Just as the reopening from the pandemic begins, Boston Lyric Opera will debut perhaps the most fully realized covid-coping online production we have yet screened. The company’s eight-part miniseries desert in begins its serialization on June 3rd via BLO’s operabox.tv through branded apps on the Apple, Google, Amazon, and Roku platforms. Seven subsequent episodes will appear throughout the month. By July the entire set can be binged.
No mere shrunken adaptation of some predictable grand opera, desert in places viewers within surrealistically louche and fashionably transgressive stories of the “romances, shamanic rituals, and a roiling spiritual world at a handsomely imagined motel.”
The co-production with Long Beach Opera looks like a clever amalgam of Menotti tv operas, MGM musicals, and Breaking Bad. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, soprano Talise Trevigne, baritone Davone Tines, and cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond headline a diverse cast of actors and singers. Led by Pulitzer winner Ellen Reid, eight composers set interlocking stories from rising and veteran screenwriters headed by lauded playwright christopher oscar peña. A team of directors realized the visual world imagined by opera and film director James Darrah. The complete show details are HERE.
BMInt discussed the production with BLO Music Director David Angus.
FLE: Your role in this show hardly seems like conducting in an operahouse. Are you in fact conducting, or just presiding in some way?
David Angus: I guess I am presiding. I’m like a record producer. I’m supervising, but I’m doing more than that. I’m coaching, teaching. I’m working with the singers, and with the individual instrumentalists. I had sessions with everybody, each person independently, going through, checking that they’re playing the right notes and rhythms, and understanding the music.
Because you’ve been immersed in the scores longer than the others have?
Well, hardly, because we didn’t get the scores until the last second! It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to set up with eight different writers and eight composers, and the music came to us at very different times, often in several different sections. The copyist had to put it all together and prepare scores, get them back to the composers for checking, and then publish the parts for the singers and players. In retrospect, our timeline was a bit optimistic and some of the music was still arriving as we were already rehearsing. So it’s not as if we had a year for this thing to gestate. It was a matter of days, actually.
That’s incredible, although making corrections right up through the dress rehearsals of the premieres in traditional operahouses isn’t so uncommon.
Yes, that was certainly true in Mozart’s day. On the other hand, their musical language was somewhat clearer than ours, simpler, and more obvious when things weren’t right.
Is it really chamber opera with six instruments — one on a part?
Yes, but then there was a lot of overdubbing. For example, the singers, especially the backing vocalists. They’re the ones that are called the Vapors — they’re sort of spirits — there are only three of them, a soprano and alto and tenor. But in some places there are three or four different lines for each of them, and we also overdubbed the same lines, so it would sound as if there were more singing.
Well, it comes out sounding like that, but that’s only occasionally. I think it’s only Ellen, the lead composer, who uses the particular effect. I don’t think anybody else deliberately used it. So what it meant was that each episode could sound quite different, even though we theoretically have the same voices, quite a small number of voices. The same thing with the strings. We had one violin and one cello, but there are places where you’ll hear three violins and four cellos. And even those are then thickened up by being played more than once. So occasionally it will sound quite full. But a lot of the time it’s a very chamber music feel. Some composers used only the six instruments straight and didn’t mess around with it at all. They didn’t fill the texture out. Sometimes they chose to make the effects using electronics. There was always a line at the bottom of the score for what we called a tape track — though obviously nobody uses tape any more — where the composer simply gave us sound effects or processed sounds or whatever they wanted to add in. And everything was just synchronized to the clicktrack.
Does the clicktrack have a visual component, too, to show whether you’re getting too slow or getting ahead?
Well, there was a visual clicktrack for the engineers who were running the recording session, so they could check if everything was lined up. The performers and I just had the audio clicktrack, which gives a different pitchbeat on the downbeat of each bar. So if you get a click-dum-dum, you know you’re in three. When there are tempo changes, what we do is simply record each new tempo with a new two-bar introduction. Then it all gets stuck together as a mosaic afterward.
Do you have any artistic input in that? Is the clicktrack set by the composer, strictly? Or can you somehow get some rubato in there after the fact?
Yes, I can get a small amount … wherever it’s required, though the music is generally written with the clicktrack in mind. A lot of it has very strict continuous beat. If there’s a rall[entando] or a tempo change, it is up to me to decide how the tempo change works, where it starts to change, how long it takes to change. So I actually created the clicktrack together with our copyist, who prepared all our scores, and the music editor. We went through everything, and I said, I want six bars like that, and then I want the tempo change to go across those two bars, and then I want it to slow down to a certain tempo, and then I want a pause for three extra beats. But it all had to be set in stone before we even played a note, because everybody had to work to the same basic framework. It also had to be approved by the composers.
