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Director Charles Otte on Visions of 'Vireo'

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Witches. Wisdom. Wonder. Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on KCET.org and LinkTV.org. 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.

 

Tall trees guard the edges of a sunken stage, where a dozen or more young girls in Victorian-styled peasant-looking clothing are standing, gazing toward a raised area, where a quartet sits, perched, waiting. The young girls stare off into oblivion as they wait to encase one woman in a resonant blanket of vocal harmonies. Fog fills the small forest, and the quartet starts playing with subtle dissonant and anxiety-filled harmonies, as one young woman walks out in front, singing. Just outside of the trees, there are people looking into the forested enclosure, hoping to get a peek at the commotion and evocative sounds. Cameras follow the young woman through her journey in the forest, through her epiphanies and altercations with others and with herself. A voice from somewhere nearby yells "cut!" Then the audience of the Yost Theater snaps back into reality, realizing that they are not in a secret forest, but instead, sitting as an on-looker, for "Vireo," an opera, being filmed for television. That stage call was made by Charles Otte, the director of this production.

A seasoned director of theater, musical performance and film/television, Otte explores the possibilities of opera into the 21st century with "Vireo," which utilizes technological possibilities inherent in the creative production process. "We really live in a mediated world," he says, "I love theater, and I love the live element, but it needs to acknowledge that's it's not this old, dead art. It needs to stay present."

Partnering up with musical composer Lisa Bielewa for her work "Vireo," the two decided to try something new. "I thought, 'Well, let's not try and just do an opera, but let's break it into pieces and stream it, and do it as a serial, or episodic,'" Otte said.

Otte's strong background in theater productions, his work in film and television, and Bielewa's connections in music and talent for composing, they had an opportunity to try something new. "It was very interesting for me because there was so little time; but, I basically just brought in all the pieces and assembled it," Otte says. "It is definitely unique in how it was conceived and executed."

Charles Otte | Image courtesy of Zoo District Theatre.

Though this may be the first web-based, live-recorded, digital, episodic opera for Otte, he has been creating boundary-pushing theatrical productions since the 1980s. In 1984, his work as stage manager for the non-traditional opera, "Einstein on the Beach" set the bar for his future creative risks. The Robert Wilson and Philip Glass collaboration of "Einstein on the Beach" was thought to be "the most significant new direction for opera during the late 20th century," according to critic David Gregson of "Opera West." The opera toured all over the world, and was widely appreciated for its skewed narrative and heavy reliance on staging and media to portray the story through interesting abstraction. Newsweek called "Einstein on the Beach" "one of the truly pivotal artworks of our time." It even won Best New Opera Production with the Olivier Awards.

Otte's work with "Einstein on the Beach" propelled his career and interest in theater, and continued to work with famed composer Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble and avant garde director Robert Wilson. He met Bielawa during his time with "Einstein on the Beach."

Image from "Einstein on the Beach" | Courtesy of LA Opera.
Image from "Einstein on the Beach" | Courtesy of LA Opera.
Image from "Einstein on the Beach" | Courtesy of LA Opera.

In his endeavor as assistant director for Wilson's "The Old Woman" with Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov, The New York Times hailed the production as "a subversive spark of spontaneity within the disciplined rote; a feeling of genuine joy, and sorrow, and terror." Otte later went on to direct Philip Glass' multimedia opera "La Belle et La Bete," and staged three more of Glass' operas.

Over the years, Otte has directed, staged and performed with nearly a dozen different theater groups and companies, including Los Angeles Opera, Guthrie Theatre and the Zoo District Theatre. The Village Voice has even hailed Otte; "The beauty and ingenuity of his visuals are rarely matched, on any budget."

After receiving his MFA in film from USC Film School in Los Angeles, Otte was armed with the right knowledge of the right technologies to really apply his outside-the-box ideas to conceptual work that straddled musical performance, theater and film. "The great thing about film school was that I learned a lot about editing -- and it was right when digital editing was coming into play, so I was right at the forefront; it was a good time to be in school," Otte says. "And then, after that, all kinds of strange gigs started to come my way, due to the varied background that I had."

Image from "The Old Woman."
Image from "the Old Woman."

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In 2009, Otte was asked to head a new and innovative department at the University of Texas at Austin, for Integrated Media for Live Performance, where he was able to explore new technologies and media even further. Having been relatively stagnant since the 1960s and 1970s, Otte says he believed that live performance needed a technological and aesthetic update. "I wanted to utilize media in performance," he says. "Things can't just become static in how we present entertainment. Whether its opera or dance, theater or film, performance or whatever, it needs to continue to move forward. I think it's important for people to move forward and actually take some risks."

In his production of Brecht's "Baal," for example, Otte had an artist create evocative paintings that he then projected onto the set of the opera, using a slide projector, creating a layered atmosphere for the production. Otte is a master of multimedia. "It's really easy to find yourself in a place you're comfortable with and not push yourself," Otte explains. "I think you need to constantly push yourself. I'm really glad it turned out well, but there was one point where I thought, 'Even if it doesn't turn out to be what everybody thinks, it's still going to have been a great project and it will move things forward.'"

Image from "Baal," in Sydney, Australia.

His use of props and staging in "Vireo" is surprising and hypnotic. Moving the trees and playing with the cameras helps transform the space in a simple way, while the costume changes play further with the perception of time travel and the larger narrative. Even with constant cuts, resets, movements and multiple takes, those shifts and changes helped on-lookers -- both the live audience members and the recorded viewers -- stay glued to the scene and put the narrative pieces together.

His creativity in staging his productions is noteworthy but his post-production skills offer some of the most fascinating aspects of "Vireo." Wanting to capture the whole production in one live shot was his goal, he admits, but since the concept for the opera has the lead female traveling through time and space, layering the footage, playing with perception and media for the final product was one of the more fun parts for Otte. "Having it look like it was captured in one shot doesn't mean that it necessarily is," he explains.

Filmed in a way that was beneficial for both the live audience and the broadcast audience that would later see the finished product, viewers each get a unique experience, furthering the interest in the medium, concept and production. Otte says he thinks about new ways to engage audiences. "I think if I had been an audience member I think I would've enjoyed it a lot, myself," he says. "And as we move forward, Lisa, Eric [Ehn, the Librettist] and I are having more conversations to think about how exactly this kind of creation should live, and what form it should take. It's all an experiment."

 

This article was originally published on March 25, 2015.

 

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