Opera Philadelphia Announces First Annual Opera on Film Series

By Francisco Salazar

Opera Philadelphia has announced its first annual opera on film series.

The event will be part of the O 2022 Festival and will show 30 cinematic operas over 12 screenings at the Philadelphia Film Center. Opera on Film will be presented from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 2 and will feature a big-screen binge of the operatic art form’s cinematic possibilities, gathering both feature-length and short-form films featuring an array of artists crossing time and genres.

The company received more than 800 submissions to Opera on Film via FilmFreeway and chose 20 official selections to screen alongside special presentations and films produced by Opera Philadelphia. Series producers Frank Luzi and Sarah Williams worked with a screening panel consisting of film specialist Rob Buscher, Board Chair of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival; Philadelphia-born visual artist and film director Tiona Nekkia McClodden; and Director of Casting & Artistic Administration Michael Eberhard.

Here is the film schedule: 

Opera on Film Schedule

Soldier Songs
Tuesday, Sept. 27, 7:00 p.m.

In Opera Philadelphia’s GRAMMY-nominated 2021 film of David T. Little’s opera, baritone Johnathan McCullough directs and stars as the Soldier. This theatrical premiere of the film the New York Times called “a worthy addition to the far-too-slight catalog of opera presented in cinematic form” will be followed by a talk with the artists.

Shorts: Like, Share, Follow
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 6:00 p.m.

A selection of short film submissions, paired for their viewpoints on contemporary life.

Among the Flowers (2021, directed by Patrick Eakin Young, produced by Royal Opera House, London)
An opera for Instagram. Bereft of social contact, a woman (mezzo-soprano Lucy Goddard) looks to her phone for traces of past joy. (10:14)

Corsair (2020, directed by George Cederquist, produced by Chicago Fringe Opera)
Based on a short story from Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” Corsair is one man’s journey from greed to humility, from isolation to community, starring baritone and hip-hop MC K.F. Jacques. (9:52)

Someone Like Me (2018, written and directed by Adam Taylor, produced by Obadiah Baker)
A Facebook-Post-apocalyptic opera traversing the pressure-filled struggle to balance staying happy with staying well “liked.” (16:30)

The Two Hot Shots (2021, directed by George Moïse, produced by A Lab Studios)
Adapted from Rossini’s Otello, two men (tenor Nathan Granner as Otello and tenor Orson Van Gay as Rodrigo) are seated in a hospital room, waiting to get their vaccine administered. They bicker about their own macho ways, but when it comes time to get the vaccine shot, both, at first, chicken out. (5:43)

A Jarful of Bees (2021, directed by Natalie Frank and Erin Pollock, produced by Paola Prestini)
A multimedia, immersive short film on the transformation of memory and the mutability of familial relationships, created in collaboration with painter Natalie Frank and artist/animator Erin Pollock. With music by Paolo Prestini, text by Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Royce Vavrek, and sung by mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti. (10:02)

Rumspringawakening (2019, written and directed by Adam Taylor, produced by Obadiah Baker)
With the help of a failed Broadway actress (soprano Janet Szepei Todd), a wide-eyed Amish teen (tenor Jon Lee Keenan) sings his way to adulthood on his Rumspringa through New York City. (23:30)

Heroes of New York (2021, directed by Brian Gonzalez and Malena Dayen, produced by Bare Opera
A snapshot of the heroic efforts made by five of the countless unique souls who make New York City’s heart beat: The Doctor (Shannon Delijani), The Oyster Lady (David Charles Tay), The Bodega Owner (Brace Negron), The Sex Worker (Patrice P. Eaton), and The Singer (Meryl Dominguez). Everyone’s story is unique. Everyone’s story is human. Everyone is a hero. (23:53)

Don Giovanni
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 8:00 p.m.