It’s almost like punching a paper roll for player pianos. But hopefully it doesn’t sound that rigid.
Well, it’s not that rigid, because the players can often be a little bit free around those beats. There are some places where they just have 15 seconds where they improvise. The great thing about having eight composers is that you have eight totally different styles, methods of composition, and methods of notation. There’s tremendous variety. Which means that you never get stuck with one thing. If you happen not to enjoy one of the composers’ work, it’s only 10 or 12 minutes until the next one!
Is there any motivic material that goes from one work to the next set by the master composer?
Yes. Ellen set the whole thing up, and she shared a few very basic ideas … just a few notes to say, I’m going to use this to represent this person, and this is something that represents something else. She came up with half a dozen, I wouldn’t call them leitmotifs, because they’re not being used strictly like that. They’re not proper themes. It’s not like Jaws. It was looser than that. And she just said, here’s the stuff. If you want to use it, it might help things hang together. If you don’t want to use it, that’s fine.
So how does it all hang together?
These stories came out of a writer’s room, where the writers all worked together and created the bigger picture. They all worked together to create both the big story, but also the characters, to understand the motives and feelings and the style of each character. So from that point of view, there was tremendous unanimity. The main characters feel like the same people all the way through, the way they react, and the language they use, even though it’s written by eight different librettists and eight different composers. There’s no point where I think “that doesn’t sound like the same person.”
christopher oscar peña: I can understand how this is what the process would sound like, but let me actually clarify! Early on, James, Ellen, and I talked very loosely about what our show could be. Our initial inspiration was Genet’s “The Balcony” — we read this text and then imagined what we could do with it- ultimately, what stuck from it, was the idea of a place where people would come to make their desires come true – we were also very excited in the idea of focusing on queer spaces and queer narratives. Then, I assembled a writers’ room by inviting / commissioning seven other writers I loved — some I’d worked with on tv (like Joy Kecken, who I invited to help me run the room) and most I knew socially or I was fond of their work. Before the room started, I gave them all the initial ingredients Ellen, James, and I had come up with. Then, we met for a few hours a day, for a few weekends, and we collectively imagined what the narrative could be from beginning to end — who our characters could be, the themes and ideas we’d like to explore, and how that could break up into eight individual episodes that were self-contained but formed a complete season arc like a TV show. I assigned certain episodes to specific writers based on who I thought was the best fit for each (for a myriad of reasons). Each writer turned in their episodes and Joy and I revised all of them to make sure there was continuity!
So the words came first in this opera?
DA: Absolutely. Having said that, they were then modified where necessary. As would happen in traditional opera. So the composers and the writers had good contact, and the composers would set the text, and then would go back to composers and say, I don’t need that much, or I need something extra here, or this doesn’t work for me. And there were several reissues of the whole libretto. I mean, there were several updated versions of the whole script that came out, printed in different colors to keep track. Then when the performer joined in, there were some further changes. And even now, today, things are still changing. Things that we thought were going to be sung are now being spoken, or cut.
When you say spoken, do you mean Sprechstimme? Or is it actually dialog?
Dialog. Over the music. As you’ve seen one episode, you know that there is not so much conventional operatic singing. The singing is mainly dialog too. I wouldn’t call it recitative — that has other connotations. It is sung, but it’s pretty naturalistic a lot of the time.
And I didn’t see any actual dialog within that first section. I just heard the characters speaking their thoughts, but we didn’t see their lips moving other than in the spoken monologue at the beginning.
There is some spoken dialogue, and each episode will have such a spoken monologue as you saw at the top. For the recording we went through the scores and sang everything as written, but we knew that things might get changed, that some of the singing might get cut out and replaced with other music, or replaced with speech. Because we came first, all we could do was record everything that was on the paper and hand it over to the editors. Everything is being kept completely separate, so you can just drop out an instrument, or drop out a voice, or overlay a voice. Everything is on separate tracks.
And all the composers are agreeing to whatever the performers and you want to change?
I don’t make choices like that. This is really about the filming, and how it’s coming across, and how it’s working. As far as I know, everything is going back to the composers to be approved. I don’t think anything is being is done without their approval — their work is not being just savaged!
I don’t mean savaged … I think of Russell Sherman’s aphorism that “the composer composes the notes and the performer composes the sounds.” So to some extent, especially since this is brand-new and has no established performance history, you’re doing this on the fly.
