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Director Charlie Otte on 'Vireo'

Witches. Wisdom. Wonder. Vireo is an opera created for TV and online broadcast that considers the usage of "female hysteria" throughout the decades. 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.

Charlie Otte is a creative director who works in multi-media theater, opera, music. For Vireo, he directed the filming of the live performance, which was staged at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana.

Artbound recently caught up with Otte, who discussed the intricacies of producing an opera for the screen.

On his experiences working in theater

I moved into New York in the 1980's. I came from a pretty traditional theatre background, I had been working at a couple of regional theaters around the country. Got to New York and was in a great position to work for in a sense with Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Andrei Serban. At one point in my career, I stage managed for Martha Graham when she was still alive. Got to work with Aaron Copland. There was a great production that we did at Wolf Trap of "Appalachian Springs," Copland conducted and Martha Graham was still alive. So I kind of caught the very end of those careers and then was around for when the Philip Glass Ensemble was really starting to take into major popularity. I had a wonderful opportunity to work with David Byrne from Talking Heads when he did the music to "The Knee Plays," which was part of Bob Wilson's "Civil Wars."

I was there and had an opportunity to work with great people. I started a theater company of my own in New York that was called Project III Ensemble, which we created with a lot of people who were graduates from the Circle In The Square acting program. We did some very experimental work with the things that we wrote, created, devised really before "Devised Work" really even became a term. And I've always really worked a lot with media, even in my stage productions. That's always been something that has interested me. The intersection of live and mediated work, and how those two things can work together and a complementary way and not lose their real identity. It's something I've been interested a lot and I continue to do some work and I've taught for five years at the University of Texas. I started a program and integrated media for live performance that took a really close look at how projection, design, audio, and media can work in conjunction with live performance, both as a director and a designer.

On how he became involved with "Vireo"

Lisa Bielawa and I have known each other since the early 1990's when we met on a production of "Einstein on a Beach," which was directed by Robert Wilson and with music by Philip Glass. We've been on tour together. And during the last tour of "Einstein," she and I were talking about doing new music and figuring out a way that would be wonderful to get a production of hers up and running. And during that conversation on the bus, we were thinking, "How could you get these things produced?" We thought "maybe we should do what we're doing now. Let's not try and produce a whole 2 1/2 hour opera on a stage, but rather let's break it into pieces, let's have it be episodic, and let's find a new medium. Let's stream it." Our initial thought was "let's shoot it really cheaply and let's stream it so that people could essentially hear it."

In its early stages, it was more like a concert in some ways. And we were lucky enough that John Spiak down at the GCAC became interested in producing this. Once John became interested, our vision grew and I would say at a certain level, I started pushing things along further than anybody maybe thought they were going to go. I don't think that John and Lisa thought that we would have quite the size of production that we had, but once we started down that road we also realized we had a lot of resources here in L.A. that we could contribute to making a really viable artistic production that was more than just simply a concert version, or more than simply than a live version but really had artistic merit as a piece of media.

For instance, some of the ideas that I had been talking about with Lisa, and trying to bring to this project, is the idea that since Vireo exists in time in a number of different centuries that it would be great through the use of video and media that we could actually show that. We don't necessarily have to be constrained by the fact that you can't in a live performance run off stage and change a costume. But really, the actual media itself reflects some of the inner turmoil that she is experiencing through how were going to shoot it and edit it. And also it reflects the fact that she lives in three different centuries. So those are almost all things that would be accomplished in a different way, in a purely live performance. But the fact that were able to shoot it, means that we can use that in a creative way as a piece of art and make something new out of the piece as opposed to say what might happen at the production where you are basically recording it.


KCET is Southern California Television

On the episodic nature of "Vireo"

We are hoping to continue to finish this and really probably do it in 12 episodes. So we have 10 more to go. Lisa and Eric [Ehn] have been able to break down the script and where the dividing points are and how to accomplish all this.

