During COVID, Resonance Works in Pittsburgh – a company known for making opera and choral work accessible to the general public – began a project called the Decameron Opera Coalition (DOC). Resonance’s Artistic Director, Maria Sensi Sellner, was the point person for opera companies whose values included art-for-all initiatives and wanted to continue to reach wider audiences during the pandemic. I was asked by Sellner to write the libretto for one of their short operas by Composer Justine F. Chen. What I learned through that process changed my mind about how we make and present opera.
Chin and I created a 13-minute opera titled LETTER TO OUR CHILDREN which explore the unsung heroes in our lives, and it streamed on the DOC site from September 2021-May 2022.
Instead of staging the piece like a traditional opera on a stage with singers in formal attire, we shot a music video in the style of popular videos you’d see on VH1, MTV, or YouTube. The singer was poised on a bridge overlooking the city of Pittsburgh, as she sang, and we cut between her and images of everyday heroes in action. Heroes that we spotlight include teachers, stay-at-home caregivers, and first responders.
This fresh combination of operatic sound and everyday images shot in a pop music video-style attracted thousands of viewers. The DOC commissioned 13 short operas during the height of the pandemic with similar results. The Company received feedback that viewers who were not comfortable going to the opera house, did enjoy watching the music videos of the operas. They liked and connected with English language opera that told stories they could related to, and would be willing to watch more of them. This is a tremendous finding, especially given that many in opera believe that it is dying due to lack of interest from today’s audiences. Perhaps, it is not lack of interest, but a failure to evolve in form and style with other contemporary forms, that is causing the drop in opera’s audience numbers.
Learn more about the DOC and other digital theatre activity “outside the proscenium” with me at this year’s digital LMDA Conference which is focused on these new types of art-making: https://lmda.org/2022-conference I will be hosting a Conversation with Maria Sensi Sellner online in which will delve into how they created the project, what they learned, and how they will be moving forward into a digital future.