Q & A: ‘Zombie Opera’ Creators on Putting on Performance Featuring Undead

By David Salazar

Zombies and Opera…

Raise your hand if that’s a combination that immediately comes to mind?

Yeah me neither. In fact they couldn’t feel more different could they? Zombies are the incarnation of chaos. The texture of zombie films and art is grimy, decayed. It could not be further from popular culture’s opera references. The opulent. The high art. The sublime. The ethereal.

And yet one might argue they complement one another beautiful. In a world that has often dwarfed the two, both have niche champions, making them a rather promising fit.

And that brings us to Half-Light Productions, a New Jersey-based company getting ready to present “Zombie Opera” this Halloween. Audiences who take this ride will be greeted to several operatic gems performed by such artists as Phillip Bullock, Molly Dunn, Raúl Gutiérrez, Kofi Hayford, Rachelle Pike, and Jaime Webb.

OperaWire recently spoke to the show’s producers and director Catriona Rubenis-Stevens and soprano Molly Dunn about their relationship to opera and how they created the show.

OperaWire: How did you become involved in the world of opera?  What are your favorite works and why? What opera memories do you have?

Molly Dunn: In many ways, opera chose me! I always dreamed of being on Broadway and worked my whole life towards that goal. But as I got older and my voice just kept growing, I fell in love with singing opera and the entire art form. There is nothing quite like being surrounded by the sound bath of an entire orchestra in a gorgeous historic theatre.

I find the whole thing overwhelming. I’m a Puccini fan. I love his dedication to realism, especially in works like “La Bohème” or “Suor Angelica.” When I first started toying with the idea of pursuing opera, I did a summer festival in Miami. I still remember to this day that I was literally left speechless by the beauty and emotion of the actress portraying Suor Angelica. She was a huge inspiration for me in exploring this art form. 

OW: What is Zombie Opera? How did you make the connection between two worlds that are seemingly so far apart?

Catriona Rubenis-Stevens: Zombie Opera is simply a grand opera concert put on by zombies. Glam opera diva zombies, of course! There is no connection between the two, which makes it so great. If you love classical music and you love Halloween, you will love this concert!

OW: How did the zombie opera originate? What did you hope to bring to the opera world with this show? What do you hope audiences take away?

MD: Zombie Opera is a covid project from neighbors in Jersey City. Covid brought a lot of us to our front stoops, where we ended up becoming great friends with people who lived above us, below us, and on our block who we had never connected with before. These stoop hangs were a source of inspiration and we realized how many artists lived right in our neighborhood.

Catriona, our Zombie Opera director and producer, introduced me to some neighbors as the ‘town opera singer’ and we got the idea to start Stoop Operas. We didn’t advertise and it was very casual, but still we had a huge turnout. People loved gathering safely outside to hear live music again. We even met new opera singers at Stoop Opera, and it became a monthly outdoor concert throughout the pandemic. With Halloween 2020 around the corner, we took a chance to do a zombie themed opera concert, “The Zombie Opera Mask-erade.” We wanted to provide a safe experience for Jersey City neighbors. We also donated all proceeds to the scholarship fund at our local performing arts school LUX Performing Arts, where we provide professional training and experiences for young artists.

OW: What was the greatest challenge in putting this together?

CRS: We thought that one of the biggest challenges for us putting this all together would be ensuring that we had the full support of both the City of Jersey City as well as the neighbors who live on the block that we shut down. Luckily, with planning and kindness, we haven’t run into any major issues, and we have continued to grow and become something that people look forward to attending.

OW: Tell me about your collaborators and how they’ve been a part of developing this show?

CRS: The best part of Zombie Opera is that we have neighbors involved in every aspect. Our wonderful home-owners Noreen, Grace & Jim are gracious enough to lend their front stoops as our stages. The entire block helps us, day of show, to prepare for our audience. We have local businesses volunteering their talents, like Hair is Happiness, for hair and make up. Our talented neighbor Lauren Ver Hage designed the posters… The list goes on and on! We are ecstatic this year to have singers from all over, including Mexico! The zombie opera singers are Phillip Bullock (baritone), Raúl Gutiérrez (tenor) Kofi Hayford (bass), Rachelle Pike (mezzo), Jaime Webb (soprano), and myself, Molly Dunn (soprano). And Lilian Bustle, an international burlesque performer and body positive activist is our emcee!

OW: How was the repertoire for the evening selected? What connections do the distinct arias have to Halloween or zombies?

MD: The repertoire of Zombie Opera is famous opera selections. We want a grand opera experience for people who may have never been to the opera. We also want our audience to recall some of the melodies and characters and feel connected to classical music.

OW: What are your future plans for this show?

CRS: We are slowly but surely building a production team for “Zombie Opera.” We have big plans and goals to make this the Halloween event for Jersey City and a classical music event to remember.

Our goal for future years would be to partner with local food/drink vendors, and possibly expand the streets we shut down, with the aim of this being a fully immersive, walk-through event.

OW: Do you have any other opera-related projects coming up? Or any dream opera projects?

MD: I just found out I will be playing Mimì in “La Bohème” with the Light Opera of New Jersey under the baton of Jason Tramm and directed by Andrea DelGiudice. This is a dream role of mine and I’m very excited to be part of this modern production of “Bohème!”


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