Digital opera, growing pains, & critic's picks

Digital opera, growing pains, & critic's picks

Jenna Simeonov

I set out to write about good stuff to watch in this new age of virtual opera. I can still offer some picks, which I’ll do shortly. But in my scouring of the internet for all the streaming opera and archival videos that we can currently watch - almost entirely for free, as a not-terrible consolation prize for being stuck in our homes indefinitely - I got more excited by a press release I got from IN Series, the innovative opera theater company based in Washington, D.C.

IN Series has turned their upcoming season entirely virtual. As in, a proper season: a line-up of shows (which in this case includes twelve premieres), a Virtual Opera House to showcase all of IN Series’ content, a subscription ticket model, and a roster of guest artists to keep things exciting. They’re modeling their virtual format on that of the major streaming services, rolling out a varied and frequent output of short and feature-length films, episodic series, and radio play-style audio.

On top of that cool news, is the fact that it’s free. Subscriptions are available for purchase starting in June, and those tickets buy you early and extended access to additional content. But for now, audiences can sample IN Series in its first brave foray into being a presenter of digital opera.

A lot of things are off the table: the acoustic smack of a great voice, the in-person wash of an orchestra.

“We have taken the plunge and scrapped almost the entire season we had planned for next year – and not to do less, and not to do either what we already know or what is safe,” says Timothy Nelson, Artistic Director of IN Series. “Rather, we have thrown out what was our plan and instead furiously embarked on imagining a new season which responds to and is in conversation with our collective todays.” You can watch his full video statement, or read the transcript.

It’s the kind of thing I imagined would happen within the performing arts - yes, even opera. True, the opera world isn’t known for making sudden movements, but there are certainly minds in the industry who are staunchly forward-thinking; those people are experiencing some serious inspiration right now.

I’m totally curious to tune into IN Series’ season, which kicks off in July. I’m curious about what we’ll get, because a lot of things are off the table: the acoustic smack of a great voice, the in-person wash of an orchestra. Instead, we’ll get technical collaborations at a level that we wouldn’t ordinarily, like video game-esque interactivity and virtual reality, and fusions with film and animation.

Will virtual opera dilute what makes the art form special?

It’s hard to explain why, but the idea of a digital season fills me with a bit of dread. If the opera that gets created specifically for a online consumption isn’t good, I’ll worry; maybe opera isn’t truly transferable from stage to screen, and if we can’t really get back to stages any time soon, that’s bad news for the opera industry. If the new content is great, I’ll still worry a bit. Will it grab people the way my first live Wagner grabbed me? Will the skills of these singers be understood and appreciated without the physical acoustic to marvel at? Will virtual opera dilute what makes the art form special?

I can hear the soft calls of ok, boomer in response to my petty fretting. I’m still going to check all this newfangled stuff out, but I’ll probably take it with a dose of retro-Met productions from the 80s and 90s, and some good old-fashioned streaming. Speaking of which, as promised a few paragraphs ago, here are few items that are getting me particularly excited:

  • Angel’s Bone, on LA Opera’s LAO at Home page. I interviewed librettist Royce Vavrek for an upcoming feature for Opera Canada, and I’m eager to finally see his opera, written with composer Du Yun, that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for music. The story sounds nuts: two angels get abducted by people and forced into sexual slavery. Eek. It’s viewable starting tonight, May 1 at 8pm PDT, and available throughout next week.
  • Aida, via the Met’s Nightly Opera Stream. It’s one of the first biggies from retro-land, this production from 1985 that features Leontyne Price in the title role. I’m just in the mood for some great fucking singing. It’s online tonight, May 1, 7:30pm EDT, until tomorrow (Saturday) at 6:30pm.
  • Minnesota Opera’s Doubt, available now on as part of their Great Performances series. There’s some geographical restriction (which I’m experiencing as a well-meaning Canadian) but if location and VPNs are on your side, I’d give it a watch before it goes away on July 22.
  • Breaking the Waves, on Opera Philadelphia’s Digital Festival line-up. Really, the whole Festival looks amazing (and it starts tonight), but I’m especially dying to see this opera after a WhatsApp call with Royce where he introduced me to composer Missy Mazzoli, with whom he was quarantining. It goes up May 29.

Check back for a few reviews of the above. I’m still working away at a new project that I think you guys will really like. I won’t draw out the anticipation for too long, but I’m just excited so I’m blabbing.

Anyway. Stay in touch, readers. What are you watching for your virtual opera fixes?

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