Well, because of the system, each person recording completely individually to the clicktrack, there’s very little flexibility. Once I’d set down how I thought it was going to go, the clicktracks then went back to the composers for their approval. “Am I doing enough of the rall here? Does this connect up the way you want it to connect up?” And once it was decided, we were then set on that path, and that was how we recorded all the orchestral parts, and then all the singing parts. And while we were doing that, the clicktrack had already gone off to the film people, for them to measure the timings of each little scene, each subsection of the scene, so that they could plan all their camera angles. So in a way, the musical clicktrack is also the clicktrack for the film. It’s not just for the music; it was already the skeleton of the film.
Were the singers that we saw lip-synching?
There’s no lip-synching at all. Talise, Isabel and Viv, the three singers whom you see singing, are actually singing. They were hearing the music and the clicktrack in tiny earpieces, and there was a conductor there ― our artistic advisor Vimbayi Kaziboni — and he was cuing them. But they were singing to something that no one else could hear; they were hearing the accompaniment.
And they were actually in the room with the actors and on a set. This wasn’t an electronically painted-in background.
No, no, those singers were the actors. Those three singers are acting in the film. None of the other actors in the film ever sing or lip-synch. They never pretend to be singing.
One advantage of film is something that you couldn’t do in the theater — you can hear their thoughts. So a lot of it is, even if it’s conversation between two people, still unspoken. They can still communicate through their eyes or perhaps their lips are moving, but there’s not the tiniest intention for their lips to synchronize. That’s quite deliberate.
In that sense, it’s almost like a silent movie with underscoring.
Very much so. That’s a good way of putting it. James Darrah, the überdirector, and I both have this deep skepticism about closeup televised opera where you see a performance that is designed to be seen in a big theater, so you see this face contorted as they’re trying to fill the theater, the big facial acting, the vibrato and everything; the scale of the performance and everything about it are not designed for closeup television. It seems very artificial. What he wants to do is to create a different medium.
It’s a classical music video, in a way?
Or even at times like a pop video. It’s a bit like pop videos where there’s a lot of action and movement that’s either synchronized or explaining what’s going on, but it’s not literally the same sounds.
No, but there are different approaches to filming opera. You can film an opera performance. You can film on location while dubbing to a pre-recorded score. Or you can come up with a concept, as you are doing, which combines those things. I mean, I love the 1936 Showboat filmed by James Whale, which is more Hollywood than Broadway. And it works there.
Well, we all love that. [laughter] Absolutely love it.
But you know, you’re a man of the theater and stage, and you probably are missing the sawdust and the tinsel…
No, this is very valid, very important, and I believe it’s going to be very successful. But it’s just not the same thing. It’s not going to supplant it. It’s an alternative. What we’ve discovered, in this time that we’ve been closed down, is that we can do other things. And we’ve expanded our repertoire, but that doesn’t mean that we’re moving in this direction instead. It’s just additional stuff that we can do. There’s no way that this replaces traditional opera, because you’re missing several vital elements. Just the emotional high of first of all being in a group of people in the audience. Second, the live performers putting their own emotion out, and the freedom they have. And the conductor can move the music around. It can breathe and expand and build up in a way that you just can’t begin to do when it’s online like this.
And they’re not really communicating with one another, because they’re in different rooms, of course, much of the time.
Well, it’s a very different thing. It’s very clever, and it’s very enjoyable, but it’s never going to replace being in a theater, with people, human voice communicating human passion and human emotions. I’m not trying to do this down. I’m just saying it’s different. And it’s valid. It’s entertainment. It’s like minimalist music. I find that quite entertaining and enjoyable. You know, Philip Glass, John Adams. I don’t for a minute think it’s going to supplant Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, because it’s missing the ebb and flow of the emotion and the power, the expression of more conventional music that I love. And that’s what I live for. I love, as a conductor, being able to follow the singers and move the music when they’re excited. The music builds up, and when they need to breathe, I can see that, and everybody senses this breathing, this ebbing and flowing. It’s completely missing from anything that has a clicktrack or that is minimalist in that sense. And for me, that’s missing a huge element that I love in the theater.
But it has, at least in the section that I saw, the ability to put emotions across more intimately. Some of those interaction would feel embarrassing on a big stage with other people around you; if it’s just you and your small screen, you can be more comfortable.
It’s more naturalistic in that sense. The acting is all a lot more real. But on the other hand, then why are they singing? [laughter] It almost highlights the fact that it’s artificial by being more naturalistic. It’s such a strange thing.
You and I have been to enough operas to know that, when it’s right, it just works. Real opera may be completely artificial, and yet you can get absolutely swept up in the emotion.
And you don’t know why it works on one night and not another night.
