The Teen, the Cow and the Queen of Sweden: A Guide to the Characters of 'Vireo'

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.


A story more than 20 years in the making, "Vireo" is now set to change the game as an opera broken down into 12 short episodes available to watch online. Conceived by composer Lisa Bielawa and based on research she had conducted as a student at Yale, the opera looks at the treatment of "hysterical" women through the story of one teenage girl, Vireo. It features a libretto by Erik Ehn and was directed by Charlie Otte. The opera was produced by Lisa Bielawa, Anne Marie Gillen, Grand Central Art Center and KCET. It won the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award. 

"Vireo" takes place in the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries, where the opera's protagonist struggles not just with fits and voices, but with the pressure and control that others try to impose upon her. In the process, Vireo must turn on others in order to save herself. Below, we look at the characters who inhabit Vireo's world. 


Rowen Sabala in "Vireo." | Mike O'Toole
Rowen Sabala in "Vireo." | Mike O'Toole

The titular character of "Vireo" is a teenage girl -- just 14 at the start of the opera -- whose life straddles centuries. Throughout the opera, she moves between the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries, yet, despite the shifts in time, her story remains unchanged. Vireo hears a voice and falls into a fit, setting off a chain of events that will lead to the death of a witch, as well as her own imprisonment. Through the ordeal, Vireo becomes an object of curiosity for the Doctor and one of affection for the student, Raphael. She is not so much battling demons as she is the human forces that are trying to control her life. Vireo is played by Rowen Sabala, who was a 16-year-old student at Orange County School when "Vireo" went into production. 

The Voice 

Laurie Rubin plays the Voice in "Vireo (Episode 8) | Mike O'Toole
Laurie Rubin plays the Voice in "Vireo | Mike O'Toole

Played by Laurie Rubin, The Voice provides the sound that triggers Vireo's first fit in the opera. Vireo hears The Voice amidst the fog on a walk through the woods. The Voice is also Pernette, the woman that Vireo accuses of witchcraft after some prodding. Pernette is killed for her supposed crime early in the first episode, but The Voice remains, haunting Vireo throughout the story. At one point, the Voice sings with the Cow. Both characters are dead.  "Coming up with a musical language, the melodies of dead people, that was something that really got me going," says composer Lisa Bielawa. "Their language is different now. They speak dead people language."

The Mother

Maria Lazarova plays the Mother in "Vireo" | Remsen Allard
Maria Lazarova plays the Mother in "Vireo" | Remsen Allard

Vireo's mother, played by Maria Lazarova, is at a loss on how to treat her daughter. She tries to comfort Vireo to no avail as she entrusts the teenager in the hands of a priest, who is actually the Doctor. The Mother sings that she is "not smart," but will trusts the one she thinks is. Still, at different points in the opera, it seems as though she might have some misgivings about the actions that unfold as a result of the Voice that Vireo hears. Still, she harbors an attraction towards The Doctor that may drive a bigger wedge into the relationship between mother and daughter. 

The Doctor

Gregory Purnhagen is the Doctor in "Vireo" | David Soderlund
Gregory Purnhagen is the Doctor in "Vireo" | David Soderlund

The doctor makes his first appearance as a priest willing to figure out what is ailing Vireo, but his means of helping her aren't necessarily in the patient's best interest. He orders that Vireo be confined and prods her looking for the "mark of Satan." He looks at Vireo as both an experiment and someone to be controlled. Meanwhile, he has become the object of The Mother's desire, which could only complicate an already touchy situation. The Doctor is played by Gregory Purnhagen, who actually sung this role in a version of "Vireo" that was in the works more than 20 years ago. 


Ryan Glover plays Raphael in "Vireo" | Mike O'Toole
Ryan Glover plays Raphael in "Vireo" | Mike O'Toole

Raphael, played by Ryan Glover, is a student who is shadowing The Doctor and studying Vireo for his thesis. He's also a journalist who is using this experience to inform his articles. Raphael is smitten with Vireo and the mix of romantic and academic interest in the teenager impacts the character's actions throughout the opera. 

Story continues below

The Cow

Kirsten Sollek plays the Cow in "Vireo" | Mike O'Toole
Kirsten Sollek plays the Cow in "Vireo" | Mike O'Toole

Played by Kirsten Sollek, The Cow sings of the last day of her life. She wanted to give people her milk. Instead, they wanted, and took, her meat. "For me, at some point, Erik [Ehn, librettist for "Vireo"] says something about 'the ghostly simulacrum of the cow appears,'" composer Lisa Bielawa recalls. "To me that's so evocative. What happens to somebody musically, in an opera, if they sing after they're dead?"

"There's also a dark comedy element to it," says director Charlie Otte. "I want it to be funny and at the same time, she's very tragic." Otte notes that the costume helped give The Cow another layer of meaning, with a bovine-print cape and a cow skull used as a hat. 


Emma MacKenzie plays Caroline in "Vireo" | Bernie Wire
Emma MacKenzie plays Caroline in "Vireo" | Bernie Wire

Caroline appears midway through "Vireo" as a counter to the opera's protagonist. When they meet, Caroline and Vireo immediately bond over the voices they hear. Played by Emma MacKenzie, who is only 15 years old and started out in the opera as part of the chorus, the teenager appears to be a little more comfortable with manipulating people than Vireo is. She seems more than willing to accuse someone of witchcraft if it helps ease her own situation. The two teens struggle for power through the latter half of the opera. Composer Lisa Bielawa told KCET about a scene in a very small car where the girls switch off as drivers as a musician plays a hurdy-gurdy behind them. "Whichever girl was not in the more powerful position, she would go underneath and the hurdy-gurdy would go above her," Bielawa explains. 

The Queen of Sweden

Deborah Voight is the Queen of Sweden in "Vireo" | David Soderlund
Deborah Voigt is the Queen of Sweden in "Vireo" | David Soderlund

The Queen of Sweden appears in one episode near the end of "Vireo." Created specifically for opera star Deborah Voigt, the Queen marks the final showdown between Vireo and Caroline. 

Top Image by: David Soderlund

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