Joseph Losey (1909-1984), director of such diverse films as The Servant (1963), Boom! (1968) and The Go-Between (1971), directed this internationally acclaimed film of Mozart’s masterpiece, hailed by critics as the superior of even Ingmar Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute (1974) in successfully meeting the demands of two art forms. Shot on location near Venice, the film called “sinister and sumptuous” by the New York Times, stars baritone Ruggero Raimondi as opera’s patron saint of toxic masculinity, with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira, soprano Edda Moser as Donna Anna, and soprano Teresa Berganza as Zerlina.

Shorts: The Opera We Made
Thursday, Sept. 29, 6:00 p.m.

An evening of short films commissioned and produced for streaming on the Opera Philadelphia Channel in 2021, making their theatrical debuts in Festival O22.

Save the Boys, Tyshawn Sorey’s world premiere inspired by an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer, and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, performed by countertenor John Holiday and pianist Grant Loehnig.(21:02)

Blessed, composer Courtney Bryan’s multi-layered exploration of darkness and light, hope and love, created as a response to the milestone events of 2020, in collaboration with filmmaker Tiona Nekkia McClodden, soprano Janinah Burnett, vocalist Damian Norfleet, and sound designer Rob Kaplowitz. (22:02)

We Need to Talk; Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw and director Maureen Towey create an environment filled with tension and energy in this short film based on a poem by Anne Carson. Soprano Ariadne Greif stars as a young woman in conversation with herself, reminiscent of our isolated days of quarantine: days of frustration, joy, and grief. (10:44)

TakTakShoo, composer Rene Orth’s fusion of opera and K-pop, marimba, electronics, and dance, that creates an eclectic sound and movement world. With a libretto by playwright Kanika Ambrose, the film stars mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi as an energizing life force inviting people to come into the world anew, and is directed by Emmy Award-nominated director and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page (11:58)

dwb (driving while black) + Soul (Signs): Opera
Thursday, Sept. 29, 9:00 p.m.

Filmmakers Du’Bois and Camry A’Keen’s 2021 adaptation of Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s one-woman opera incorporates elements of dance, music video production, and intimate storytelling. dwb (driving while black) is a montage of poetic and haunting moments examining the trials and triumphs Black mothers experience as their children come of age in a society plagued by racism and inequality. In the central narrative, we meet the Mother (soprano Karen Slack) in her home. The dangerous world outside, however, is out of her control, and anxiety builds in her mind and heart as her “beautiful brown boy” approaches manhood and the realities of modern life as a Black person in America. Produced by UrbanArias.

Soul(Signs): Opera is a series of three 2022 short films exploring the intersection of opera and American Sign Language. In a queer, ASL spin on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Dickie Hearts signs the role of Papageno and Brandon Kazen-Maddox signs the role of Papagena, with a new audio recording by baritone John Taylor Ward and countertenor Jordan Rutter. Brandon Kazen-Maddox signs the role of Emile Griffith in an ASL version of the aria “What Makes a Man?” from Terence Blanchard’s opera Champion: An Opera in Jazz, also featuring Andrew Morrill and Alberto Medero, and a new audio recording by baritone Markel Reed. In an ASL reimagining of “His Name is Jan” from Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves, Monique Holt signs the role of Bess as she confronts a chorus of church elders — signed by Seth Gore, Dickie Hearts, Andrew Morrill, and Zavier Sabio. Featuring a new audio recording by soprano Kiera Duffy and students from the University of Notre Dame. Created by Up Until Now Collective, and commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Omaha, Opera Columbus, and Portland Opera.

The Copper Queen
Friday, Sept. 30,2:00 p.m.

Originally slated to be a stage production, and delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, composer-librettist John de Los Santos’ The Copper Queen was reimagined as Arizona Opera’s first film project, directed by Crystal Manich. Still healing from her grandmother’s death, Addison Moore (mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit) finds herself checking into The Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Arizona. Aware of the ghost stories and hauntings, Addison fearlessly elects to stay in Room 315, the location of the death of heartbroken Julia Lowell (soprano Vanessa Becerra) a century ago. But what draws Addison to Room 315? And why does she want to face Julia’s ghost?

