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Witchcraft and Hysteria: Composer Lisa Bielawa Talks About Streamable Opera 'Vireo'

Lisa Bielawa conducts the Kronos Quartet on the set of Vireo
Lisa Bielawa conducts the Kronos Quartet on the set of "Vireo" at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana. | Remsen Allard

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.

 

Election Day — Nov. 8, 2016 — found composer Lisa Bielawa at the keyboard of a 1927 Steinway studio grand piano, pencil and paper at the ready.

Bielawa, 48, was hard at work on the final episode of “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser,” an innovative opera created in partnership with KCETLink Media Group and Grand Central Art Center expressly for broadcast and online audiences. Directed by Charles Otte with a libretto by Erik Ehn, “Vireo” follows the time-transcendent experiences of a teenage girl whose prophetic visions attract the scrutiny of a mysterious doctor and his assistant.

“On election day, I voted and then I wrote music for 15 hours,” recalled Bielawa, adding that the turbulent atmosphere surrounding Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president clearly seeped into her score. “I think you can feel it. I think you can hear it. ... There’s something manic about it. There’s a very unsettling quality to that music.”

Although “Vireo” deals with subjects that resonate in today’s politically charged and culturally conflicted climate  — gender identity, female empowerment, the nature of reality — the origins of the project date back more than 20 years, when Bielawa, a San Francisco native who now lives in New York, was a student at Yale University. While working on her senior essay, she researched “collaborative authorship among groups of men” in disciplines ranging from religion to neurology to art.

“I found so many instances throughout Western history of groups of men creating this collaborative discourse around teenage girls who were having these remarkably similar experiences” involving visions, Bielawa said. Whereas the authors of the Salem witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts interpreted such behavior as witchcraft, 19th-century doctors diagnosed it as hysteria and the Surrealists in the 1920s and ‘30s celebrated it as a poetic outpouring of intense passion.

Rowen Sabala stars as Vireo in "Vireo."
Rowen Sabala stars as Vireo in a scene from "Vireo," shot at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana. | Remsen Allard

“I felt like I had made a major discovery,” the composer recalled.

Bielawa had “amassed an enormous amount of documentary history” when she met Ehn at a workshop in 1994. “I so fell in love with Erik’s writing that I thought, ‘My god, if anybody can make some kind of spiritual sense out of these source materials, it’s this guy,’” she recalled.

“He started weaving this story together that drew on all these historically different time periods and totally different girls and different communities and different discourses,” Bielawa said, creating a central character “who, by dint of her ability to exist in all centuries ... is able to be the avatar for this phenomenon.”

We first meet Vireo (Rowen Sabala) in a medieval forest outside Reims, France, as she carries coals home from a neighbor’s house. Suddenly, she hears a disembodied voice (Laurie Rubin) and is “overtaken by the beauty of it, and also the mysteries this voice sings about,” Bielawa explained.

When the voice leaves, Vireo falls into a fit. She’s discovered by her mother (Maria Lazarova), soon joined by a doctor (Gregory Purnhagen) and his assistant, Raphael (Ryan Glover).  

Maria Lazarova, Ryan Glover and Gregory Purnhagen appear in a scene from "Vireo."
The Mother (Maria Lazarova), Raphael (Ryan Glover) and the Doctor (Gregory Purnhagen) appear in a scene from "Vireo," shot at The Actors' Gang theater in Culver City.

They separate Vireo from her family and “start submitting her to an assaultive array of various tests,” some religious, some medical, Bielawa said. Shuttling back and forth between 16th-century France, 19th-century Vienna, 20th-century Germany and 21st-century America, she's sequestered at a convent, put on the stand in a courtroom, hospitalized at a mental asylum and sent to boarding school; she even spends time behind prison bars.

At one point, Vireo is joined by a virtual twin, Caroline (Emma MacKenzie), who has no problem embracing the public attention that her counterpart shuns. (Historically, such girls “saw the political advantage to being able to have visions,” Bielawa explained. “So they developed the ability to have them themselves.”)

“A lot of the situations that Vireo finds herself in are real ones that happened,” Bielawa said. “That has an emotional resonance to it that expands [the story] into heroic proportions.”

