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Librettist Erik Ehn on Writing 'Vireo'

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Rowen Sabala as Vireo. | Photo: Remsen Allard

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.

 

Serial opera "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" promises to be a game-changer in the genre.

The plot deals with female hysteria and the ways it has been perceived and used by witch-hunters, psychiatrists and artists over several centuries. It's based on research Composer Lisa Bielawa, the 2009 Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition, did for her thesis as a literature major at Yale. Playwright Erik Ehn, Chair and Director of Writing for Performance at Brown University, penned the libretto.

"The opera evolved over time through enthusiasm and collective inspiration," explained Ehn, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island and was once Dean of Theater at CalArts. "To be in the middle of the opera, it doesn't feel complicated, although it has more moving parts than a Rube Goldberg [device]."

While the composition has traditional operatic elements, the production is like no other. It's becoming increasingly common to film operas in High Definition for screening in movie theaters, but "Vireo" brings opera to television. The first installment was shot at Santa Ana's Yost Theater over two nights. This opus will then be seen on television or online in short installments, with the 25-minute "pilot" episode airing in March, with future airings being released over the next two years.

"There's something antique in the popular understanding of opera," said the librettist. "The energy in the form is the passion and its ability to take on big ideas. It's something that people want."

Kronos Quartet and San Francisco Girls Chorus. | Photo: Remsen Allard
Kronos Quartet and San Francisco Girls Chorus. | Photo: Remsen Allard

Ehn, 57, said that he and Bielawa met through the New Dramatists in New York and have worked together for some 20 years. "The piece came early in our relationship, as we'd fallen in love with each other -- artistically. But it took us getting older and then building a circle of collaborators along with a stroke of luck that brought the opera to the light of day. Finally!"

Bielawa provided him with the materials on art history and feminism, leaving Ehn the job of finding "a thread that I put into the form of a story, which is basically that a young woman has visions, [which are a] problem for male authority." The duo also looked at the topic from a range of historical viewpoints and religious perspectives.

First depicted in the Loire Valley in 1590's France, Vireo, a 14-year old genius, is sung by 16-year old soprano, Rowen Sabala. She is then seen from a psychiatric perspective in the early days of psychoanalysis in the late 1800's, with shades of David Cronenberg's 2011 film, "A Dangerous Method," before moving through Surrealism, and finally ending at the onset of World War I. "It's how people reacted to the idea of madness and women," said Ehn.

Bielawa developed the concept of doing it as a serial. "She had a vision. The idea of doing it this way seems as if it's not unique to what's going on in opera, but that it's at the vanguard of finding new ways to distribute opera -- the delivery system -- and finding new audiences."

Ehn said that ticket prices and time-commitments sometimes act as obstacles to contemporary opera viewing. But Vireo aims to change the way opera is consumed. "I come from the theater, and opera, like the theater, has gotten stuck in terms of its forms. Audiences are aging out and it's losing vitality. We're going to have to find new forms in order to keep the blood pumping. We want to see a diverse and animated audience for new opera that will take some courage on the parts of artists and producers."

Ehn says that going to the theater and the opera has ceased to be an event in the way it used to be, which has encouraged site-specific, interactive works like New York City's production "Sleep No More," and other works operating in unusual ways. "Hunger is up for the strange and opera is supposed to be strange," he said, "opera hasn't taken advantage of its strangeness. Its starting point is over the top and then it goes up from there."

One such artist, L.A.-based Yuval Sharon, helms the opera company The Industry. Its signature is staging new works in intriguing venues, with its production of "Invisible Cities," staged at Union Station in the fall of 2013. Composer Christopher Cerrone was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize last year for the work. Sharon's upcoming opera, "Hopscotch," will feature 18 cars, a novel delivery system if ever there was one.

Still, another concern for opera in the 21st century is that audiences seem to have reduced attention spans. "In some ways they do," admitted Ehn. "They're being educated by digitality to click and click and click, but people are still people. What they want is a sense of event. They'll stand in line for 12 hours to buy an iPhone, which goes against the nature of the iPhone. But as they're living the event and the event of waiting, people are still capable of durational attention."

