Operatic Mutations – How Opera Evolved During the COVID-19 Shutdown

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė

“We have to take care of the opera’s legacy, but at the same time create what has not yet been yet created,” says composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. “If we don’t take the risk, it will dry out and lose its relevance.”

Last year, the opera found itself on the threshold of another change: people were no longer allowed to perform and listen to opera in the traditional format. With the closure of opera houses, there was nothing left but a risk to take.

It all started with a wave of old opera recordings being publicized and broadcast online. Later, ingenuity brought together in the soil of limitation, boredom, and modern technology redefined the opera genre, equating it to feature film, musical, animation, puppetry, theater, performance, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Today, the unexpectedly renewed genre of opera offers innovative experiences, inviting us to delve deeper into the sea changes we are all experiencing.

Opera as Artificial Intelligence: “Laila”

The 2020 work “Laila” by composer Esa-Pekka Salonen for the Finnish National Opera has broken all the traditional roles of opera. The multidisciplinary team worked with Ekho, Varjo, and Zoan, companies of modern technology, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, allowing opera music and visual effects to change and evolve interactively with the audience. In this way, the audience became one of the opera’s main stars. “Laila” offers everyone a unique artistic experience, depending on how the person moves in the space, what they say and how they interact with other visitors. It is as if a separate musical universe were challenging modern man to face the fears, hopes, and expectations of technology and the unknown.

The Finnish National Opera and Ballet Theater’s “Laila” has been created in collaboration with the virtual reality studio Zoan. Their innovative Opera Beyond project is designed to pre-visualize future opera productions before the stage is physically erected. In this way, it is possible to anticipate and solve the problems of virtual models, avoiding further technical problems in the construction of the opera and saving a lot of time, money and energy. It also facilitates direct cooperation between international teams, especially in quarantine conditions. Colleagues from different parts of the world can ‘walk’ through an engaging and realistic three-dimensional scene environment in their shared virtual creative vision. This allows them to boldly explore the limits of the opera art form and reach a new audience with their work.

Opera as Virtual Reality: “Magic Butterfly”

There were no less than four “first-in-the-world” virtual reality operas in 2020, created in Germany, Australia and the UK. The Bayerische Staatsoper in Germany and the Melbourne Opera House in Australia use virtual reality to create a short-lived experience of a traditional opera performance in the hall and give their listeners a ‘live’ meeting with the soloists of the recital opera.

The National Opera of Wales combines two beloved operas into one through virtual reality. Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” has become “Magic Butterfly.” This free project received 1,850 visitors in its first 16 days.

The Royal Opera House in London has announced its new virtual reality experience, “Current, Rising”, which will debut in 2021. Linking traditional scenography to virtual reality sensory scenes, they describe the project as an experience of ‘hyperreal’ opera. It is a space where music, the visual world, and physical experience are directly connected. “Current, Rising” turns the creative process upside down and creates a new relationship between the creators, the viewers and the work.

Opera as animation: “La petite bohème”

Animation in opera is nothing new, but lately this tool has become more popular than ever by introducing new  formats centered around remote operatic experiences. Opera Northis a UK opera company based in Leeds. In an effort to combine the latest forms of media with innovative works, they released a live webcast of the animated opera “La petite bohème” last year. With stage decorations and characters created from black paper by film artist Matthew Robins, the 20-minute staging of Puccini’s Third Act in “La bohème” offers a warm, subtle, and at the same time humorous and emotional, look at the heartbreaking classic finale of the famous opera. This animation was projected onto the walls of buildings throughout England’s North and is also available online.

Three opera-shots from the Irish project “20 Shots of Opera”, discussed later here, were also animated. The short operas “The Color Green” and “Verballing” create a mesmerizing effect of repetitive musical phrases and explore the differences between truth and lies. Mariela Pabón’s “Otro Cosa” animation charmingly depicts the sweetly melancholic everyday life of Puerto Rican residents, illustrated by a paperback of Latin music hits.

Puppet animation has also become a much more common tool found on the pandemic-impacted opera scene. The puppets now depict not only the background decorations, but also the scenes themselves and even perform as side characters. TheOpera in Focus” troupe, staged by William B. Fosser, perform some of the most famous operatic arias with some of the most refined puppetry in the world.