I know lots of reasons why it doesn’t work, when it doesn’t work, and those are the things that we’re fighting all the time. Assuming you’re doing a great work with a good director, and you’ve got good singers up there, then the main things that get in the way are just mundane things like lack of rehearsal, so that people aren’t familiar enough with one another, familiar enough with the production. Or the singer isn’t comfortable for some reason. Or the conductor isn’t sympathetic to the singer, isn’t allowing the singer to have the freedom. When the singers are free to really perform, and you’ve got a good performer up there who knows their stuff and who really cares, then as long as the conductor can accompany them sympathetically and strongly, the music can move around and be very expressive and suddenly can catch fire.
And sometimes the performers goad each other into outdoing themselves, emotionally and artistically.
Oh, sure. A love scene where one of the actors is wooden, is pretty tough. If they’re both getting wound up and emotional (they can’t get too emotional or they won’t be able to sing), but if they’re really getting carried away with the passion that they’re expressing, then it can be fantastic. And you know, I live for those moments. They don’t happen often enough when I go to see other people’s operas. But when I’m directly involved in it, of course, I’m much more excited by it all, because I know what’s going on. I always think I have the best seat in the house, because it’s the best place to stand, in the center of things, because I get everything full force in my face — the orchestra, the singers — I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it can be.
Are there any moments in the show where you shed a tear? Are emotions that profound everywhere? You say the music can be motoric, which suggests sort of generic Glassicalism
No, no, all I mean is, it doesn’t have the ebb and flow. It just has a pulse to it that has to be pretty straight. A lot of the music has very regular pulsing sound, which means that I have little input as a conductor. I can’t shape it in any way. But it just has different values. I find it entertaining and interesting; it doesn’t move me in the same way. But I haven’t seen the whole thing. All I’ve known is the elements of different pieces.
But how different are they? You say they’re stylistically different, but not so much that it’s jarring. Are there terms for the styles of the composers?
They really are very different. But they’re not going to jar, because they don’t connect up directly. You watch each episode separately, and they will be coming out serially anyway, and you hear and see the same characters, so you’ll feel that it also has unity. It doesn’t worry me that they’re different. On the contrary, that’s one of the great appeals of this approach.
When I go and see lots of new works, I can come away having seen ten or so, and I feel lucky if I’ve had one that I really enjoyed. But I have to say, of these eight, even the ones that are less to my personal taste are still pretty good. I think many of them are really great.
Regarding the work-to-work consistency, I think of the Berklee College of Music silent-film scoring program, where every year they divide up a feature-length film among six to eight composers. The professor sets up distinct character or situation motifs because that’s what they are being trained to do for Hollywood. Yet individual voices are still possible for the composers. And it’s interesting, because as each composer’s section comes up, that composer takes the baton from the previous one, and conducts his own work. So you’re being cued as to when it’s happening. Yet the movie never stops.
Ours isn’t quite as continuous as that, as these are complete episodes with separate titles. And it will be several weeks before all the eight episodes can be binged, as it were.
So they don’t jar against each other in any way. You just come in and you’re in a slightly different sound world. Each scene looks slightly different and it will sound slightly different.
Aside from flashbacks, is it one day or one hour that’s divided into these eight sections? Classical unities…?
The main story is continuous. And I guess it’s like one weekend. You’ve got the basic idea, that people go there to commune with the ghosts of their lost partners. And so we have references to the relationships that they had in the past, things that set them up to be where they are now. It’s just to explain the backstory occasionally. But basically, it’s happening in one short period in this motel.
The show looks much more expensively produced that an average Covid livestream or Zoom concert. I gather BLO spent as much as they do on main stage production.
The Philip Glass that we did six months ago and desert in are BLO’s two biggest things this year. So we’ve plowed whatever necessary in to make them look as good as we could.
Did you ever see any of the Menotti made-for-TV operas? Or did you think about any of those at all during this period?
I have to say that I wasn’t involved in the setting-up, so this was just presented to me as a concept by the composer and the director. And they were already way ahead of me
I was just asking you whether you think this is going to be as well-adapted for its medium as the Menotti’ operas he wrote for television.
I think that this is absorbing all sorts of popular elements and television elements. It’s in many ways going to be like a television show, though it’s a rather strange and intense one, sort of surreal and magical. But I think if we were to put this on the stage as it is, and try and act it without the special ability of the film to be magical and strange, it would be rather hard to make it work. I think this is written specifically for this medium. I can’t see how it could ever be turned into a straight stage play, stage opera. Also, each episode has such difference forces. We can create that with overdubbing. You can make it seem that you’ve got a large string group, and the next one you’ve only got two or six players.
