Imagine being invited to write a new opera about the coronavirus pandemic. What story would work? What tone would be appropriate at such a unique, and possibly sensitive, time?
When Ella Marchment sent out a call for proposals to potential composers for #OperaHarmony, a collection of new mini operas online, she thought she might get two or three responses. Within a few months she had hit the jackpot with 20 operas, fully composed, performed and filmed.
As the operas started turning up, it must have been a relief to find how varied they were. One is a one-woman show set in a château in France with links to the Black Death. Another is a “very British piece” about what we were doing on our daily walks at the height of the lockdown. A third is a wacky, American “puppet opera mystery” about somebody who has stolen the disinfectant wipes in an apartment block in New York.
There have been other projects creating new online operas during the period of theatre closures, but nothing on this scale. The 20 short operas produced by #OperaHarmony add up to a substantial collection, which asks to be judged as a whole.
All are free to view on OperaVision, the EU-supported cultural website. The first five went live last week and the rest follow in groups of five on successive Tuesday evenings through August.
The creative teams are scattered across the world. “This is an irony of the pandemic,” says Marchment. “We have been separated from each other locally, but in global terms we have never been closer or more together.”
It was while she was directing a new family opera in Amsterdam that the pandemic struck. The opera was only 24 hours from its first public performance when Dutch National Opera management walked into the rehearsal room and announced that a lockdown had been imposed. Bound by her contract to remain within the country, Marchment realised that, if she was to do anything creative, it would have to involve reaching out to friends and colleagues in other countries.
The call for proposals went out far and wide. The parameters allowed a fair amount of freedom, while setting a time limit for each opera of five to 10 minutes, which just a few overrun. The two themes suggested were community and distance, though the creators interpreted these in such varied ways that it can be difficult to spot them in the finished works.
“I have been thrilled by the results,” says Marchment. “People were wanting to be creative and have an outlet at this time. My role was to gather names and put the groups together, composers and librettists, performers and video editors, building teams from the ground up. I tried to find out more about them so as to fit the jigsaw puzzle together in the best way. It was uplifting for everybody, because here was an opportunity for them to further their craft.”
Once the synopses came in, she allowed each team a maximum of five performers — one singer with four instrumentalists, four singers with one, or any combination in between. That practical constraint does not seem to have hampered the creators’ imaginations. A handful of teams came back with operas set in an apartment during lockdown but their treatments were wildly different — a love story, a fairy tale, a rock opera. “That is the beauty of people having such different ideas,” says Marchment.
Help and funding came from OperaVision, the Rolf Liebermann Foundation and Bury Court Opera. Performances and filming are of high quality, earning their place alongside the main opera house productions on the OperaVision website.
Each batch of five is a mix-and-match selection. Part of the compiler’s skill is to get individual items to add up to more than the sum of their parts and Marchment’s line-up has the experimental rubbing shoulders with the sure-fire, the satirical with the tragic.
Try the third of batch one, the witty Divas Furloughed, in which four operatic heroines — Verdi’s Violetta, Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, Donizetti’s Lucia and Strauss’s Salome — sit around wondering what to do with no performances to sing. Or the fourth, the arty How does a building sing?, which is more like a pop video.
“I believe in the notion that all the world is a stage,” says Marchment. “New and old operas should coexist. I am a lover of Italian opera and we must hear the tradition we came from. But opera also has the potential to invite in other musical genres and break out of conventional performance spaces if we are to stay relevant, speak to younger audiences and be representative of everybody in society. This project shows opera can speak to all.”
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