Before we plunge into the post-pandemic world, perhaps it’s wise to take a breath and purge ourselves of the negative emotions we’ve been carrying around for the past 15 months. One compelling way to do that makes it online debut this Thursday, courtesy of LA Opera: a new video production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.
The 1927 opera/oratorio is uniquely positioned to help us process this moment, and not only because the story is set in the midst of a plague. The work is, essentially, “a piece of ritualized catharsis,” according to Christopher Koelsch, the company’s president and CEO.
“Opera allows you to move through pain by confronting pain,” he said. “It gives shape, voice, structure to something that can be inexpressible. When have we needed it more?”
One of the sad ironies of the pandemic is that it took away our ability to share our grief in a communal way. Very early on, Koelsch and his team responded by creating a virtual community — and since then, they have been watching it steadily grow.
To date, the company has created and posted nearly 150 online pieces ranging from panel discussions to experimental films. Together, they have been viewed more than 914,000 times — a number sure to rise with the addition of the Stravinsky work, which features Russell Thomas, J’Nai Bridges, and narrator Stephen Fry.
“In the end, my job is to create opportunities for artists, and to create pathways between an artist’s expression and an audience,” Koelsch said. The online content “was a way to keep that channel of creativity and connection open. We were going through some pretty grim days, and I felt we had a moral, institutional responsibility to create something that was in contrast to that.
“In this period of existential dread for the industry as a whole, these projects were kind of a safe harbor. Artists have a need to create. That we were able to create work in spite of all the impediments was really gratifying.”
LA Opera did not waste any time moving online. It closed its final pre-pandemic production, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, on March 8, 2020, and posted its first “Living Room Recital,” featuring Erica Petrocelli and Louis Lohraseb, on March 17.
Many more have followed in that series of informal performances, along with digital shorts, performances “From the Vault,” programs for youngsters, and “Coffee with Conlon,” in which Music Director James Conlon answers questions and chats about the music he was, temporarily, unable to actually make.
“What I have really liked about the program is that we keep recalibrating it based on what people respond to,” Koelsch said. He pointed to one particularly interesting trend: “Across the board, those projects featuring artists of color were exponentially more watched than other programs.”
The two most-watched programs were a panel discussion called “Lift Every Voice,” in which artists of color spoke about inequality within the classical music field, and “Brown Sounds,” a short film that celebrates African American art. Created by an all-Black artistic team, “Brown Sounds” features poetry by Henry Dumas set to music by Ayanna Witter-Johnson and sung by mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis.
Together, those two videos have received around 150,000 views. While Koelsch isn’t certain why they have proven so popular, they clearly resonate with the ongoing social-justice movement that arose last summer. “The ‘Lift Every Voice’ panel was extremely eye-opening,” he said. “We had never heard such brutal honesty from artists of color.”
Both are free to view, as is virtually all of LA Opera’s online content. The company only charged for a subscription series of “Signature Recitals” featuring name artists such as Susan Graham and Julia Bullock.
“Our donors have been extraordinarily generous to us over the course of the crisis,” Koelsch explained. “Enormous numbers of people donated their tickets to canceled shows back to the company. In my mind, this [free content] was an act of thanks to them.”
Oedipus will likewise be free (viewers are instructed to register at LAOpera.org/oedipus). Matthew Diamond’s film incorporates material from the company’s June 6 concert of the Stravinsky work, its first in-person performance since the pandemic struck.
Oedipus will be followed in the coming months by three more digital shorts, featuring music by Du Yun, Carlos Simon, and Anna Clyne. If the past is prologue, they promise to be both musically and visually creative: One recently posted short, with music by David Lang, uses damaged footage from a long-forgotten 1928 silent film.
“As we were entering into this digital realm, we were trying to sort out what it means to create work that is native to the digital space,” Koelsch said. “We wanted to use this opportunity to experiment with form. The crisis was inspiration to explore the boundaries of that.”
Koelsch, who is excited by “the staggering reach of these projects,” plans to continue turning out digital content even after the company resumes full productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the fall. He’s also considering commissioning online work that would complement some of the company’s in-person offerings.
“We changed the name of the digital platform from ‘LA Opera at Home,’ with all of its pandemic-related associations, to ‘LA Opera on Now,’” he noted. That signals it’s here to stay. “We’ve developed a skill set,” he said. No point in letting it go to waste.
“We have an incredible audio producer who lives in the Hudson Valley,” Koelsch added. “He was producing a lot of the music we used for our digital shorts remotely, using musicians in New York or Los Angeles. That worked out perfectly. I’m sure that happens all the time in pop music production, but I’d never thought of it.
“To my mind, that opens up a lot of opportunities for the future. It seems like the next frontier.”