Unfortunately, Bielawa realized, the chances of getting an opera company to stage “Vireo” then were very slim. “You can't start your career as a composer with a full-length opera,” she acknowledged. “I said to Erik, ‘I don't think the world's going to let us do this right now.’”

“Vireo” lay dormant as Bielawa pursued other projects, including two large-scale works that play with the concept of public space: “Chance Encounter,” which premiered in 2007 in Lower Manhattan, and “Airfield Broadcasts,” which brought together hundreds of musicians at Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport and San Francisco’s Crissy Field in 2013.

Director Charles Otte on the set of "Vireo"
Director Charles Otte works on the set of "Vireo" in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. | Bernie Wire

In 2012, the composer began an artist residency at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, an outgrowth of CSU Fullerton overseen by director and curator John Spiak. He introduced Bielawa to Juan Devis, KCETLink chief creative officer, and Lazarova, classical voice director of Orange County School of the Arts, and invited the composer to “think big.”

“It didn’t take long for me to put two and two together and realize that I was in the presence of ‘Vireo’ again,” Bielawa said.  

In addition to Ehn and Otte, co-artistic director of Los Angeles’ Zoo Theatre District, “Vireo” brings together groups including the Kronos Quartet, Magik*Magik Orchestra and Partch, as well as the Orange County School of the Arts middle school choir and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. (Bielawa has served as artistic director of the Bay Area group since 2013.)

“When Charlie came in, the scope of the project really expanded,” Bielawa said, noting that director has “one foot in contemporary opera and one foot in television. ... It’s Charlie’s vision that developed the episodic series potential of the story.”

The pilot episode of “Vireo,” filmed at Santa Ana’s Yost Theater, premiered on television on KCET on March 31, 2015. (The same year, the opera won the ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.) All 12 episodes of “Vireo” will be released online this spring and will air nationwide via a two-hour TV special at a later date.

Bielawa recently spoke to Artbound about her vision for “Vireo.”

Deborah Voigt and the San Francisco Girls Chorus appear in a scene from "Vireo." | David Soderlund
The Queen of Sweden (Deborah Voigt) and her Snowflakes (members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus) appear in a scene from "Vireo," shot at 16th Street Station in Oakland. | David Soderlund

Why does “Vireo” work as an opera?

There are two answers to that. One of them is more honest in terms of how it came about. I met Erik and I had operatic feelings about his writing. And through that lens I realized looking back that I had operatic feelings about the research I was doing on my senior essay as well.

[Secondly,] “Vireo” is a story on an operatic scale. Opera is grand. It's epic. People who love opera go to the opera in order to get in touch with their most expansive emotional territory. These [are] extremely emotionally charged stories. ...

Vireo has a really juicy and epic, broad-stroke, bold kind of experience. Opera seems like her home.

What's the value of distilling centuries of experiences into the story of one person?

Without reading all the documentary source material, you can have this playful and deep artistic experience that also sheds light on how long this history is and how deep it goes. And that can be enlightening. ...

That's what's true about every opera hero, is that they represented this deeply, culturally rooted story. King Lear does. Otello does. ...

Vireo is just 14, and her journey is as culturally rich and significant and signified through our story as a culture as any other hero. That's what gives it operatic proportions. That's what gives it this epic, deeper [feel].

Rowen Sabala stars as Vireo in "Vireo."
Rowen Sabala stars as Vireo in a scene from “Vireo," shot on Alcatraz Island. | Bernie Wire

 Is “Vireo” a feminist story?

It's fine with me if there are feminist aspects of our project, because I'm a feminist and so is Charlie and so is Erik. We can't avoid it. We live in times when it's especially important to be thinking about what the world is like for young women. ... However, at its core, “Vireo” is not a feminist opera. It's the hero’s journey. ...

I have a deep experience of King Lear’s story. I feel resonant with Lear, not with his daughters. I think women readers — I’m talking like a literature major now — damn well better have learned by now to feel empathic resonance with male heroes. Because those are the ones the stories are about. You’re not going to read “Don Quixote” and have a passionate resonance with Dulcinea. If you want to get the true meaning of that book, and you want to have the truly transcendent experience of reading “Don Quixote,” you have to open your heart to Don Quixote. You have to be him. ...

Anybody watching this opera, experiencing this opera, men or women, they have to open their heart to Vireo. They have to be her. Everyone should be able to do that because she has a story in her. It deserves to be told.  

