Q & A: Khori Dastoor on Opera San Jose’s ‘Three Decembers’ & the World of Opera Streaming

By Francisco Salazar

On Dec. 3, 2020, Opera San José will present an innovative fully staged production of Jake Heggie’s vibrant modern opera, “Three Decembers” via streaming.

The production will include Maya Kherani, Efraín Solís, and Susan Graham and was filmed at Opera San José’s Heiman Digital Studio following all safety regulations.

At the head of the production was General Director Khor Dastoor, who was determined to support artists and continue presenting art during this pandemic. The General Director envisioned a production that utilized technology to continue to present music to a wide audience.

OperaWire spoke with Dastoor about the upcoming production, the filming process, and why “Three Decembers” was the perfect work to kick off this streaming service.

OperaWire: When did you get the idea of doing a filmed production?

Khori Dastoor: We held a virtual Zoom event, to honor my predecessor, Larry Hancock, and we were absolutely shocked when hundreds of our subscribers joined us for that. And seeing that our patrons and donors were fully engaged with us – and becoming not only fully comfortable with but adept at experiencing our programming in new ways it opened the door of possibility for delivering content for them entirely digitally. Many of our patrons communicated to us that they are vulnerable and are more comfortable at home – our decisions are patron led, so a filmed piece was our natural path forward.

OW: Every major opera company has a unique approach to the world of streaming. How did you arrive at your programming? 

KD: We are not an opera company that enjoys a vast library of archival content and more than that, that’s not why we exist – we exist to support a resident ensemble in their artistic journey, and to share their immense talents with our community – and that is a mission we can fulfill despite these circumstances. Streaming allows us to do that. Three Decembers is one of many pieces that we will be presenting this season – there’s some element of ‘we’re never going back.’ This is always going to supplement the incubator story forevermore.

OW: Why did you think that “Three Decembers” was the perfect work?

KD: The specific impetus for the piece was surrounding the loss of Terrance [McNally] in the early spring, and my mom’s death, and thinking about mothers and families and loss in the context of this pandemic as we all grapple with how you sort of mark these rituals of weddings and memorials…as we are separated from each other. It just feels like a very fitting story to be telling during these months. And because of its length and size of cast its an ideal project for these circumstances.

I haven’t talked to anyone in the last eight months who’s not grieving the loss of something right now. At the end of the opera, the family sings about a desire to bury their loved one again – to go back in time and lay him to rest in a better way. And that was a theme that just keeps coming up with each conversation I’ve had with every person, with every artist – there isn’t anyone that isn’t grieving the loss of something. Whether it’s a loved one or a way of life or something having to do with who we thought we were as Americans – we are changed, and how do we go back and honor the memory of those who we’ve lost.

What started out as a conversation between me and Jake [Heggie] about our moms actually turned into so much more as every single person who worked on this project had their own really personal connection to it. My hope is that people who watch it, who bring their own loss and grief to it, will find that same resonance in the work that we all did. Because certainly we are being robbed of experiences, but we are having new experiences that are different and there is always that opportunity for redemption and for doing things again, which is at the center of the piece.

OW: Tell me about the process of casting this production. When did you know that Susan Graham had joined the cast? She is well known for her work with Heggie, so why was she perfect for this role?

KD: OSJ has an ongoing commitment to role debuts. It seemed to me from the very first seconds of imagining the piece that its tailormade for Susan and her voice. Susan, Heggie, and Terrance are a dream team. We actually celebrated the 20-year anniversary of Dead Man Walking while we were working on Three Decembers, which was the project which brought those three together the first time. The realities of the extent of the shutdown meant that, literally, every singer in America was available in a weird way – which led us to reimagine who could be in that role.

Susan said yes relatively late, probably 6 weeks or so before capture, and she was willing to get in her car and drive. She has always been in my mind as the ideal choice. And in keeping our commitment to our Residents, creating an opportunity for them to have that experience of her as a colleague – not as a Masterclass teacher, not as a mentor, but as a peer and colleague is a tremendous growth opportunity for them. And yes, this is a role Susan should sing. Many, many more times. And giving her the vehicle to have that debut just seems too good to be true.