The puppeteer Basel Twist, in addition to the puppets appearing on the stage in French comic operas, has distinguished himself in 2019 with another joint project of classical music and animation: a visualization of H. Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” It is music for the eyes, performed in a swimming pool with colorful scarves, feathers, and snorkels. The creator himself called it a ‘performance in an abstract form’. The escapism weaves simple but magical images that carry the listener along to the rhythm of the waves of “Symphonie Fantastique.”

Opera as a feature film: “Soldier Songs”

Before the pandemic, without broadcasts on television and in cinema, opera houses rarely explored new visual fields. Last year, Philadelphia Opera offered the premiere of “Soldier Songs” on its online platform, Opera Philadelphia Channel. It is an opera-film that combines elements of theater, rock music and animation. The screenplay for composer David T. Little’s 2006 monodrama is based on recorded conversations between Second World War, Vietnam, and Afghan war veterans. The painful truths of war–its effects, traumas and propaganda–are embodied in the figure of a lone soldier. He lives in a heavily influenced environment: an abandoned and isolated van in the middle of an historic battlefield in Chester County, Pennsylvania. A significant battle of the Revolutionary War took place here in 1777, and today the story of the life of one soldier is told upon the remains of soldiers who once fell and are now forgotten there.

Baritone Johnathan McCullough, who performs this role, was also the main initiator of this project and the director of the film. His performance gives the impression of an immediate empathy for the different stages of human life. As a child, a soldier plays violent computer games. He painfully remembers his eighteenth birthday when he was drafted into the army. Later, traumatic war memories provoke unpredictable and heart-wrenching behavior in the soldier, now a man. The music is like a live portal intimately connecting the listener with the chaotic and sensitive inner world of the character. Meanwhile, the visuals of the film allow us to identify with the rituals of a soldier’s everyday life. In this opera, the idea of ​​war is contrasted with the complex and painful reality of it as depicted by the conversations of veterans.

Opera as a Musical: “You Know Nothing Of My Work”

Opera does not necessarily have to be a military drama in order to appear in film. Guy Oliver, the British artist, presents a pop-opera musical that mocks the moral dilemmas of the artist and his creations. “You Know Nothing Of My Work,” replies philosopher Marshall McLuhan to Woody Allen’s interlocutor in his famous film “Annie Hall.” Many people are familiar with the work of artists such as Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and organizations such as Miramax; entities now recognised as having indulged in criminal behaviour.

The main question raised by the opera is whether the contribution of these figures to the cultural pantheon should be forgotten together with the people themselves. Does creation remain ‘good’ even if it is created by a ‘bad’ person? In each part of the performance we see a piece of Guy Oliver’s autobiographical reasoning about his life and contemporary society, as he considers the relationship between and artist and their work. The film also focuses on the exploitation of women and children and the notion of ‘topical morality’.

Guy Oliver sings about everything, jumping from song to song. The music and vocals in this opera will not captivate. The artist himself admits that he cannot sing. On the other hand, since opera is often criticized for its unrealistic vocal expression, its unobtrusive vocalization could be a realistic sound of everyday life. Although the opera “You Know Nothing Of My Work” is entertainment, the questions it raises provide in-depth insights into the moral dilemmas of modern society. Ultimately it makes you both think and smile at the same time.

Opera as a trance: “L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S.”

A new 2020 opera project by Nick Cave and Belgian composer Nicholas Lens, “L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S.” consists of twelve simple but exciting scripts interwoven with the music of a ‘modest chamber dream opera’. Although described by the creators as a ‘quarantine opera’, this work is more reminiscent of a conceptual album of trance music.

Inspired by the peaceful serenity of Japan’s Rinzai Zen temples, simple melodies are created, beginning with a Japanese gong, evoking silence and giving a sense of frozen time. Nick Cave’s verses are a dozen spiritual musings upon life, death, love and suffering. In “L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S. ” these follow the birth, flowering, death, and rebirth of mankind. The vocals of the soloist–the composer’s daughter Claros-Lane Lens–add a sense of tension and drama to everything.