Where does “Vireo” fit musically within the opera tradition?

I am not really a “student” of opera, as a musical form. ... Composing is such a personal process for me, and I am not usually conscious of where my influences come from. Others who know my music and ... can place it in context — they are usually the ones who identify what my greatest influences are — and I often think, “Hey you’re right! It does fit in that way!” but I’m seldom the one to identify these synergies.

I did grow up in a musical family. My mother is an organist and performance practice scholar of early music, and my father was a composer, immersed in the American academic modernist scene. So my greatest influences as a young musician were from the musical eras that pre-dated or post-dated grand opera, but there was always vocal music there. I think you can hear the influence of Baroque music in, say, the “dragon and the girl” aria that Vireo sings in episode 11, for example. I love counterpoint — a signature technique of Bach’s — and I love the lyricism of late Strauss ... and the epic pacing of Mahler’s second symphony, but how “Vireo” fits into the musical world of all of these various influences is mysterious to me — possibly less mysterious to others who know my work and the field well, as devoted listeners.

Rowen Sabala and another cast member appear in a scene from "Vireo."
Caroline (Emma MacKenzie) and Vireo (Rowen Sabala) escape from prison across the Swedish steppes in a scene from "Vireo," shot at a studio in San Francisco. | David Soderlund

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What inspired the decision to present "Vireo" as a broadcast series as opposed to a traditional stage production?

The idea of making an opera as a broadcast and streaming series came first, as John Spiak and I explored different projects that I might do that could engage facets of the [Southern California] arts communities. Once I had that idea, the presence of Orange County School of the Arts and its excellent Classical Voice Conservatory, under the leadership of Maria Lazarova, called to mind “Vireo,” that abandoned project from 20 years earlier that had always haunted me as unfinished business. It came together like a flash after that.

What are the advantages of presenting “Vireo” in this format?

The opera is written [for] the people who are actually doing the opera while [it] is being created. The music and the scenes are being created for Rowen Sabala, who was 16 when we started shooting and who was 18 when we finished up.

Her character deepens over time — unlike a traditional opera, where, if a character grows two years, it happens on stage over the course of two hours.

We've seen Rowen grow up. Not only that but her dramatic and vocal growth is charted by the actual score of “Vireo.” When we cast her, we knew she was special, but she is a very, very talented girl. As that became clear, the musical aspirations for the role just grew. The music I wrote for her was partnering her actual growth in the role. The same is true for Emma, who plays Caroline. ...

These very young performers are at the center of this journey. There we were entering their lives, and they were bringing their gifts in their performances to us as part of the process. It's just fantastic.

How did that episodic format affect filming?

Erik in his inimitable style decided to [have] a cow sing its own death soliloquy and die in the middle of the opera. So we shot that on a farm. There are actual alpacas in the background. We just shot it on a farm because that's where [it takes place].

We got more and more adventurous with that. We used theaters for the first three episodes and then by the end we're shooting Vireo's last scene in a redwood forest.

Our success at creating these long takes in these musically very challenging situations [meant] the team just kept rising to the occasion. So we kept giving ourselves bigger and bigger challenges. And by the end it was totally possible for us to shoot anything, to shoot anywhere, because the team was so strong. ...

An episodic series — a TV series, an internet series — is designed so each episode gives you that same punch, the same level of satisfaction. It's fun to create an opera that way. We were [always] saying, “What are we going to do next?”

We kept upping the ante for ourselves because it was working. I'm not just talking about the cast and the collaborators. I'm talking about the production team — our sound guys, our camera people. They were game.

We were like “How about shooting this one on Alcatraz?” “Oh, OK.” ... “How about shooting an episode in a car?” ... That's the way we challenged each other. It was really fun.

Who is the target audience of “Vireo”?

There are two totally well-defined, almost comically well-defined audience practices here: the whole culture of opera going and the whole culture of binge watching. ... These are two communities that have a pretty distinctly defined way of getting their cultural fix, opera buffs and binge-watching TV series consumers. Obviously this is a project that says “hi” to both of those communities. ...

What we've created here is unlike a three-hour opera that's designed to be seen in one sitting no matter what. I've written large-scale, longer works that belong in the concert hall or on the stage. When you're doing something like that you create an arc and you make an experience with the knowledge that people will be experiencing it all at once.

