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Episodic Opera: Composer Lisa Bielawa on 'Vireo'

Laurie Rubin, who sings the roles of the Voice and the Witch at "Vireo" rehearsal | Photo: Sheri Candler
Laurie Rubin sings the roles of the Voice and the Witch on "Vireo."  | Photo: Sheri Candler 

Witches. Wisdom. Wonder. Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on KCET.org and LinkTV.org. The multi-episode production was composed by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte. "Vireo" is the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.

On a monitor tucked into a back corner of Santa Ana's Yost Theater, a camera follows a girl taking careful steps along a shadowy, blue-lit passageway. She walks to an unknown destination, and right before the camera cuts, she's swallowed up by darkness. It's an apt visual metaphor for Lisa Bielawa's new episodic opera, "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser."

"I'm interested in discovery, new ways of making music," Bielawa says.

Bielawa's production is a new take on an old art form. Filmed in front of an audience, the end product is intended to be watched online or on television. The micro-chapters will be released over the course of months, ruminating on the myth and mythos of female hysteria throughout different generations.

On the second night of filming, Bielawa, librettist Erik Ehn, and director Charles Otte's experiment seems to be going smoothly. Bielawa conducts the Kronos Quartet onstage above the action as the voices of leading players Rowen Sabala, a 16-year-old soprano from Orange County School of the Arts, and mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin dance, meld together and then separate again. A single cameraman creeps around the set, capturing the opera singers in a strange new way -- the close-up.

A production of Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the OCSA's Middle School Choir produce a landscape of sounds.

Bielawa, a San Francisco-born composer and vocalist, has never shied away from a challenge. Gramophone magazine even compared her work to Jackson Pollock's. Indeed, she has consistently colored outside the lines, creating pieces to be performed in a Manhattan park ("Chance Encounter") and on former airfields in Berlin and San Francisco ("Airfield Broadcasts"). And now she's planting Vireo in what might be her most unconventional setting yet -- the television screen.

"With all of the things I do, it's really organic," she says." I wasn't like, 'Oh I'm going to try to do something no one's done before.'"

"Vireo" rehearsal with Kronos Quartet| Photo: Sheri Candler

The creative journey to realize Vireo began over 20 years ago at Yale, where Bielawa was a literature major working on her senior thesis. During the course of her research, she repeatedly encountered groups of men -- neurologists, priests, the Surrealists -- who were obsessed with authoring studies on teenage girls' visions and what those visions meant. Parisian doctors in the 1890s were fascinated with hysteria, and 50 years later, the Surrealists wrote a collaborative essay celebrating hysteria's anniversary.

"What you're missing in many of these texts, of course, is the voices of the young girls. There's this silent author in there, and I was captivated, bewitched by that," she says. "A yearning to know more about these girls who were silent yet so documented. I came away thinking, 'Gee, a scholarly essay is not the best place to explore this.'"

Rowen Sabala, who sings the role of Vireo | Photo: Sheri Candler

When she met playwright and director Erik Ehn in 1994, she was inspired. "What happens if I give this genius dude all my research?" she says. And thus the libretto for "Vireo" came to be, finally giving voice to a young girl with visions.

It wasn't until three years ago, however, that the idea for how and where to perform the opera was sparked. John Spiak, Grand Central Art Center director and curator, knew Bielawa through Creative Capital, the organization that funded Bielawa's project "Chance Encounter" . She approached her residency in that manner, having no specific project in mind. But as he ushered her around SoCal, three things jumped out at her: the Yost Theater, the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) and, strangely enough, the cult sitcom "Arrested Development."

"We got a drink and joked about the 'Arrested Development' episode where they think they're in Mexico, but they're in Santa Ana," she says, laughing. It struck a chord in Bielawa. "That's kind of what SoCal is: what defines it is episodic media content. You can see where I connected the dots: being in episodic media paradise, finding the Yost Theater and falling in love with its acoustic properties, and then discovering this high school where there were these very talented young classical voices."

It dawned on her that "Vireo's" libretto was perfectly suited to be segmented. For instance, one scene might be set in Paris and the next, in a forest. Additionally, time skips from century to century. In order to stage it as a three-act opera in an opera house, challenges arise. When split into episodes, however, those challenges become, as Bielawa says, "more flexible and whimsical." Of course, choosing to film the opera presented its own difficulties: not only were the actors subject to a rigorous vocal audition, they also had to pass a screen test.

Bielawa insists her out-of-the-box approach is in no way a comment on traditional opera. Yet "Vireo's" fresh approach is a harbinger of change in the opera world. Recently, theaters and opera houses across the country felt a shift in the medium. Their audiences were aging, and if administrators didn't want the artform to disappear, they faced a serious dilemma: How to schedule programming that wouldn't offend their older, more affluent supporters/donor base while still managing to attract and cultivate younger, less solvent audiences?

San Francisco Girls Chorus members | Photo: Sheri Candler
"Vireo" rehearsal | Photo: Sheri Candler

Many artists and leaders in the medium have risen to the challenge and started innovating. Instead of ordering attendees to silence their iPhones, some operas encourage them to tweet during selected shows called "the tweet seats." The Dallas Opera broadcasts its performances into a nearby football stadium. Christopher Cerrone's Invisible Cities opera was heard through headphones in Union Station. And this spring, L.A. Opera will premiere "Hercules vs. Vampires," which synchronizes a live cast of singers with the 1961 cult film "Hercules in the Haunted World."

Bielawa recognizes opera is a constant evolution, revitalizing itself and adapting to technology of each generation.

"Our communities are changing, even if we don't know what to do with it, we should be playing with it."

This article was originally published on March 3, 2015.

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