But that would be pointless once you have this in the can and you’re satisfied with it.
Well, it may be that somebody wants to take elements of it and turn it into something else. But I think this is very specifically written. One example that occurs to me is Owen Wingrave of Britten, which was also written for television. I don’t know that it worked that well, and as a result it was rather overlooked. It didn’t come into the theater until much more recently, when it suddenly started being done again. Perhaps that’s because of what they can do onstage has developed far enough for them to be able to re-create what they were trying to do on television in those days.
And some of the Menottis have developed lives onstage.
Yes. I’ve seen Amahl, and I’ve done The Consul a couple of times. But that’s all I’m familiar with.
Who can answer the question of whether the writers are invoking Hemingway and McCullers in there with the titles The Sun Also Rises and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter?
christopher oscar peña: I’m so glad you picked up on that! One of the things that has most excited me about this process was the way that different artists — from a variety of art forms that don’t normally collaborate — came together to build desert in. There was something really exciting about allowing experts from different fields to bring their magic to the process, and for us to be in creative conversation with each other. I wanted to continue this conversation with the (Genet) novel, so when each of the writers turned in their episodes, I tasked them with naming it after a piece of literature that resonated with them; something they felt somehow represented the episode they’d written. Some are easier to spot because they’re titles of great novels (like “The Sun Also Rises”) and others are harder to spot because they’re single lines from newer or lesser known works (for instance, my episode is a line from the beautiful writer Ocean Vuoung’s novel ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS).
DA: I haven’t actually interacted with the individual writers at all. Not because I didn’t want to, but they had already produced this text and that went straight to the composers. I’ve been more like a recording producer. I have taken much less part in the setup than I normally would. On the other hand, I’ve spent vastly more time on post production than I ever would normally have to do. I’ve been going over and over each stage, listening and correcting and choosing which takes and saying where things are wrong and needed fixing, or if things weren’t always lined up properly. So I’ve been involved in the technical side hugely. I mean, it’s already been three months of my life.
But that’s not so atypical for your rehearsal schedules in a major production, is it? A month of rehearsal, maybe, sometimes?
A month, well, basically our normal period is five weeks from first meeting to final show, final performance. Five weeks would be the normal span, so three months is quite a lot more. And it’s just been so strange doing it from England, 3.5 thousand miles away. It’s very odd.
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I heard you’ll doing Cavalleria Rusticana with in-person audiences in the fall.
Yes, with live singing, but the orchestra and chorus will be heard in a new live recording. We will be firstly preparing it with the singers, and then the singers will also rehearse with the orchestra. We will record the orchestra and chorus, while the soloists perform their parts live.
But things are changing so fast now. Isn’t there a possibility that it could be conventionally performed by then?
If it can, it will be, of course. We’re looking at plans A, B, C, D, E, F… We’re planning all the way round. But we’re assuming that it’s going to be tricky to squeeze an orchestra and chorus onto the stage of the Majestic and into the pit of the Majestic. We’re so on top of one another, because it’s pretty small. So unless everything is completely okay, and everybody’s been vaccinated, and everything covid-19 is gone, it’s going to be pretty tough to get everybody together.
At the moment, we think the likely thing is that we’ll all get together and rehearse and record the orchestra where we can find a space big enough to have them appropriately spaced out. You know, we’ll have the full-sized orchestra, but just spread out a bit. We’ll work firstly with the singers, so we know exactly how they want the music to go, how long they want to wait on the high notes, etc.. Then I try to steer the whole thing and make that one big line of it all. I’ll also be participating in the performances, listening, following the synchronized film of myself conducting it, and then I can relay the beat to the singers. But the soloists will be singing in the flesh. Of course, if we record it well enough, and have a good enough system, it should sound as good as the real thing, though we won’t quite have the flexibility. But those singers will have decided how they want to sing it with me, and we’ll have worked together, we’ll have worked on the production. So it shouldn’t be that different for them. They’ll just be performing with an accompaniment that they can’t expect to follow quite so freely.
Because you’re using your own musicians, and actually recording it, you’re not going to have any issues with the unions in doing recorded singing and playing?
Well, of course that’s an important issue, so we have to sort it out. We have to pay the musicians appropriately for being allowed to reuse it. But that will all be sorted out in advance, and very amicably. The unions have been very good and practical about all this overdubbing, recording, and repeating, because obviously, our musicians have to be paid correctly. And we just had to work out a fair way of doing it. That’s all done very closely with the unions in advance.
Well, that’s a relief.
The musicians must not be out of pocket, that’s for sure.