Over the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that live musical performances simply couldn’t take place. Orchestras, opera companies, and concert presenters weren’t about to risk the lives of performers, audience members, and the myriad individuals who contribute behind the scenes to what you see when the curtain goes up.
In response to this vacuum, individuals and musical organizations started to present from their living rooms, rooftops, and backyards. In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Symphony presented a series of online performances under the Symphony+ name; Volti found software to coordinate individual singers for online performances; Left Coast Chamber Ensemble performed in small, socially distanced groups.
Constraints create innovation, and Boston Lyric Opera (BLO), in association with Long Beach Opera (LBO), has commissioned what it calls an “operatic miniseries,” desert in, which you can view on BLO’s streaming service, operabox.tv.
desert in was co-created by composer Ellen Reid, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for her opera p r i s m; playwright and screenwriter christopher oscar peña; and James Darrah, LBO’s recently appointed artistic director. The trio worked with eight composers, six librettists, four directors, nine on-screen performers, and seven off-screen singers to produce the eight episodes that make up desert in. Three of the on-screen performers sing their roles; the other vocal parts are taken by unseen singers.
Set in a midcentury motel in the Southern California desert, but near a beach, desert in tells the stories of Sunny (soprano Talise Trevigne) and Cass (mezzo Isabel Leonard), a lesbian couple who are proprietors of the motel, and gay couple Ion and Rufus (played respectively by Raviv Ullman and baritone Edward Nelson; Alexander John Flores and tenor Jesus Garcia). Ion and Rufus are having problems and have come to the inn seeking ... what? In the course of desert in, Rufus disappears, and it’s implied that he has drowned himself in the sea or otherwise committed suicide. Ion desperately wants him back but also becomes involved with the one-legged Federico (Anthony Michael Lopez, tenor Alan Pingarrón), who might be Sunny’s brother.
Mysterious occurrences start soon after Ion’s opening monologue, during which he addresses an absent lover — gender and sex unknown. The action moves to the motel, where there’s a drag-queen lounge singer, played and sung spectacularly by Justin Vivian Bond, in the bar. Cass, who takes on a more and more sinister aspect over the course of the series, leads a ritual that results in a death. You might begin to wonder whether she has supernatural powers — and you might be surprised at what a spooky, scary witch Isabel Leonard makes, for a mezzo whose usual fare is spunky Rossini heroines.
Sunny is also trying to figure out her past, and discovers that maybe she isn’t at the Desert Inn quite as willingly as she might hope. That pool at the Inn? Be careful about going into it. Consider listening and paying attention to the small chorus, here called the Vapors. Watch the fate of the Old Man/Derek, played by Ricco Ross and sung by the exciting bass-baritone Davóne Tines.
desert in is broken up into eight short episodes, making it easy enough to take in over a few days, or all at once. The music varies considerably in style, and yet I never had a sense of musical disconnection. The composers for the work are Michael Abels, Vijay Iyer, Nathalie Joachim, Nico Muhly, Emma O’Halloran, Ellen Reid, Wang Lu, and Shelley Washington. The librettists are Kirsten Greenidge, Ryan J. Haddad, Quentin Nguyen-duy, A. Rey Pamatmat, Roxie Perkins, and Jesse J. Sanchez, whose contributions worked well together and made poetic and narrative sense.
The mysterious, slowly-unfolding plot kept me off-balance and deeply absorbed. The disjointed, imaginative visual style suggests pop music videos more than any conventional opera video I’ve ever seen,and works marvelously well; great credit for this to director of photography Michael Elias Thomas, production designer Yuki Izumihara, and lighting designer Pablo Santiago. James Darrah, Zackary Drucker, Joy Kecken, and Raviv Ullman directed. Costumes are by Molly Irelan. The Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra provided the instrumental soundtrack, conducted by David Angus.
Kudos to Boston Lyric Opera and Long Beach Opera, two small, adventurous organizations, for putting together desert in. This mixed-media opera/music video series would be a significant artistic achievement at any time; I can only imagine the challenges they had to overcome during the pandemic.
You can watch desert in at www.operabox.tv/desert-in; a pass for the full series is $30.