Apple Macintosh
A 1984 Apple Macintosh on display at the National Museum of American History | Credit: Sagie

Back in the early and mid-1980s, before the World Wide Web, before Facebook, before America Online, before Google, before you had a supercomputer in your pocket, you could still connect to other people by computer. There were a few big services, like CompuServe and The Source. There were local digital bulletin boards. There was (and is) The WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link).

If you had a computer and modem, you could connect to one of these services, enter a chat room, and talk to other people. Well, type to other people. You couldn’t see them or hear them, but the communication was real.

Or at least it felt that way. As the saying goes — on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. And nobody knows whether you’re who and what you say you are.

In 1985, the writer Lindsy Van Gelder published an article in Ms. magazine called “The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover,” about a brilliant disabled woman, Joan, whom she’d met on CompuServe; the community of women that formed around Joan; and the events that unfolded as inconsistencies in Joan’s story emerged. Spoiler alert: She wasn’t at all who she claimed to be.

Beth Lisick and Lisa Mezzacappa
Beth Lisick and Lisa Mezzacappa | Credit: Amy Sullivan

Now, composer and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and librettist Beth Lisick have taken that story and turned it into an audio opera. The Electronic Lover takes the form of a podcast, issued serially in nine episodes between August 2020 and June 2024. It’s now digitally available on Innova Recordings. Not a spoiler: Your best listening experience is to treat this as a podcast and space out each delicious episode over a period of several weeks.

Lisick’s libretto hews closely to the story Van Gelder told, reflecting how Joan’s intelligence and generosity drew her electronic friends in and also how Joan’s disabilities, the result of a tragic car crash, made it difficult to challenge details of her story. The libretto sympathetically delineates the personalities of Joan’s friends: Theresa, who really is disabled and whom Joan flies to a Star Trek convention; Frankie, the overworked single mother whose college degree Joan funds; Margot, who runs the women’s chat room where they all meet; and Frankie’s grown daughter, interviewing the circle of friends years later about what happened.

The libretto is wry, clever, and funny, largely conversational but also with aria-like sections and choruses. It’s particularly funny to hear a series of internet terms and error messages set to music: “Wiki wiki / Wiki wiki / Will you accept the cookies? / Will you accept all the cookies? / Rate and review your experience / Internal server error / Submit the form again / This post is closed for comments.”

Mezzacappa’s endlessly inventive score includes bits of polyphony, drones, sound effects, Sprechstimme (speech-voice), ballads, horror movie music, operatic arias, and more. Chameleon-like, the score shifts vocal and accompanying styles more or less constantly. The composer achieves most of this with a tiny ensemble, consisting of Steve Blum on synth, Jordan Glenn on drums and percussion, and Mezzacappa herself on bass. The Del Sol String Quartet joins for the sixth episode, and the Premier Ensemble of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, directed by Valérie Sainte-Agathe, joins for the ninth.

Lisick herself narrates; the individual singers are Karina Denike, Michelle Amador, Katy Stephan, Melody Jeune Ferris, Will Adams, Nikola Printz, Lola Miller, David James, Sidney Chen, Aurora Josephson, Danishta Rivero, Jesse Olsen Bay, David Israel Katz, and Shawnette Sulker. All are superb, vocally and dramatically.