Opera as a music video: “20 Shots of Opera”

Classical opera can often appear simply too long. The Irish National Opera and its ambitious artistic director Fergus Sheil has solved this problem by addressing a new audience. In 2020, he commissioned 20 composers to provide six-minute audiovisual works capturing the current experience of the pandemic. Each shot in this mini-opera collection cleverly reflects a suddenly shattered reality and each hides a discovery: the shots reveal a variety of moods, states of mind and thoughts.

Opera as a performance: “7 Deaths of Maria Callas”

“I don’t think the performance should adapt to the virus,” the famous Marina Abramovich concluded when talking about her new piece on the stage of the Bayerische Staatsopera. “It’s the virus that has to adapt to the show.” The pioneer of the performing arts, who came to deconstruct the opera genre, had been greeted by a pandemic. Despite everything, Abramovich’s first opera, “7 Deaths of Maria Callas”, premiered in Germany in the autumn of 2020.

The stage was shared throughout the performance by seven soloists, each embodying different female stereotypes and different depictions of death, each singing the seven culminating death arias from famous operas. Marina Abramovich appears on the screen at all times, visualizing every death. She, like most opera listeners, had noticed that in classical opera scenes women always died out of love, but they did so in a variety of ways: Tosca jumped off a high castle terrace, Norma burned, Chio Chio San committed seppuku, Violeta died of tuberculosis, Desdemona was killed by Otello, Carmen by José, and Lucia di Lammermoor died simply from a broken heart and a twisted mind.

Primadona Maria Callas survived all these seven deaths when performing on stage, nor could she be killed in life by her love for Aristotle Onassis. Callas met her true death in 1977 after suffering a heart attack in her apartment in Paris. Her heart had survived Onassis’ infidelity and affair with Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he married in 1968. In the opera, Onassis was played by American actor Willem Dafoe, and Callas was portrayed by Marina Abramovich herself. The opera concludes with the scene in the Parisian apartment. Marina summed up her performance thusly; “I wanted to show the strength and perseverance of women in the opera. Heartache doesn’t always end tragically. I believe in hope.”

Pandemic Opera: “Covid fan Tutte”

The confusing and complex experience of a pandemic does not fit into one genre: some have been living in tragedy, others in an absurd comedy or monodrama. All these experiences, worthy of the grand opera scene, became artistic inspiration in the hands of the creators of modern opera. While loneliness and meaninglessness are often here, some productions speak directly of the virus and the situation of 2020 and 2021.

The organizers of the jubilee Salzburg Festival organised a radically shortened, single-act version, of Mozart’s cult opera “Cosi fan Tutte.” This was also one of the only operas staged in America, at the Pittsburgh Opera House in Pennsylvania, during the pandemic. It is not difficult to find out why the 2020 performance of “Così fan Tutte” became such a phenomenon: its staging is one of the smallest and most minimal in the history of opera. There were no choirs, mass scenes or dancers. We saw six soloists on stage and a small orchestra in the pit. Minimal decorations and stenographic solutions were enough to complete the plot. Everything is bracketed by the ingenious music of ​​Mozart, the structure of which is flexible for shortening and modifications. The creators of this piece emphasized that in the days of the inventive Mozart performers did not shy away from modifying operas, swapping Arias and skipping acts. With the blessing of Mozart himself, this opera was enjoyed by all.

The Finnish National Opera tells the story of Mozart’s “Così” too, radically updating it to reflect the events of 2020 and renaming it “Covid fan Tutte.” The listener is transported to the here-and-now and beholds a regular day in the lives of the Finnish National Opera. Opera singers are meeting at work to prepare for a new production of  Wagner’s “Valkyrie.” Unexpectedly, it turns out that the performance is being canceled. One manager who has kept her job is trying to control the chaotic situation by preparing the distressed musicians for the new opera “Così fan Tutte.” Of course, things do not go according to plan and everyone on stage begins to be haunted by a mysterious dancer: the personification of coronavirus itself. The production and plot of the opera seem quite straightforward and predictable, somewhat reminiscent of the primitive humorous performances of a school production. However, some details of today’s awful situation were captured aptly and made one smile. Making us laugh was, I believe, the main goal of the opera.