On the formal aspects of "Vireo's" time shifting

Because of the fact that Vireo lives and exists in essentially three different centuries: 16th Century France, 19th Century Austria, and 21st Century Sweden, Europe. It meant that she could exist in my mind simultaneously in all three of those time periods. As opposed to just one sequentially. For instance, in a live performance you live in the moment from beat to beat to beat. In the case from some sort of film or some mediated production, she could live simultaneously in all three of those time zones and really ghosts of herself can be visual and apparent.

What we've done in the editorial process is layer Vireo in certain instances over herself so that you'll see for instance, her 19th Century self in costume with ghosts of the 16th Century and 21st Century girl also present. We could also cut between the different time periods. So what we did was shot three full performance that we're totally complete with a moving camera for the steady cam. So the very first run through is Vireo in her modern costume, second-- Vireo in a 19th Century costume, and third is Vireo in her 16th Century costume. The ability then to have for instance, like a little rip in time where Vireo moves from 21st Century to 16th Century or to any other time period allows us to jump around and at the same time express the idea that these are universal issue that she is dealing with.

In the shooting of this, planning ahead, I shot three full takes of each episode. Each one is done with Vireo in a different costume. So we see Vireo shot in her 21st costume, then we see her in her 19th Century costume, then we see her in her 16th Century costume. When putting it all together editing, I'll open Vireo in her modern costume and layer the additional images over top of that. So what you'll see, which you couldn't see in a live production but you'll be able to see in a mediated production, is you'll see three girls, all Vireo, all together, occasionally one of them perhaps becoming dominant, and the others slightly there visually as ghosts or slightly tinted characters there to represent the idea that she exists in all these places all the time.

On deciding to create a triple vision of Vireo

One of the interesting things about this piece is that it covers so many universal ideals of how girls are perceived through time by society, specifically how girls who are suffering from hysteria are perceived through time. And how society reacts to them, how men react to them, how their families react to them. For instance, we see the doctor both as a priest and the doctor. I may be layering him as well. And kind of archetypal characters change through time, but still their essence remains the same.

Vireo herself is a 16th Century girl, we can see how somebody in that time period would be perceived in the 21st Century. In the 16th Century, she is possessed, she hears voices, she sees things, she has fits. In the 21st Century, she is a disturbed girl, who maybe parties too much. In the 19th Century, she is being psychoanalyzed by a psychiatrist. Throughout history, society is always trying to analyze and understand people who are slightly outside what is perceived as the mainstream. Though, it's always filtered through an outside lens depending on who you are and what time period you're living in.

Rowen Sabala as Vireo. | Photo: Remsen Allard

On the decision to film in one take

I wanted to do this in one take for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons is that for singers and performance, what you lose in control, and editing and doing multiple takes, you gain something in the sense of what their actual performance is. And with music as difficult as this and complex, it's not something that you want to cut in and out of that much. So in reality, the form works perfectly for this to try and shoot it in one take. It means that you really need to think carefully about the camera movement and what's going to happen and to keep a modern audience involved and interested. But at the same time, you realize that everything is real, everything that happened, happened. It wasn't necessarily that we cut to a clock on the wall and now we're somewhere else. Where you're seeing it in real time as it occurs, which brings that sense of "liveness" to the event which otherwise you might miss. So, I feel that it brings all those things together.

On the production's interconnection with contemporary technological experience

I'm sure 100 years from now, they'll be like "oh in the 21st Century they thought this." So this gives us an opportunity to be able to look at those things simultaneously, which I also find kind of interesting in terms of how our minds are starting to work in the 21st Century.

People more and more are able to multitask and look at things from different points of views and see things in multifaceted ways. For instance, in this production we might stream the text so that you have it on a mobile device, or something like that. So rather than see subtitles which are traditionally done in an opera, you can look at the image, see it. But if you really want to see the actual words, you don't have to see them printed across the image. You can look at your phone to look at the subtitles and get additional content. We're actually doing that with the picture by multilayering. So, I feel like there is great opportunities there.