Lisa Bielawa and Kronos Quartet. | Photo: Remsen Allard
Lisa Bielawa and Kronos Quartet. | Photo: Remsen Allard

Perhaps "Vireo" on television and online might even prove binge-worthy, like the streaming shows of Netflix and Hulu, with the production also including online extras such as video clips that look at the process of composing and staging the work.

"Vireo's" broadcast roll-out is expansive, spread out over several years. Ehn found a correlation between erstwhile award-winning HBO's mob series "Sopranos" and "Vireo."

"My wife and I are in the middle of Season 6, and this whole phenomenon of binge-viewing is because we love the fact that we can spend hour after hour with these characters."

The opera's scoring is also unique: In addition to Sabala, it features the acclaimed Kronos Quartet, the blind mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin (Voice/Witch), the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the Orange County School of the Arts Middle School Choir, mezzo-soprano Maria Lazarova (Mother), baritone Gregory Purnhagen (The Doctor), and drummer Matthias Bossi.

"The core," said Ehn, "is the Kronos Quartet, but with every episode we may change our instrumentation, depending on who's in town and where we're producing. The project has got a wonderful momentum," he pointed out before adding somewhat wryly, that, "opera is such an unlikely thing. It's like a large group of people getting together and deciding to have a hallucination -- together.

"Speaking as the librettist," Ehn noted, "I can get frustrated with text that's provided in some of the operas out there. It's meant to be an armature or coat hanger for the beautiful coat that is the music. I [recently] came out of a room with the Kronos, and the voices are incredible. It's magic. I can't believe my good fortune."

As for the libretto, Ehn did nothing less than create hallucinations with his words, writing aria lyrics for, among others, dying cows, infatuated students, disembodied ageless women and a mysterious twin of Vireo herself.

As the bulk of the opera was written nearly two decades ago, the thematic core has remained the same. "Lisa and I wrote it in kind of a fever," Ehn said, "We worked really hard and intensively on this project at a special point in our lives. We were creatively on fire. We meant what we said at the time. With our getting older, there are cuts or things have been added. It feels like an interrupted jump -- we were midair and 20 years later we're landing."

The playwright also said that since the material was vast, it was not only a matter of culling it down, but "finding a new form for it. "Vireo" is not descriptive or analytical, it's intuitive. You boil down the themes, you find your images and then you put your images into a story. The overall feel is more poetic than analytical."

Ehn described the process as a "sort of targeted rewriting," likening his role now to being more dramaturgical. "Lisa's music is so complicated that if I added a syllable it would throw things into chaos. I'll do some changes, but mostly what I'm here to do is explain what we have. Lisa has the musical language down and I can be in the room to explain what an image means or what some of the broader themes are."

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It helps, too, that Ehn has a keen awareness of today's opera audience. "You want for them to have an experience. You want them to go away with something having happened to them and you want this thing to be so indescribable that they'll have a dream about it.[That's] what we're trying to do: cause dreams."

Ehn has an impressive body of work that includes "The Saint Plays, "No Time Like the Present, and the "Soulographie" project. A series of 17 plays written over 20 years on the history of the States in the 20th century from the point of view of its genocides, the works were produced at New York's La MaMa over one weekend in 2012, with the New York Times writing, "Mr. Ehn has something vitally important to say and a many-splendored voice with which to say it."

Ehn is also Artistic Associate of San Francisco's Theatre of Yugen, as well as Artistic Director of the Tenderloin Opera Company in Providence, originally co-founded in San Francisco with Bielawa. The troupe generates new works of music-theater by, for, and about people who are homeless or who are homeless advocates.

But for "Vireo," they're creating an opera that is contemporary, and modular. "With 'Vireo,' we'll build mass by assembling small parts, but it's important that we have this idea of assembly. We are making something massive, but we're only able to load it in a brick at a time, an episode at a time. When it's all done," he exclaimed, "we'll want it to be something really tall."

 

This article was originally published on March 10, 2015.

 

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