Sibyl + Polia & Blastema
Friday, Sept. 30, 6:00 p.m.

South African artist William Kentridge has achieved a worldwide reputation with his powerful animation films, charcoal drawings, large-scale installations, and opera stage direction and designs. Sybil is a 10-minute film conceived in 2020 as a companion piece to Work in Progress, the only stage work conceived by the U.S. sculptor Alexander Calder for Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in 1968. Inspired by the movement and by the rotation of Calder’s artworks, Kentridge evokes the priestess mentioned by Dante: The Cumean Sibyl, who used to write her prophecies for people’s destinies on oak leaves. The leaves at the mouth of her cave were scattered by the wind, confusing the destinies of those who came to fetch them. In the film, the contemporary Sibyl is portrayed as an African dancer, who dances against book pages to jazz music composed by Kyle Shepherd and vocal compositions by Nhlanhla Mahlangu. Kentridge notes that the contemporary equivalent of the Sibyl is the algorithm, which relentlessly predicts our fate. In contrast the drawings, some made on pages from Dante’s Divine Comedy, show trees, leaves, animated objects, colored geometrical forms, and dancing silhouettes in mutation. They bring new life and humanity to the attempt of discovering our own fate and to the feelings of fear and anxiety that result from it. With thanks to Marian Goodman Gallery New York and William Kentridge for their support of this presentation of Sibyl.

Polia & Blastema (2022) is the first foray into opera for American film director E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire).  This sci-fi opera film is a gnostic creation myth told through a visual tapestry which journeys into immensely desolate hellscapes of the inorganic as organic folding back onto itself in ever spiraling, fractally superimposing cataclysms of wormhole network (be)longing.Aesthetically tempered by aspects of decay, rot, earth, and the meta-myth structure of human cognition, the multi-leveled world of Polia & Blastema is informed by the visual imagination of David Wexler, a celebrated visual artist who has been the mastermind behind the live performances of Flying Lotus, The Weeknd, and The Glitch Mob, among many other artists. It is also informed by Viennese Actionism as much as it is by Eugene Thacker’s notions of “the world without us,” of supernatural horror and dissolution, expressed in the separation and (re)union of two entities who in the end feast on one another in ritualistic ecstasy. Starring Nina McNeely and Jasmine Albuquerque and featuring vocalists Micaela Tobin and Sharon Chohi Kim, Polia & Blastema is a unique cinematic journey into the cosmic.

Carmen: A Hip Hopera
Friday, Sept. 30,8:00 p.m.

In 2001, Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) directed this MTV adaptation of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, quoting from the classic opera’s music and melding it with a new hip-hop score performed by a cast of recording artists including Mos Def, Wyclef Jean, Lil’ Bow Wow, Da Brat, Rah Digga, and Beyoncé Knowles in her acting debut as Carmen.

La voix humaine + The Human Voice

Saturday, Oct. 1, 1:00 p.m.

Two films based on the same Jean Cocteau play come together for a fascinating double feature, as James Darrah’s 2021 La voix humaine starring Patricia Racette is paired with Pedro Almodóvar’s 2020 The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton. Darrah’s adaptation of the Poulenc opera, produced by Opera Philadelphia, tells the story of one woman (Racette) as she grapples with grief, denial, and anger in the face of unrequited love, all shared through a one-sided telephone call. In Almodóvar’s first English-language film, called “the most rewarding 30 minutes you could imagine” by Rolling Stone, a woman (Swinton) watches time passing next to the suitcases of her ex-lover (who is supposed to come pick them up, but never arrives) and a restless dog who doesn’t understand that his master has abandoned him.

Obscura Nox + After/Glow
Saturday, Oct. 1, 6:00 p.m.