OW: With the disease spreading so quickly, what were some of the protocols that were used throughout the process?

KD: The key tenants of our safety protocols have to do with this idea of housing the artists, having them agree to stay in isolation with one another, and testing them twice per week. Without those things, it wouldn’t be safe to proceed. It requires that the artists be committed to the project not just as a job or as a professional opportunity because they are forgoing time with their family members – they are essentially shutting down their entire lives in order to contribute to the success of the project.

And so, what I hope is that people who watch it understand the sacrifices that the cast has made to make this project possible, and that people don’t take for granted what artists are willing to do just to find a way forward. We were very fortunate to capture this in October, when the Bay Area had a relatively low rate of community spread. The strategy around our safety protocols has everything to do with that dimmer switch flexibility, where we can postpone or reimagine things on the fly as we need to respond to the situation on the ground.

But without the buyin from the cast to isolate together as a family, and to be tested twice a week, we couldn’t have done this.

OW: What were some of the challenges in doing this filmed production?

KD: The challenge is that opera is a very complex artform, which requires a large team of support and there are many, many different elements for a production. We had to limit the number of people in the space, which meant remodeling our capture studio to allow for viewing in a dozen separate spaces, so designers could be contributing remotely – hardwiring all of that.

Another huge challenge is that every human being adds more risk – so you have, essentially, every single person doing the job that 4 or 5 people would normally do in production. I think another huge challenge is the plexiglass – the PPE – how it affects how you hear, how you see, how you follow a conductor if they are in a mask. We rehearsed on Zoom, and when together in-person, rehearsed in masks. So the amount of time singers sung without masks was extremely limited. Our musicians and conductor were separated from the performers with plexiglass walls.

Another challenge was that we had never made a movie before and the filmmakers hadn’t produced an opera before, so figuring out what this hybrid artform was like was a challenge. And I think the last remaining challenge is how do you get the word out about what you’ve done. At a time when there is so much digital content out in the world, how do you differentiate it without an enormous marketing budget at your disposal? How do you find the audience for what you know is a truly unique experience and something that people really need right now.

OW: Tell me about streaming and what element you think it adds to opera? How do you think it will affect the way opera is created post-pandemic? 

KD: The one thing that I did not want is to feel the absence of the audience in this project. I noticed a lot of the streaming content coming out of Europe, early on in the pandemic, you almost felt bad for the performers, that they were performing to an empty space and there was no exchange between audience and performer.

In this stream, it almost feels so intimate, and so real, that it would maybe even feel strange to have people there watching. So the format of the capture gives the audience a sort of insider, close up experience – and for an opera like this, which is so raw in its emotional intensity, that really helps further the storytelling. But its not a music video – its not a live performance – its something entirely new. And I think it was tailored to this specific piece. I think other kinds of stories maybe we will capture and stream in a different way.

I think streaming is here to stay. We’ve seen a large percentage of our digital performance ticket buyers have never actually attended an OSJ performance in person, and a huge strategic priority for the company is to grow and diversify our customer base which seems to be happening through this content. We’re able to make our programming available in more languages than ever before, more easily than ever before, which is lowering barriers to participation. And giving our resident ensemble more ways to be creative is enhancing and deepening our mission. So, at least for Opera San José, streaming is here to stay.

OW: What do you hope audiences get from this production?

KD: I hope audiences are reminded that the arts are pulling them through this – that whether its dance or jazz or comedy or film, that in our darkest moments that’s what we reach for. And that doesn’t just happen! All of that content is created, conceived, and produced by artists. I hope this piece inspires people who watch it to support the artists in their community and there are many, many different elements for a production. We had to limit the number of people in the space, which meant remodeling our capture studio to allow for viewing in a dozen separate spaces, so designers could be contributing remotely – hardwiring all of that.


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