Laurie Rubin as the Voice. | Photo: Remsen Allard


On the relationship between opera and the television medium

Opera is really one of the more traditional artforms. The canon was written a while ago. New composers are out there writing new material, but is very difficult to get some of those operas produced. I think as things progess, opera companies are in a position where they want to do new work but at the same time are constrained by their built in audience. One way out of that constraint is to start to use media, whether that is the MET starting to shoot their shows and streaming them and letting everyone see them. Or, in our case, actually creating something that is specifically designed to be seen on TV or in some sort of streaming format. I think that we're at the cusp of live entertainment, both opera and theater, we're at the cusp of a place where media is going to take a very important part into how they survive into the 21st century and continue to develop.

I'm not saying live performance will disappear because I think live performance is amazing powerful and an important element of this, but at the same time it reduces in some way the amount of people that can see it. And it also is a little backwards looking. So in order to keep moving forward, people need to embrace some of the new formats and work with them and figure out ways that they will complement the live work and work together in some sort of relation that strengths both things. I think you need the live element. But in some ways, you really need to really take advantage of the fact that we can do a lot of things with media, with recording, with elements of production in editorial, special effects, music recording. There's so many things you can do that are going to add production value. And to preserve an audience and keep an audience interested you need to move forward. And you need to engage them on platforms that they are interested in and platforms that they understand and interact with daily. So that somehow these events can become important to them personally.

On the global audience of "Vireo"

Our audience, for "Vireo" there are people in America and worldwide who are interested in new music and new opera. Not because it is not produced as often, they aren't necessarily going to see a show, because it's going to be difficult. They will however be able to see this. The internet has opened up the possibilities of niche markets to almost everybody. Which means you can really find your audience, and the audience can find what they like. In some ways, people see this as dangerous because you're fracturing what used to be monolithic entertainment models. The studios, I think are finding this and the record industry has certainly found it. But at the same time, it puts more power in the hand of the audience, of the consumer: "I want a particular thing, I can find it and see it." And the numbers are such that in reality, there are a lot of people who want to see this particular thing. So in a way it's very liberating for the artist and the audience when we're able to make this dialogue work. It's still in the infant stages as people learn more and more about it. I find it hard sometimes to find what I want to see. You know, you have to wade through tons of stuff to find what you want. It's just a matter of finding out who your people are, and what type of material you do like, and how you're going to be able to get it.

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On the historical precedent of operas on television or film

There was a production of "Carmen" that was shot specifically as a film. It's not that people don't create things and shoot them for TV or film. Back in the early days of TV, it was live theater being shot with multiple cameras in a live format. And as video tape developed, people were able to record things and edit them and do things differently with them. So there is nothing ever totally new. At the same time, I think we are breaking some new ground in that people have essentially staged an opera and then shot it. Where as this was created specifically with the camera in mind. There is a live audience that's been invited so we have that sense of live performance. And I think people really enjoyed it. But what they were really experiencing was the opera being filmed. They weren't experiencing necessarily just the opera. So they were experiencing the other level of communication that was added to it.

In some ways, this is the TV model that sitcoms have.Where they're shooting in front of a live TV audience. There's an element of this in that there's a live audience that came in to watch us shoot. It's a little different in that that is also designed so that the live audience can really look into multiple sets. Where this is created as a single camera shoot, with an audience there to be able to take a look at what we are doing. Unlike most productions of this, for instance the MET. The MET has a staged production opera and then they shoot it from the back of the house. They have a couple of other cameras as well. Essentially they're not changing the staging of the production for the shooting of it. There shooting what they already created.

 

Further Reading on "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser:"

Episodic Opera: Composer Lisa Bielawa on Vireo
"Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser," is a new opera that considers the nature and uses of female hysteria through time. Composer Lisa Bielawa discusses the inspiration behind the innovative work.

Librettist Erik Ehn on Writing "Vireo"
"Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" is based on research done by composer Lisa Bielawa did on the history of female hysteria for her college thesis.

A History of Hysteria in Art, Film, and Literature
A look at the history of hysteria in the Western psyche, in relation to "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser"

Kronos Quartet on the Sound of "Vireo"
The Kronos Quartet created the music that accompanies the performers on "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser."

 

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