Virtual theatre, says librettist Rob Handel, is inherently skeuomorphic, and that’s a problem. The term, derived from the Greek skeuos (“container”) and morphḗ (“form”), describes an “object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material.” It describes electric lights designed to look like wax candles, for instance, or the image of a notebook illustrating the notes app on your iPhone.
For Handel, though, the key to making successful online performances, like the opera he recently co-created, all decisions will be made by consensus, will be to avoid this lookalike temptation. “What we need now,” Handel said recently, “is a whole new body of work that is not skeuomorphic–where it’s not plays and operas that are pretending, or being nostalgic for when we could all get in a room together.”
His is one of two recent online opera endeavors that have avoided this trap entirely. Neither all decisions—which Handel created with composer Kamala Sankaram and director Kristin Marting, artistic director of HERE Arts Center, as the world’s first first live Zoom opera—nor Michael Roth’s The Web Opera, strive to recreate the world of the concert hall, instead embracing the form they take. In all decisions, a group of activists deliberate over Zoom. A meta-opera conceived by Sankaram, it took shape in the wake of the March 12 shutdown of New York theatres, when Marting was looking for an authentic way to bring artists together and “be able to talk about art instead of talking about how to raise money.” Handel, Sankaram, and Marting had already collaborated on Looking at You, an “immersive techno-noir opera,” and given Marting’s strong relationship to the intersection of video, technology, and theatre, this new project seemed like a no-brainer.
Sankaram had already been playing around with audio on Zoom as she worked to move her music classes online, “For us music teachers, a lot of moving online has been asking, ‘How do you actually make this work and sound good?’” After discussions with Joe Holt, a founder of the online music company Bandcamp, Sankaram discovered that Zoom could in fact be a good for streaming live performances. She had an idea: “There should be an opera for Zoom where the people in the opera are in a Zoom meeting and they know they’re in a Zoom meeting.” In a week’s time, Handel had completed a draft of the libretto and Sankaram had completed the music.
While the final product in all virtual performance is markedly different from the live version, the process of creating the show, even under the guidelines of social distancing, had all the characteristics of a typical rehearsal process, albeit with cast members isolated at their homes. And as with any live production, there were endless tech issues to be sorted out before opening night.
“Zoom says it can do things that it doesn’t do!” Marting pointed out. “They said you could set a host view, but you couldn’t really set a host view that was what the audience actually saw. So there was one rehearsal where I thought I was directing people with what the audience would see—and then we looked at the recording and it wasn’t that way at all. So I had to go back and I had to have two screens: one to show what people actually saw, and the singers would just have to believe me because it wouldn’t look that way to them.”
Eventually the audio delays, internet lags, and frustrating manipulation of Zoom boxes were sorted out, and the 15-minute-long opera went live on Friday, April 24th, drawing around 600 viewers during its weekend run from across the country and Europe. The creative team prepared for technical difficulties and met them with ease.
“In our first performance one of our actors froze in the middle of her big solo,” said Sankaram. “But, fortunately, we had planned for and built that into the piece, so what we did is skip to the next cue, and then when she unfroze she joined up with us again, just as you would do if you were doing a live play or musical or opera.” An additional 2,000 viewers have watched a recorded version of the opera, and, despite free admission, suggested donations have allowed for artist compensation. “The singers got paid okay for doing this gig,” Marting recalled, “and that felt really good right now, when artists have nothing, that we were able to give some artists some money in their hands.”
Roths’ Web Opera predates the coronavirus lockdown, and so didn’t have the same technical and logistical hurdles, though it had plenty of its own. This short film, comprising five episodes, two of which are still to be released, is based on a true story of college cyberbullying, meaning that the inciting incidents of the plot predominantly take place online. Roth’s initial impetus for the project, partly due to the difficulties of developing new staged music-theatre projects, was to “create a new form and way to present theatre—not a filmed performance, but a film.” First conceived in 2018, Roth’s project now looks prophetic at a time when quarantine dictates that digital forms will be the only way to access live performance for some time.
As with the creators of all decisions, it was crucial for Roth and librettist Kate Gale that the content of the project align with its form. A tragic story of cyberbullying, inspired by the suicide of Tyler Clementi, lent itself excellently to the format, as it could take place from the point of view of a computer monitor; its message about the current ethical responsibilities of living in a digitized world (“Privace is fragile,” goes one tagline) is affirmed by its medium. It is an opera that, despite being filmed last year, speaks to our current working-and-learning-from-home era, when we all seem to live through our computers. A pivotal moment in the film—in which the main character, known only by his username FG97, tweets out intrusive information about his roommate—is conveyed with a subtlety that could only be achieved through this lens.
“When FG97 sends out the tweet, in traditional music theatre he would sing it,” Roth said. “But it’s as incidental as ordering Korean food or texting your boyfriend. It’s the same thing. He just happens to be sending a tweet out. As we talked about it with Reuben, the actor, I don’t think he gives it much thought. But we’re able to score the moment and film the moment with graphics to create the climax of the opera.”
The accessibility of film also attracted Roth, who has tired of the common prejudice against contemporary subjects and settings that seems rampant in the opera world. “Opera is a through-sung musical drama—that’s all it is,” said Roth, who has worked as music director for songwriter/composer Randy Newman and whose other works include the Beckett-based Imagination Dead Imagine. How do you know that those actors can’t sing in a more operatic, so to speak, classical fashion?” By focusing on current issues and employing a young, diverse cast, Roth hopes to reach young people and show that opera “can sound like a million things.”
It can also appear in many different ways. Both all decisions will be made by consensus and The Web Opera capitalize on the computer camera’s presence instead of ignoring it. As we peer through the monitor’s lens, we can experience musical performance in a dynamic way impossible to achieve onstage, all from the comfort of our own homes.