Opera Profile: Aqua Net and Funyuns

By John Vandevert

Aqua Net & Funyuns” was a 2020 project by New York City-based opera company Experiments in Opera taking the form of a podcast where in each 25-minute episode, three one-act “operas” are performed, each with their own plot and cast of characters.

However, all three are connected by “easter eggs” (hidden elements) that tie each of the operas together, and form a longer narrative. The entire project featured a team of eight (four composers and four librettists) and was the result of another project, a one-month collaborative scheme called the “Writers Room,” where writers of podcast fiction collaboratively conceived of episodic narratives which were then turned into libretti and set to music. In the end, each story featured non-traditional subject matter yet wholly relatable drama. The exploratory company “Experiments in Opera,” founded in 2010 by team Aaron Siegel, Matthew Welch and Jason Cady, is dedicated towards producing and workshopping new operatic works and revolutionizing what the operatic genre looks like in the 21st century.

They emphasize the importance of storytelling in each of their projects, and works with composers to help discover the power of storytelling and compelling plots that emphasize both the experiences of their creators and relevant themes both understandable and relatable by audiences.

The first episode featured three operas, with music composed by three different composers and stories written by Experiments in Opera founder Jason Cady and Cara Ehlenfeldt. “The Understudy” (Kamala Sankaram) is about a detective undercover as an understudy spying on a soprano who can’t sing, “Ships that Pass” (Aaron Siegel),  a queer son finds out his mother writes queer fanfiction and is conflicted, and “Another One Bites” (Jason Cady), a high-schooler finds a portal to another dimension in the school bathroom. The inspiration for the podcast came from action-fiction type podcasts, where stories are read using innovative methods of storytelling, vocal inflections, musical backgrounds, and sound effects to create an immersive, sonic experience for listeners.

Experiments in Opera took this type of format, and created an “operatic” experience exploiting the suspense that cliff-hangers have in maintaining plot development and the form of the podcast itself. Each opera is presented, but not in its entirety, and to understand the full narrative a listener has to listen to multiple episodes to understand each plot. The cast of performers for the project featured eight classically-trained opera singers ranging from a soprano to bass-baritone, and an instrumental ensemble of five consisting of everything from a viola to a bass guitar. Leading the musical operation was director Dmitry Glivinskiy, a Ukrainian-born vocal coach and opera conductor currently on faculty at Hofstra University as a vocal coach.

For Daniel Shephard (librettist of “Beauty Shot”, music by Tariq Al-Sabir), the highlight of the experience was getting the chance to write an opera:

I had never written an opera before so learning that process, and the jargon and structural elements was really fun and eye-opening as a writer. Now, when people ask me what I’ve been up to this year, I can say ‘Oh nothing, just wrote an opera.’”

Listen to Episode 1:


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