HERE Arts Center 2020 Review: All Decisions Will Be Made by Consensus: A Zoom Opera
Opera History Is Made in 15 Minutes – Don’t Miss ItBy Chris Ruel
With the world in the grip of a pandemic that has shuttered opera houses around the globe, composers, librettists, directors, and singers are exploring new ways to connect with audiences and explore technology.
With disruption comes innovation, and the spirit of invention took hold of composer Kamala Sankaram, librettist Rob Handel, and HERE Arts Center artistic director Kristin Marting, inspiring the trio to create the world’s first Zoom-based opera.
People from around the globe tuned into HERE Arts Center’s world premiere of “All Decisions Will Be Made by Consensus” on Friday, April 24, 2020. The show marked the first opera presented on Zoom, an online platform traditionally used for corporate video conferencing and webinars, but now adopted by the masses to keep in touch with loved ones, friends, and visits virtual night clubs to subdue cabin fever.
“All Decisions Will Be Made by Consensus” sets the virtual stage for what may parlay into a medium for a variety of artistic endeavors. The opera has two more performances scheduled, one on Saturday, April 25th, at 7:00 P.M. ET, and a final show on Sunday, April 26th, at 3 P.M. ET. The run time is 15 minutes.
The Right Team for Chaos
The creative team behind the genesis of the work are luminaries in their respective fields.
Sankaram has received commissions from major houses such as Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera. “Thumbprint,” her second opera, premiered in the 2014 Prototype Festival, going on to receive productions at LA Opera and Opera Ithaca. Currently, she is working with Opera on Tap and librettist Jerre Dye on “The Parksville Murders,” the first opera for virtual reality. It seems natural for a composer already at work on a virtual reality opera to take a shot at a fully online opera.
Librettist Rob Handel’s opera work includes Opera on Tap at Barbès, North American New Opera Workshop, Ithaca College Opera Workshop, and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.
Director Kristin Marting is a prolific director, constructing 29 stage works, including nine reimaginings of novels and short stories and five classic plays over the course of her 25-year career.
The singer-actors performing in “All Decisions” were hand-picked by the creative team. Bass Paul An is an ensemble singer at the Met; mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn has appeared at New York City Opera and featured in the revival and tour of Phillip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach.”
Bass-baritone Zachary James is a vocal powerhouse regaled for his stunning performance this past fall in Glass’s “Akhnaten” at the Met.
Joan LaBarbara, prized for her experimental vocal talents brings her unique gift of sound to this groundbreaking experiment.
A second bass-baritone, Adrian Rosas, an “artrepreneur,” teacher, and champion of new music was invited to participate–sans pants. Sankaram herself lends her voice to round out the cast.
Television and screen actor, Joel Marsh Garland, known for his roles in “The Bounty Hunter,” “The Lady in the Water,” and “Orange Is the New Black,” makes a highly amusing cameo appearance.
“All Decisions'” story is rather meta: a group of radical activists meets on Zoom to discuss whether or not to strike. Within the group, each of the members has wildly conflicting styles.
“All Decisions” is a Zoom opera about the use of Zoom. The premise is clever, for sure. If you’ve had the virtual meeting experience, you know it can be cacophonous at times with people speaking over one another, saying “Sorry, go ahead…” “No, you go…” as participants work to get a word in edgewise. Much like being dropped into a Zoom meeting you know nothing about, if you come to this opera experiment cold, you will have little to no idea what is going on, cue Joel Marsh Garland’s cameo.
While that sounds like a bad thing—watching something that makes little sense—well, welcome to much of life these days. Snaps to the creative team on being purposeful in their pursuit of absurdism. They had fun while making a solid point about trying our hardest to stay connected while simultaneously disconnected, not just from other people, but from everything we’ve ever known.
By nature, the narrative is near impossible to follow. As an audience member, one can grasp snippets of text, but any attempts to remain focused on a particular character is futile; there is just too much noise and too much going on as singer’s cameras flicker on and off, simulating entrances and exits.
During the brief Q & A session following the performance, Sankaram and Marting acknowledged that jumping down the rabbit hole two or three times is worthwhile. You can’t catch everything the first time around, and let’s be real, we have at least 15 minutes to spare over the next two days to suck the marrow from the experience.
As many of us are now aware, glitches during virtual meetups are inevitable. The creative team built unpredictability into the performance, understanding Zoom would lag, freeze, or might cut out at any moment.
When a glitch occurs, it provokes the audience to wonder if it was intentional or not. Unpredictability is typical in live performances even when all involved attempt to limit and mitigate the unforeseen, but with “All Decisions” uncertainty reigns. Art imitates life. However, in this case, the chaos is, for the most part, planned.
Since “All Decisions” is an aleatoric ensemble piece, it’s just not possible to go through a rundown of an individual’s bright moments. The essence of the opera is confusion, and without its all-star new music lineup, I doubt the piece could have been pulled off at all. It takes a high level of artistry to remain focused, to go with the flow, and not get lost.
Each singer is in control of their part, meaning what Zachary James is doing at a particular moment isn’t necessarily in sync with what Paul An is doing, yet they are playing off one another. James stated rightly during the Q & A that “All Decisions” is akin to improv theater—the performers know their parts and they know their destination, but how they get there is mostly up to them and their colleagues.
Musically, Sankaram programmed 40 “scenes” into her Ableton device. (Scenes being the word Ableton uses for tracks.) In addition to having a singing role, Sankaram cued the music. Constrained by the technology, she could not create anything too rhythmic as it would quickly get out of sync, so she crafted a score incorporating a lot of bell-like ringing which was a nod to the work of Vangelis, referencing the composer’s “Blade Runner” film score as somewhat of a model.
The bottom line with an experimental opera like “All Decisions,” is this: We need artists to take risks, to push boundaries, and explore technologies now more than ever as the live opera theater experience has been placed on hold.
Was “All Decisions”—the first-ever Zoom opera—good? There’s no baseline with which to make a judgment.
Is it bold? Absolutely.
Is it relevant? Completely.
Is it worth 15 minutes of your time? Yes.
“All Decisions” is opera history in the making. It is opera in the time of pandemic. It is an opera that epitomizes uncertainty in a time of uncertainty. But most importantly, it is opera using technology to bring people together from around the world. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? None of us could have expected we’d be sitting at home for weeks on end, out of close contact with our friends, family, and the things we love, so bravi! to all who made the experiment and communal experience possible.
HERE Arts Center is recording all three performances, so if you don’t have the opportunity to jump into the Zoom room this weekend, you can catch the show on-demand, making comparisons between the shows a fun 45 minutes.
One word of caution: stream the performance on an iPad, laptop, or desktop machine, using full screen. Those who watched via cell phone commented that they could only see one singer at a time, thus ruining the Zoom effect.
And, lastly, there’s a virtual tip jar if you’re streaming the performance over Facebook. Be sure to tip the performers before closing out your browser.