Heartbeat Opera 2020 Review: ‘Lady M’ Virtual Soirées

A Groundbreaking & Interactive Feast for Opera Lovers

By Chris Ruel

On Thursday, May 14th, Heartbeat Opera presented its seventh of 22 “Lady M,” Virtual Soirées.” The soirées which have, for the time being, supplanted the company’s staged re-imagining of Verdi’s “Macbeth,” having been such a hit that an additional 14 were added after selling out the originally slated 18. The extra meet-ups are scheduled for late-May through early-June.

Be glad more shows have been added because this is one to catch. These highly engaging virtual gatherings stand out in the burgeoning world of virtual opera performance. Heartbeat successfully re-creates the feeling of intimacy and interactivity found in house concerts.

That’s no easy feat and it’s a key reason why I recommend purchasing a ticket while you still can.

Virtual Opera

This is now my fourth viewing of virtual opera, and I’m sure there’ll be many more as long as COVID-19 keeps lurking about; yet, each performance has been — for the most part — unique.

I caught Joyce DiDonato and Piotr Beczała’s at-home performance streamed live on Instagram and Facebook; the Met Opera’s At-Home Gala; HERE Arts Center’s “All Decisions Will Be Made by Committee;” and now one of Heartbeat Opera’s “Lady M” Virtual Soirées. As more virtual opera experiences are produced, the more adept companies will become in generating quality performances.

Opera is thought of as the total art — Gesamtkunstwerk. Current and evolving technologies should be explored as tools to create innovative performance spaces and audience experiences. Virtual concerts, full-on operas, and opera-themed gatherings will bring creatives, singers, and audiences together in exciting ways. Much of what has occurred to date in virtual opera has been improvised using ingenious methods and Heartbeat’s approach to the soirées demonstrates how small opera companies — particularly those who focus on new works — can be nimble, changing their tack faster than larger organizations who have less experience in experimental productions. From concept to execution, the “Lady M” Virtual Soirées came together in just three weeks.

Picture yourself in a large salon with about thirty other guests. You’re about to indulge in an operatic amuse-bouche, something unique that will leave you hungry for the main course.

After you arrive, all are greeted by the company’s Chairman of the Board. The Co-Artistic Directors and a brilliant team of creatives give a brief talk and show a short film about the creative process. After the delightful preliminaries, you’re treated to a performance by two of the opera’s stars, singing arias from their roles.

After a round of applause, small groups break off, moving into side rooms to converse with the artists. Finally, as the evening concludes, a second short film produced for the soirée is screened, this one an opera music video. Such is the “Lady M” Virtual Soirée experience.

There is no fourth wall in Heartbeat’s production: singers, directors, creatives, critics, and audiences mingle in real-time. The Virtual Soirées are as close to attending a concert in a private home as possible. The gatherings are interactive, not static.

The evening started with a welcome by Robert Fitzgerald, Chairman of Heartbeat’s Board of Directors, and then came a round of introductions extending beyond the creative team as the audience was asked to introduce themselves.

As each attendee gave their name and stated from where they were “Zooming,” they also responded to the question: What was the last live performance you attended before the shutdown (The Met’s “Agrippina” was the winner). Fitzgerald led the group in a toast before and after the show, adding a further touch of connectedness. I, like many, have been on plenty of Zoom meetings, and none have felt particularly cozy, but this is no business meeting. You’re among opera lovers, you’re sharing an experience, and you’re connecting.



From 90-Minute Opera to Virtual Soirée in Three Weeks

Originally written as a 90-minute opera, “Lady M”  relates the story of Macbeth — as laid out by Verdi and Piave — in adapted formatted, re-imagining of the work through the eyes of Lady Macbeth. Heartbeat describes the re-imagining as a nightmare-fantasia.

The tale is contemporized by its exploration of ambition, gender, and violence through an American lens. Additions to the original libretto were written by Andrea Maffei. For the time being, the full production of “Lady M” will need to wait. However, instead of simply canceling the show for the foreseeable future, Heartbeat developed and executed on the soirée concept in three weeks.

