June 20, 2017
“This was a huge risk for everyone,” Lisa Bielawa told us the other day. “Nobody had any idea how big it was going to get. It’s like the virgin birth!”
Bielawa, 48, was referring to the making of her first opera, Vireo, the Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser. The opera had its world broadcast television premiere this month on both KCET in Southern California and Link TV nationwide. Two screenings will also occur in San Francisco on June 25, at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. A screening in New York is scheduled for July 7.
The opera is about a 17-year-old girl, who lives simultaneously in 16th-century France, 19th-century Austria, and 21st-century Sweden. While in the care of a Viennese doctor, she begins her odyssey back and forth through time. As her doctor puts it, Vireo “imagines herself a 20th-century girl living in 16th-century France, when really she’s a 19th-century girl in an asylum in Reims!”
The work is poetic and fantastical, visually stunning and relentlessly abstract, twisting around an arc that extends from witchcraft to Freudian notions of hysteria, to themes around male authority in therapy, fear of the psychic power of women, the role of boarding schools and ‘medical wings’ in treating women thought to be mentally unstable, to echoes of the debate around repressed memory syndrome, to gender identity, itself. Ghosts and “voices” are part of the spectacle. Vireo herself is a complex and somber character, a visionary on the road to enlightenment, but forever disturbing the peace, and at the heart of the matter, faced with the guilt of having accused innocent people of witchcraft who were burned at the stake.
Vireo, the Project
The opera consists of a dozen chapters each between six and 20 minutes long, took three years to develop, and involved a crew of 400 musicians, singers, stagehands, and postproduction technicians.
The first episode was taped in February 2015; the last in January 2017. The music was composed by Bielawa, on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte. Bielawa and Ehn first discussed the idea for the project 20 years ago, which is when Bielawa wrote the music for one of the arias.
Vireo is the first opera designed for episodic release, both on television and online, and the culmination of an artist residency project at the Grand Central Arts Center at California State University, Fullerton. “My hopes for Vireo,” says center director John Spiak in a promotional film about Vireo’s making “is that 30 or 40 years down the line it will be seen as one of those groundbreaking things that made a difference in the artistic world.”
“We’ve taken a live entertainment, opera,” adds the director, Charles Otte “and shot it as a piece of film, as opposed to finding an opera, staging it on a stage, and shooting it with three or four cameras. This is all done in a way that puts you in the opera by using a single camera (hand-held, gimbal, or Steadicam). This was conceived from the beginning as a piece of film. The fact that we’re shooting it episodically means that we’re able to give attention to detail, character twists, different musicians, new locations.”
Regarding time travel, Otte describes his approach this way, “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-century 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 with 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 see in a mediated production, are 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.”
Bielawa noted that the staging and filming, became “balletic” in their synchronization. “We got to a point where we were working together so beautifully that when Charles wanted to shoot part of episode 10 inside a 1962 Valiant, it all went perfectly. You can imagine the limitations of space, and everything is captured as it happens. Initially, we had to figure out a way to get the singers in the front seat and have somebody be able to accompany them in the back seat. Just figuring out what that instrument could be was part of the puzzle. For example, if you had a violinist there was not enough room to extend your bow arm. You could have a piccolo but then there’s only a small range of pitches. We ended up using a hurdy-gurdy.”
Balancing the Books
The opera’s cost, including postproduction, was nearly $1 million. The original budget estimate was around $69,000. Higher costs were driven in part by the desire to feature unusual locations, including the Oakland train station and Alcatraz Prison, which is on an island in San Francisco Bay.
“I’m going to be paying off debt for years,” said Bielawa, who added that “most people would be alarmed at how much time I and others spent on this, particularly raising money. The big challenge is fundraising, particularly because this was such a new concept.”
Bielawa was one of three executive producers, as well as the composer and music director. The producers included Grand Central Art Center, KCET, and a partnership, Single Cel, made up of Otte, Ehn, and Bielawa. The Fort Mason Center came on as a partner and donated space; the San Francisco Girls Chorus provided both singers and rehearsal space.
“A lot of people provided in-kind service to balance the cash cost,” said Bielawa, “but everybody got paid. I don’t know how we did it, but I have absolutely no regrets. None. We got it all in the can, somehow, and I can still pay my rent. All I need at this point is a good nap.”
The hope is that Vireo gets picked up at film festivals, or perhaps broadcast in shorter segments. Or is picked up by various distribution services. Because there were no commercial expectations, the opera may be a real test of the marketplace for this kind of offering. “I want people to have a variety of successful experiences absorbing it,” said Bielawa. “Some may prefer to watch one episode multiple times or binge watch or watch it out of order. I’m very interested in how people personalize their appetite for it. The subject is rich but also poetic and abstract. It will have to find its audience in a number of likely and unlikely places.”
In Search of the Big Idea
Lisa Bielawa’s signature is the big idea. In the spring of 2013, she brought together 230 musicians from all over Germany to play a concert at the old Tempelhof air base outside Berlin. A few months later, that fall, she assembled 800 musicians, including choruses, marching bands, and instrument ensembles, to play her 60-minute sonic-music composition at Crissy Field in San Francisco. She finds herself very much at home with large scale.
“I would do another one of these [like Vireo] in a heartbeat. I guess the only draw back is that, when you do something like this, you have to ask is everyone else suited to it? In this case the answer is clearly yes. That was particularly true for Charlie, for example, who has one foot in contemporary opera and one foot in television. How many directors have that? For me, I have the ability to conduct from memory while walking backwards behind a camera. But I’m also a singer, so I can coach young singers, and I’m a literature major so I’m close to text.”
Bielawa notes that the combination of working with others as a director and working alone as a composer was ideal. Particularly the latter. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t love the solitude involved in composing. There were several weeks where I barely went outside. But I love that, I crave it. I’ve come to realize that I’m more like a normal composer than I realized when I was younger. I’m really just like the rest of them.”