visit to the Grand Central Art Center in 2012 that “Vireo” really got its legs. John Spiak, Director / Chief Curator of the Grand Central Art Center, invited Bielawa to be an artist-in-residence.
The composer accepted the offer but had no major project in mind.
“We invited artists to be here without an initial proposal, as we like to directly support the development of a new project inspired by time at GCAC and the conversations and discoveries that might unfold,” noted Spiak.
Bielawa spent time checking out the work being done in SoCal and the episodic streaming media that was starting to take over the entertainment industry.
“It didn’t take much for me to put two and two together: ‘Vireo’ as an episodic opera series, with ‘cameos’ of musical artists from all over the new music field. It was a way to build a huge community around a project that could celebrate the specific strengths and interests of this region of the country, and several of its institutions,” Bielawa noted.
The First Hurdle
The project was born, but it needed support and financing, which would prove a major difficulty in bringing the project to fruition.
It became all the more challenging given the proposal the team was putting forth: an opera on film that would be streamed episodically online.
“From the beginning, explaining the approach and new model we were hoping to take was often difficult for individuals to grasp and envision. Until such a vision is realized, it is often difficult for others to see its potential,” Spiak noted.
It started with opera lovers who couldn’t quite grasp how this project would express their beloved art form. And grants from arts institutions were challenging to obtain.
“TV shows with music do not usually have these kinds of production specs, and new music performance projects do not usually have these kinds of needs, timelines, and processes,” added Bielawa. “We weren’t able to fit into the boxes and were therefore ineligible for many kinds of grants.”
But eventually, it all came together thanks to the support of Juan Devis at KCET, “who took our meeting and was in full after our first pitch,” added Spiak.
Directing the Picture
With financing secured, the team moved on to actually realizing the project. The team brought on director Charles Otte, whose resume includes an assistant director in the 1992 production of Phillip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach.” He had known Bielawa for years prior to joining “Vireo,” and their relationship helped bring the project together.
When watching the episodic opera, one of the artistic choices that jump out at the viewer is this balancing of the stage world with a sense of realism. Instead of quick cuts, Otte opts for a slower approach, a roaming camera that follows the main characters, only cutting when jumping between time periods or for major dramatic impact.
“I always wanted to maintain a sense of ‘performance’ during the film, often breaking the fourth wall with direct address to the audience in order to engage them in the performance and create an intimate first-hand relationship with them,” Otte told OperaWire. “The strength of film in this instance can be found in its ability to bring us in contact with the eyes of the performer and allowing us a more personal glimpse into their emotions and thoughts.”
That also meant including the musicians throughout the frame, making them observers and “helping the audience find another point of view.”
A 16-year-old Lead
While technical considerations are engaging and fascinating for a work such as this one, characters are what ultimately reel people in, and the “Vireo” team gave themselves an added challenge in putting this opera together.
For the lead role, they chose to cast a young teenager whose singing experience was likely minimal and who needed to be a consummate actress capable of carrying two-plus hours of opera.
It took a lengthy audition to find the one.
The first set of auditions featured 20-30 girls, and then five were brought back for a final round that required them to perform from the first episode of the opera. When all was said and done back in 2014, Rowen Sabala was cast at the age of 16.
“The audition process was not as intimidating as one might normally assume; in fact, it was incredibly friendly and intimate,” the star of “Vireo” noted. “The second round of auditions was much more casual. We sang through the excerpt as a group and then worked one-on-one with Lisa [Bielawa], as well as with Charlie [Otte] for acting exercises. It was very nice to have that more intimate setting in which we got to work with the Vireo creators directly and really understand what it was exactly that we were auditioning for in the first place.”
The composer and director heard each singer and knew Sabala was the choice for very different reasons.
“I wish I could say that Lisa and I knew right away, but really I think that we were incredibly lucky,” Otte noted. “I think that biggest thing we were looking for was authenticity and vulnerability. The audience needs to see Vireo’s heartbreak and feel her confusion and longing. Rowen is effortless. When she sings, it’s like she’s talking directly to you, and sharing her most intimate thoughts and feelings.”
“Rowen’s clear and expressive soprano voice, her riveting intensity on camera and her collaborative readiness made her a natural choice,” Bielawa revealed.
Sabala had come to opera after failing to get into the theater conservatory at her school. Instead, she managed to find a spot at the Classical Voice Conservatory, where she began her training. Her voice grew along with her appreciation for opera, which continued to develop during her work on Vireo. But that appreciation came from challenging conditions that required her to constantly grow as an artist and collaborator.
“Every step had a new challenge, but I guess I would say the biggest one overall would have to be either adapting the new singing environments or working through an entire shoot day and going nonstop. Because each episode was filmed in a new place, whether it was inside or outside, you couldn’t predict how the music would sound in said place,” Sabala explained. “Hearing the violin played in a small 6 x 8 room only 3 feet away was very different from hearing it played 50 feet away outside in an open area. It took a lot of listening and manipulating in order to get the different voices and instruments to work together the right way, and more so when they weren’t the same instruments episode-to-episode.”
Otte had his own feelings of trepidation about demanding that a young artist performs consistently at a high level given the toll that comes with being on a movie set. But he was surprised by Sabala’s ability to constantly bounce back.
“The camera can be unforgiving. I was holding my breath to see how she handled it,” he said. “And she was brilliant. Lisa and I came together after the first take to compare notes and grinned at each other, knowing that we’d be able to carry this through to completion.”
A Diva Makes an Appearance
One of the perks that Sabala got from being the lead in the opera was the chance to work with one of the great stars of the 21st century, Deborah Voigt. At the tail end of the series, the soprano, known for her international work in the repertoire of Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, and Puccini, among others, makes a brief scene-stealing cameo.
“It was intriguing to watch a professional opera singer, first-hand, doing what it is they do best and are known well for,” Sabala enthused. “I was able to witness the very intense energy that went into performing a seemingly minor role and turn it into something much bigger than itself. To see a highly respected performer handle this project the way that Ms. Voigt did was truly amazing, and I will never forget the experience.”
Having Voigt on the team also forced Bielawa to attempt something she wasn’t used to.
“I haven’t written much for more dramatic-lyric sized voices before and I really enjoyed that new challenge,” the composer noted. “Orchestrating and phrasing for a voice with such gravitas and sonic architecture took careful consideration, lots of study. In the end, it was very much like learning to write for any new instrument, and I was extremely gratified to learn later that she felt I really hit the nail on the head with her aria.”
For the team, “Vireo” ultimately represents a new possibility not only for technology but for the art form of opera.
“The episodic format also provides for an approach and/or entry point to opera that may be more attractive, accessible and perhaps familiar to a young audience, those who have grown up with the streaming rather that broadcast format,” noted Spiak. “As the director of a non-profits arts organization, I know the importance of developing future audiences and supporters, as we have seen too many organizations place heavy emphasis on a support base that then ages out, leaving the institution with dwindling audiences and little financial support.”
“I love live opera and live theater. But I also love film and television,” concluded Otte. “[They are] really all mediated forms, and I think that there is room for both. There are potential productions that could use both elements together and create a strong synthesis of live and recorded. Sound technology has come very far, and the reproduction of the voice has exceptional fidelity.
“Perhaps even more important to me is the question of access to a larger audience. The audio recording of opera allows an audience to listen at home, and the filming of opera will now allow an audience to listen and see. I’m not even addressing audience development as much as I am saying that this allows greater access for more people who otherwise might never see something like this.”