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Composer Lisa Bielawa on 'Vireo'

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Witches. Wisdom. Wonder. Vireo is an opera created for TV and online broadcast that considers the usage of "female hysteria" throughout the decades. The multi-episode production was composed by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte. "Vireo" is the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.

Twenty years ago composer Lisa Bielawa was inspired by her studies of hysteria and worked with librettist Erik Ehn to create the work "Vireo." Artbound recently spoke with Bielawa to explore the stories behind the creation of Vireo and the historical context behind the episodic opera.

On the conceptual basis of "Vireo"

Vireo really had its birth in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale. I was writing a senior essay that ended up being three times as long as it was supposed to be. It kind of took over my life. I initially thought that I was looking at collaborative male authorship on the subject of female protagonists. But what I found was much, much more than I had bargained for.

It's just unbelievable how many collaborative writings -- case histories, trial documents, evidence of communities of men throughout Western history -- who convened in order to create all kinds of discourse around the same subject matter, which was teenage girls, who were having some kind of transcendent experience.

What actual fields these men were from changed: Were they doctors? Were they priests? In some cases they were experimental artists, who were giving young girls absinthe in the back of a bar, and watching them create spontaneous, automatic poetry.

But the evidence of these young girls was in these collaborative documents that I found. These writings or trial documents that I found, in which there was at the center of it, a young teenage girl. But her own direct voice was missing. It was through the prismatic analysis of what she was saying and doing that you learned about the re-articulation of this phenomenon throughout Western history.

That senior essay is still filed there somewhere at Yale, but I came away from my experience at Yale with all of this research. I remember when Erik Ehn and I started working on this opera. It was before emails, of course. I used to send these thick packages to him. I couldn't believe I was working with someone who would read this stuff. I finally felt that I had found a way to engage with the stuff that I had found through this collaboration and through this project.

KCET is Southern California Television

"Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" is a new opera that considers the nature and uses of female hysteria through time.
Promo: Vireo

On the subject matter

The title character, Vireo, is a young woman, who's archetypal to some degrees, at least a composite figure that Erik has put together from all of these various sources. She has experiences that she doesn't understand. In the first episode, she's walking through the woods. She lives in the 16th century in that moment, and she hears a voice at 5:30 AM when she's carrying coals from the neighbor's house. The voice is frightening, but colorful, and magical. It beckons to her, it frightens her. She's not sure what it is, but it opens up a whole new view to the kinds of things that she might be able to know and learn and live. Once that view has been opened to her, the world of her mother and her chores and her future -- whatever that might have been in France in the 16th century -- her view begins to be troubled by this view into this trans-historical truth that she's been shown. She keeps moving towards it, moving away from it. She keeps wanting to know more about it, but she finds herself in these contexts that also teach her that people around her are not comfortable knowing with her having primary knowledge of some kind of transcendent wisdom.

She's a genius child who is a filament. She has these sensations that inspire her to leap outside of history, and so she does. That's where Erik takes us.

On her collaboration with librettist Erik Ehn

Erik Ehn is the librettist of Vireo. He was with us at the tapings and has been working closely with Charlie Otte, the director, and myself. The three of us have been very closely collaborating on this for the last year or so. In 1994, Erik and I met through one of these young, matchmaking young composers meet-young-playwrights programs that was being offered at New Dramatists in Manhattan. I was a young composer looking to meet playwrights. We wrote small scenes with each of them. I had after this experience what I like to call a 'prom moment' with Erik: I asked him: "Do you think maybe you'd like to write another thing with me? Could we do something else together?" I loved his writing so much, and felt so drawn to his vision that I felt like if Erik writes the words, the music writes itself.

On the music of Vireo

I think Vireo has its own musical, emotional language. It's a musical dialect. It has its own musical world that's melodic. There are these themes, these motives that return, that mean certain things. There is that very traditional things that I am doing in this opera.

The first thing that I am doing when I sit down to write more Vireo is get myself into the harmonic world of Vireo. To me, that brings it the emotional language, it's mystical. It's about using harmony and melody to bring the listener into the kind of experience that Vireo had in the forest that first time. It has to do with lyricism and the voice. It has to do with complexity and simplicity, drama, pacing and wonder. It has to do with wonder, finding sounds that are constantly unveiling a new state of wonder.

Lisa Bielawa. | Photo: Matt Gush

On the long gestation period of the work

I was in my early 20s. I was a composer who hadn't ever actually had many public performances. I sent it to every opera company in the country, and they had no idea who I was. I had no track record. I loved the project, but I remember saying to Erik, "Look, you know what? I have to go do other stuff." I have to be someone else before I can launch this thing, and we did other projects for 20 years, separately and together.

It was really when I had the invitation from John Spiak to make work at Grand Central Arts Center that we were starting to explore this idea, I fell in love with the Yost Theater. I met Maria Lazarova, who is the director of the classical voice conservatory at Orance County School for the Arts. I started putting two and two together, and I realized there are really talented teenage girls singing at this place. So, it all came together.

I called up Erik, I said "listen, you gotta meet John." Then Erik and I both knew of Charlie Otte. I worked with Charlie since 1992, because we worked on Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson's "Einstein on the Beach" together, when I first got that job when I was 23 years old. It was a ground swell, it was very organic process, and we knew where to go. Then we found Rowan [who played the lead, Vireo].