With “Vireo,” every episode can be like a piece of chocolate mousse torte. If somebody wants to sit there and eat a whole chocolate mousse torte at once, that's their business.

Rowen Sabala stars as Vireo in "Vireo."
Rowen Sabala stars as Vireo in "Vireo." | David Soderlund

What does it mean for you to have a young woman with agency at the center of “Vireo”?

I was a young woman myself when I started this journey, with the research I did in college. Rowen is in college now so the cycle is almost complete. ...

The fact that the protagonist with the heroic agency in “Vireo” is in fact a young woman is not really the most important thing about her. She is an epic hero, just as Lear is.

But working with the real-life young women at the center of this project did underline the particular empowerment that our project brought to them. I watched Rowen and Emma grow as artists and as human beings, through their roles.

I remembered my own artistic experiences as a singer at that age, none of which had the kind of breadth of characters for young women, and I felt — and feel — very proud of the way “Vireo,” as an opera and as a two-year project, brought with it a new standard of sophistication to their work, their characters, their contributions to the process and to the piece itself. It was uniquely inspiring for all of these reasons.                

How does “Vireo” fit within the opera tradition in terms of its depictions of women?

I wasn't playing with that history or subvert it when I was writing it. Does it do that? Absolutely. ... [But] I would be lying if I said while we were creating [“Vireo”] we were also trying to something that would be a critique of traditional opera. ...

I don't know much about classical operas, maybe because I was never really compelled by the story they told. ... [But] word on the street is there is a paucity in grand opera of roles for women. There's a range of roles for women that are somehow narrow in terms of the kinds of characters there. ...

It would be great if there were a whole new variety of great roles.

There's a new surge of opera and I think the younger composers writing operas now are, because of their cultural background, bringing more depth and dimension to the characters on stage. If [“Vireo”] helps the field go in that direction, I celebrate that.

Vireo composer Lisa Bielawa | Daniel Clark
Composer Lisa Bielawa stands on the tarmac of the defunct Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. | Daniel Clark

What does it mean for you to be a woman making opera today?

When I'm actually making opera I forget that I'm a woman. Writing music is not a gendered activity.

I found this story compelling, and I do feel connected to it. So I suppose it does narrow the distance that there's a little bit of intimacy between me and the subject matter. ...

I didn't think of myself as a composer when I was younger because it was a time when the girl was not the composer. (laughs) There were not as many women writing music when I was in college. There were no women teaching it, for sure.

As a result, I just didn't major in [music]. Part of the reason was, I just didn't see myself really represented or particularly welcomed there. ...

I had negative experiences in the '90s where I'd go to Europe to study with some composer I really admired only to get there and discover that he really didn't believe in teaching women to write music, so he wouldn't teach me. ...

I'll say that things are different now and that's not happening to young women anymore. But I am of the generation that saw that change. ...

Generally, my career as a composer has been marked by an enormous number of projects that are basically entrepreneurial. I'm not just the composer, but I'm also the impresario. It has everything to do with the fact that I didn't really want to have a life of waiting for other people to help me do stuff. I didn't really feel like that was going to go that well (laughs) early on.

So I adopted [an attitude] of “I'll do it anyway.” I'm sure some of that had to do with the situation for women composers. ... It's also my personality. But I'm sure there's a connection there.

Is there something freeing about that approach?

Totally. The world may not be fair yet but I think you only live once and I don't want to have to be mad. I really don't want to have to be angry about stuff. I don't like it. Anger makes me not feel like writing music. So in order for me to keep creating work, which is the thing I care most about, I need to make sure I look at the world as idealistically as possible and say “Maybe the whole world isn't there yet, but I'm going at least to live in a world in which it doesn't matter that I'm a woman, one way or the other.” Have there been injustices? Yes, there have. Have I suffered some of them? Yes, I have. Do I want to be carrying that around with me? Not really. I want to be active. I want to make stuff happen anyway. ...

You have to make work from your strongest and healthiest place.  

Vireo composer Lisa Bielawa on Alcatraz Island
Lisa Bielawa, center, speaks with singers from Cappella SF on the set of "Vireo" on Alcatraz Island. | David Soderlund

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