To get where they needed to be in such a condensed period of time, the company spun up a 10-day Remote Residency program, filling the artists’ days with activities. Assignments such as movement exercises, and a crash course in cinematography, were interwoven with remote rehearsals.

Ethan Heard, Co-Artistic Director, and adapter brought his vision to the soirée project, bringing in seasoned choreographer and educator, Emma Jaster to work with the singers to incorporate the whole body into the performance rather than just the upper torso.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Kathy Wittman taught the basics of cinematography, empowering the artists to contribute to the creation of a music video.

Within home studios, many improvised, orchestral backing tracks were laid down in similar fashion to the Met Orchestra and Chorus’ pre-recorded performances showcased during their virtual gala.

Jacob Ashworth, violinist, and conductor filmed himself pacing the piece. His video was passed then sent around to the five orchestra members and six singers to fill in their parts. Ashworth’s to-do list, included in program notes, outlined the 12-step process he undertook. The list featured everything from positioning his iPad using a stack of books to sending the singers’ recordings to sound designer Senem Pirler to add processed electronics. With nowhere near the budget of the Met, Heartbeat pulled off the remote orchestration admirably, though at times it was difficult to hear the backing tracks. While I would’ve liked to have caught more of the orchestra’s work, the reduced sound allowed the soloists, soprano Felicia Moore, and mezzo-soprano Sishel Claverie’s voices to standout.

Powerful Performances from Home

The featured singers of the evening were Felicia Moore as Lady M, and mezzo-soprano Sishel Claverie as one of the three weird sisters, Both performed splendidly, though only one sang live. Moore’s turn in the limelight, singing Lady Macbeth’s entrance aria, “Vieni! T’affreta!…” demonstrated her ability to bring the gravitas of tone to the power-hungry queen. Her strikingly rich sound, full of dark, dramatic flair was captivating.

Sishel Claverie, whose vocal performance was pre-recorded, appeared live for the theatrical aspect of the role. Claverie infused playfulness to her smoky mezzo as one of the weird sisters, spotlighting her fine acting chops, and infusing delightfully, yet menacing, kookiness befitting the character. Claverie’s showpiece for the evening was “Che faceste? Dite su!”

Claverie’s fellow weird sisters, soprano Jamilyn Manning-White and Taylor-Alexis Dupont, were not featured in the May 14th event, however, they will pair up with other cast members, baritone Quentin Oliver Lee as Macbeth, and bass Tyler Putnam as Banquo at different times throughout the now 22-performance run.

“Maledetta” Music Video

At the close of the evening, Heartbeat screened “Maledetta,” a music video rendition of the famed sleepwalking scene. Putting to use their newly learned cinematography skills, the singers filmed themselves inside and outside their homes, creating a deliciously creepy work.

Kathy Wittman made magic using the impressively shot clips to deliver a cohesive narrative of Lady Macbeth’s madness. Sound engineer Gleb Kanasevich worked with Wittman to complete the video. The team’s efforts paid off. The finished product was polished, powerful, and professional. Empowering singers to become cinematographers opened new avenues of creativity within the team.

Heartbeat knocked down the artistic barriers that can stifle good ideas. It’s interesting to note that the silos were toppled while each team member was literally walled off in their homes. Counterintuitively, it took working remotely to usher in deep collaboration. The “Lady M” Virtual Soirée team’s innovative approach in creating the “Maledetta” music video, and its aesthetic success, is a superb example of interdisciplinary connectedness.

When theaters open up once more, “Lady M” will be presented in full, at least that is Heartbeat’s goal. Until then, they are committed to exploring ways to bring interactive opera experiences into the home.  The appetizer presented at the soirées will entice those who participated to attend the staged performance. Heartbeat is seeding an audience whether intentional or not.

From both an artistic and promotional standpoint, the small company’s experiment is a big success as it places itself at the vanguard of new, virtual opera experiences, forging a path for other companies, big and small. Iterations of virtual performances will multiply, undoubtedly; but, for those who make fledgling attempts such as HERE’s “All Decisions,” and Heartbeat’s “Lady M” Virtual Soirées, will be remembered as groundbreaking.


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