Although Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser, a new opera by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte, has been more than two decades in the making, for Bielawa, the timing couldn’t be better as the project truly feels resonant for today.
Vireo stems from research Bielawa conducted for her 1990 senior undergraduate literature thesis at Yale, “Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Originality, closure and reproduction in the collaborative discourses of psychoanalytic hysteria and Surrealism” that haunted her. For this project, she’d uncovered centuries of collected records of groups of men detailing how mostly teenaged girls were experiencing hysterical visions. What struck Bielawa is that the women’s actual voices and experiences were vastly missing from these narratives. “Vireo is really a composite person,” the composer explained. “She’s an [amalgam] of others’ stories and reflects different centuries–opera’s an ideal form [for this piece] since opera can express all types of experiences.” And while drafts of this project have been in the works since 1994, Bielawa and her collaborator sent tapes to every major opera company in America in the 1990s and “never got a single response. We had to tell ourselves, that ‘maybe this isn’t the right time.’”
Bielawa was right to wait. Until work on Vireo began in earnest about three years ago, Bielawa, a 2009 Rome Prize Winner in Musical Composition, had the opportunity to build a name for herself as a vocalist and composer, with her works performed extensively in the United States and abroad. But, she never forgot about Vireo. In 2011, she was invited to collaborate in Southern California through the Grand Central Arts Center (GCAC) and soon an idea was hatched after meetings with Orange County School of the Arts, KCET (the non-profit digital and broadcast network) and the Yost Theatre: make Vireo into a 12-episode serialized opera to be released via broadcast and online media, a groundbreaking idea for this musical form. As other sponsors and partners pledged their support, Vireo could also present a whole range of performers–both new vocalists and some of the best artists in opera, a great honor for Bielawa. “Suddenly, the project became larger than I could have ever hoped,” Bielawa said. “It was a nationwide community building endeavor, it was a way to bring these opera communities together.”
And since the filming for the 12 episodes takes place in both New York and California locations, it made sense that Bielawa–a native San Franciscan and the artistic director for the San Francisco Girls Chorus–would invite Californians to collaborate. She found a Santa Clara County native Christina English in Boston’s innovative Lorelei Ensemble, a nine women vocal group that performs in Vireo’s Episode 11.
For English, it was a great pleasure to perform at home in California as she has spent over a decade now in Boston. “I mostly started as a dancer,” English explained. “At Presentation High School, I did the dance team and musicals. I liked singing and realized that if I was better at singing, I would enjoy it even more.” After taking private voice lessons, English began creating audition tapes for college. After submitting her very first classical piece for this process, English was pleasantly surprised to be admitted to every classical program she applied to and, thereafter, worked diligently in undergraduate and graduate programs to develop a vocal career.
From the moment English subbed for a member of the Lorelei Ensemble in 2008, she knew she had found something special. “The repertoire was different. It was not just traditional ‘women’s music’–flowers, love, spring, etc.–but the music was hard. I hadn’t seen a lot of music like that for ensembles. And while I loved my operatic soloist training, I saw the passion of the group.” Luckily, others have embraced Lorelei’s passion since they have commissioned and premiered more than 50 new works since their founding in 2007. “We’re becoming known in the business for being able to perform at a high level,” English explained. “[When people are looking for collaborators], they’re starting to think ‘Oh, Lorelei.’” In early 2017 alone, they have performances scheduled with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and are in residence at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.
For the Lorelei Ensemble, the chance to work with Bielawa on Vireo represented yet another change to try something new. “We were lucky–Lisa was able to come to our retreat in January in the Berkshires to […] give us background on the story. She’s got really great ears and gave lots of helpful suggestions.” For English and the Lorelei Ensemble, it was a whirlwind trip to California to participate. “We were apart from Lisa for a week, then we came to California – most [Lorelei members] flew in on Wednesday, had an evening rehearsal, filmed on location on Thursday, and flew back, which is very different than the residencies we do.”
It was also a unique experience for Bielawa to film this project: “Episodes nine-12 are filmed in Northern California–there was a range of locations–Alcatraz, Redwoods, and abandoned train stations.” The Lorelei Ensemble filmed at that abandoned train station–a spot in Oakland that was cold, damp, and, as English mentioned, had no electricity.
“We painted a bathroom white to look like a sterile and scary environment,” Bielawa explained. Lorelei sings in this Gothic-like environment, dressed as “timeless, freaky Twilight Zone lab assistants” who are singing the character Vireo into a morphine-induced dream. English commented on the performance as well, “We’re used to being on stage, we’re used to people looking at us. Now, we had the camera moving around us as we stood facing each other. There were a lot of ways in which this [filming] could have been difficult, but it was so exciting to try something new.”
Bielawa would agree with English’s assessment that “one of the things that most excites me most as an artist is that I love that I’m going to keep being surprised by adventures.” The composer hopes that this project will help bring audiences together–the binge watching generation and the long-time opera fans–to explore each other’s interests. “We’ve been thinking outside the box–from [the director] Otte to how I conduct to…” Bielawa laughed, “everything.”
When asked about what’s next, Bielawa was jokingly honest that after ending the final day of filming all she wanted was a nap before moving into the extensive post-production. But, then the composer turned reflective, “Art helps people understand themselves and that’s even more important today–that’s what keeps us going.” For Bielawa, this process has been especially important in these final scenes. “It was eerie to be filming right now. I had written on Election Day the aria that we ended up filming on Inauguration Day–a scary, anti-war, sardonic aria, sung by the Queen of Sweden [played by opera star Deborah Vogt]. […] then there were 110 girls [the SF Girls Chorus] in to film the next day. […] I feel so very proud of this organization. They are ambassadors for the Bay Area–they sang at the 1984 Democratic convention, they sang for President Obama’s inauguration. […] I think girls’ voices have such the broadest, expressive range. To get to be filming here in the Bay Area…it’s always just such an encouraging environment for this type of work.”
For viewers interested in this project, visit operavireo.org. Early episodes and clips are available at https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/projects/vireo. All 12 10-to-15 episodes will be released simultaneously in May.