In a modern retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a woman (soprano Julia Dawson) is cloistered in a prison of her own making until a mysterious stranger shows her a way out. Featuring Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” (KV 165) and new music by Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi with original Latin text, Obscura Nox is a combination of classical music and narrative film. Director Mary Birnbaum’s 26-minute “création lyrique” explores themes of isolation, the relationship between perception and reality, and society’s morphine-drip addiction to our screens.

The spark of new love, the smoldering of desire, the haze of loss. Life and death are but bodies intertwined in After/Glow, a 2021 film directed by Ryan McKinney. Reimagining a classic European work through contemporary voices, After/Glow boldly embarks upon a cinematic journey through Schumann’s iconic sixteen song cycle “Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love).” Featuring the original work of acclaimed poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the virtuosic performance of countertenor and recent finalist on NBC’s The Voice John Holiday, After/Glow will leave you basking in the raw power of intimate human connection.

Shorts: Opera Boldly Goes…
Sunday, Oct. 2, 12:00 p.m.

A selection of short film submissions that boldly go where no opera has gone before.

Erwartung (2021, directed and produced by George R. Miller)
An adaptation of Arnold Schoenberg’s song “Erwartung” (from vier lider, op. 2:1), Erwartung (Expectation) recontextualizes the salon-like qualities of western lieder performance to a surrealistic bistro — told through the lens of a cabaret singer’s reflection on a fever-dream encounter with a ghostly muse. (4:31)

Three Romances with Nikola Printz (2022, composed and directed by Erling Wold)
After three productions were cancelled in the first pandemic year, mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz and composer Erling Wold decided to produce three short operatic films in three styles – three responses to danger, each with its own approach to voice and visuals. (13:43)

Jabberwocky (2020, composed by Rene Orth and directed by Zachary James)
A music video of Lewis Carroll’s poem from his 1871 novel Through the Looking Glass, scored by composer Rene Orth for singer Zachary James. (7:09)

Ātman (2021, written directed, and produced by Bruno Soares)
A visual poem from Portuguese director Bruno Soares. After a confrontation between the protagonist (Mauro Ramos) and Death, he faces several changes until realizing that evil is always in him. (16:22)

Be a Doll (2019, music, libretto, design, direction, and performance by Alexa Dexa)
A woman struggles with perfectionist and submissive conditioning in a world that commands her to “be a doll.” Living in a dollhouse filled with functioning toy versions of household items, she reluctantly carries out the traditional role of woman as pretty plaything and keeper of the home. (8:29)

Entry (2022, directed by Raviv Ullman, produced by Long Beach Opera)
Driven by a frenzied score and stunning choreography, Entry follows one woman’s journey as she revisits key moments of the last year — in order to find her voice. With music by Alex Simon and a libretto by Bird’s Nest Family, Entry was developed in collaboration with indigenous artists based in Ogaa Po Ogeh — the occupied Tewa territory known as Santa Fe, New Mexico. This art-forward film examines the nature of isolation, activation, transformation, and reintegration. (13:00)

A Thing I Cannot Name (2021, directed by Aoife Spillane-Hicks, produced by Irish National Opera)
Three women (sopranos Kelli Ann Masterson and Rachel Goode and mezzo Aebh Kelly). All different. Connected only by the intensity of their wildly dissimilar desires. Through their letters, their voices join each other across time, in an attempt to give name to their desires. With music by Amanda Feery and a libretto by Megan Nolan. (21:52)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Composer-librettist Gordon Getty’s new opera, reimagined for film in November 2021, is based on the popular 1934 novella by James Hilton. Goodbye, Mr. Chips tells the story of a teacher at Brookfield, an all-boys English boarding school to which “Chips” dedicates most of his adult life. The film chronicles Chips’ story of love, loss and learning over his decades-long tenure at Brookfield. Directed by Brian Staufenbiel, the film stars tenor Nathan Granner as Mr. Chips, soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Kathie, and baritone Lester Lynch as Merrivale.