On casting 16-year-old soprano Rowen Sabala as Vireo

Right after the auditions Charlie and I had been very silent during the process. We didn't know what each other thought. But both of us really saw that she could sing the role. She's smart. She's great on camera. She's very intelligent and also about her own pacing. She knows how to work. She has entered into this professional community with all of this humility and openness but also this strength and focus of a young professional. It was astounding to see her unfold.

Lisa Bielawa. | Photo: Matt Gush

On her compositions and community

I compose works that create communities. It usually finds its expression from within the community where I'm making the work. For example, I did a couple of large scale pieces in Berlin and in San Francisco that were responses to the fact that these two places had these historic air fields that are now public parks. These are both cities, Berlin and San Francisco, that are all about the revitalization of public life and public space in these formerly military places. They're also cities that have an incredible amount of amateur and student music-making.

These two air field broadcasts compositions brought together hundreds of musicians from amateur all the way up to professional to perform out on these fields, these public parks.

On how Orange County inspired "Vireo"

The fact that this opera found this serialized form, episodic form, has everything to do with where we're making it and the fact that that's one of the ways in which people think about art here. When I entered into the Orange County community, and explored what was happening here, I suddenly thought, "Wait, I'm in Southern California. There's the industry here." A lot of the people I encountered here are involved in some way with the industry, and with serialized media.

On discovering the Orange County School for the Arts

I remember stumbling across it in one of my first walks in the neighborhood by myself, I was running and I went back to John [Spiak] and said, "What is Orange County School of the Arts?" He set up this meeting. Maria Lazarova who is the Director of their Classical Voice Conservatory is signing the role of the mother because as it turns out I found out that she is a mezzo which is a voice part and I had her send me stuff and I was very impressed with her voice and her own work as a performer. She set up auditions there for the role of Vireo which were very competitive and it was a tough audition. The call backs came down to a couple of cameras. It was a screen test as well as an opera call back. There was a whole section from the first episode. All of the girls in the call backs had that whole scene memorized and it was a two hour event.

On the formal structure

The idea behind the structure of Vireo is that by making it into an episodic adventure as opposed to a three act opera it makes it possible for things like cameos. Who is in Southern California on tour? Who wants to come in? Kronos Quartet was here. That is why we did it then.

We have the idea that we can have people that were coming through, bring them to work with the local artists and have Vireo be a way for them to have the greatest community impact between musical artists working at the highest level and the community that is building up around the piece that lives here. We don't know where all the episodes are gonna be in the future but the partnerships we are building in each episode will take Vireo and the characters around her into different contexts. It means that every time I can have a different band.

It also means that the piece can kind of grow and change as Rowan grows and changes, she is 16 now, she is gonna be growing up. She may be 18 when we are done. There are changes that are inherent in this, rather than trying to minimize them so it can be fixed on stage at a certain moment we are playing into them and welcoming them.

On specific research that led to realizing the work

In the trial documents from the Salem Witch Trial, there are amazing actual courtroom scenes verbatim that you can read, in which a young girl names an older woman as a witch, and then she's hanged. Then there are still cows dying in the town. So, the logic of the community of elders: "oh, then there must still be witches in the community. We must not have gotten them all." There's pressure then on the namers of witches to make more namings. There are these systems of power. We see a lot of those systems of power enacted on Vireo.

At the turn of the century, which is one of our time periods, there was a doctor named Dr. Charcot, who was one of Freud's teachers in Paris, and he was studying hysteria, and he had a lot of doctors other neurologists who were studying hysteria too. One of the things that became vivid for me, as I studied these communities around these hysterics, was what kinds of options there were for young girls and their lives at that time in Victorian society and what it meant to make certain decisions. A lot of times girls in a certain community, maybe one or two of them would have these experiences and then the doctors would rush in and study them. They would be taken to Paris and studied at the Salpêtrière clinic. What started to happen was more and more girls became hysterics because, think about it: You're a teenage girl, and you're living in the late 1800s in Paris. What are your options for the future? Here's one in which you spend most of your days talking to really intelligent men, who are very interested in your experiences. Or there were ugly experiences also of being a wife.

The opportunity, if you had these visions, to be catapulted into another scenario, in which you were the focus of study, was scary, might also have had benefits. These girls had agency.

On her musical education

I was fortunate enough to have musical parents, which means I started my musical training very young. I grew up in San Francisco, and I started violin at three and sang in my mother's church choir. So, I had a lot of musical education as a child. I sang in the San Francisco girl's chorus when I was a teenager, and toured with them. My father is a composer, so I had a lot of exposure to new and experimental music. Then, when I graduated from high school I went to Yale for college for undergrad, and I ended up majoring in literature there. My research as a literature major at Yale that ended up informing this opera.

I graduated and I moved to New York with no money and couch surfed and starved for a while, and then eventually, I started getting gigs as a singer. I was writing music the whole time, but I got my first professional opportunities as a singer. I started singing with the Philip Glass ensemble when I was 22, and singing in various early Renaissance music groups. Then a few years later, I started getting professional performances of my music as well, as a composer. So, I started a festival with Philip Glass for young composers in New York that's still very active. It's the largest young composer's festival in the world, the Mata Festival.

Over the course of time I had a very active and robust singing life and then a robust composing life and they were mostly separate. Every once in a while I'll sing in my own work, but in Verio I don't sing. I'm conducting and I'm mostly focused on mentoring young singers and being on the creative team, which is a great pleasure. I come to this project as a singer. It informs my work with singers. It informs my understanding of opera and lyrical musical forms. But my role in this is as composer and as a member of the creative team that has brought the piece to life.

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