The Pittsburgh Opera House in Pennsylvania, after the success of “Così Fan Tutte” at the Salzburg Festival, also decided to stage this Finnish opera. They succeeded in this performance as well, which is why a new product of theirs is now available to listeners today: a 25-minute documentary called “Covid fan tutte,” which reveals all the behind-the-scenes stories and dramas of performing opera in a pandemic. Opera director Chris Cox admitted that he wanted to immortalize the process in history, as well as to present the film as an example that other art organizations which are trying to create opera in such conditions could follow.

Opera for non-singers: “Dilgėlių laukas (Nettle Field)”

A prominent Lithuanian artist, the composer Lina Lapelytė, is planning another unheard of mutation of the ‘opera virus’ in Sweden. Her new project, under the working title “Dilgėlių laukas”, is aimed at people who do not sing. Although the rules of academic music still dominate the world, Lapelytė enjoys people who are excluded from the system. In the selections, she is not looking for a boring standard in the singers; she is waiting for people to come as they are. Trying not to overshadow the musical differences, she tries to change the composing methods in such a way that the singing of a person without a musical ear does not sound like a mistake, so that an opera can unfold through content rather than rules, presentation, technique, or acting. The composer has shared her thoughts on this avant-garde approach to composition: “Lack of intonation threatens the overall sound like a nettle in the garden. But knowing that nettles are valuable, maybe it’s not worth it to destroy it? After all, singing is not just a beautiful sound. It is also a process with healing properties.” Since the most interesting thing for human listeners is the human itself, with all its human errors and imperfections, Lapelytė rejects the importance of modern technologies and artificial intelligence for creation during these times.

Opera as a tour: “Glaistas (Putty)”

Another Lithuanian producer inseparable from contemporary opera has a similar opinion. Ana Ablamonova is founder and director of “Operomania.” “We don’t want to waste our creative energy on various broadcasts that aren’t the core of our organization. These projects take a lot of time and energy: programming, filming, editing, uploading and advertising. The question remains open: when conventional products will take their place again in the future, will companies nurture digital catalogs produced during the pandemic?”

This summer Operomanija, together with a creative team including director Mantas Jančiauskas, playwright Rimantas Ribačiauskas, composers Elena Šedyte and Andrius Šiuris, created an opera on the theme of the Holocaust, which during the creative process transformed into a chamber outdoor work. This is an auditory experience of life in the ghetto of Vilnius. “Glaistas” is a sound journey that goes between between reality and memory, following the story of the former ghetto along to the bitter memories of the Holocaust. Contrast becomes an important artistic tool here. The work is built on a shocking difference between the image of the ‘glazed’ Vilnius of 2020 and the memories of four Holocaust survivors–F. Sohat, J. Zak, S. Voloshin and B. Shubas–coming through headphones. They talk about what is being discussed today and delve into a difficult past which we often try to forget. Beneath a thick layer of plaster lies the memory of this city and we see that plaster crack and become exposed and raw. This strange and influential vacuum of the present and past is what grounds the opera. ‘Reality’ within the opera is organized by ‘tour guides’ who could be called the only living stage performers. In this way, “Glaistas” becomes a symbolic farewell to the last of the Holocaust survivors.

Today we live in a world where in most of our homes we can listen to all manner of recorded music indefinitely for free. An exception is opera. Because the genre of opera depends upon communication and the imagination of the audience, digital opera broadcasts cannot be compared to the experience of a live performance. On the other hand, the practical benefits of the fusion of live performance and virtual reality cannot be overlooked: lower cost of time, money and energy, smoother organization and greater collaboration. This allows the art of opera to reach a wider audience than ever before.

Since the principle of opera to combine music with drama is extremely popular these days, we can rest assured that this genre will outlive us all. This year has proved that the living work of history in opera remains resilient and progressive even under the most adverse of conditions. Pandemic-constrained developers have opened their minds to experimentation with digital and remote creative tools. It is possible that if the potential of this genre is exploited, in 2021 the variety of opera forms will be even more abundant. Today, the opera house has become a space anywhere in the world, brimming with talent, creativity and new technological possibilities. It is a place of excitement, development and cooperation.


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