Tales from a Safe Distance at Opera in the Heights: An Unbridled Success

Kaarin Cecilia Phelps, mezzo-soprano, stars in Donia Jarrar's Seven Spells
Kaarin Cecilia Phelps, mezzo-soprano, stars in Donia Jarrar's Seven Spells Screenshot
As long as Covid-19 continues to plague us, theater must make do with restrictive safety precautions. While theater streaming has relied mostly on Zoom-style productions with individual panels stitched together, opera has flourished and been a fount of inspiration and creativity. (See Vinkensport at HGO for a primer on how to film a piece of theater during the pandemic.) But right now there's another operatic venture, and it, too, is a revelation.

The Decameron Opera Coalition's Tales from a Safe Distance features nine regional American opera companies in nine world premieres. Unprecedented. Our own Opera in the Heights presented Donia Jarrar's Seven Spells in the third episode. (All four programs can be watched with one ticket purchase.)

Tales riffs on Boccaccio's 14th-century classic novella, The Decameron (1353). In the original, ten residents from Florence flee the city for a country villa during the Black Plague. To pass the time during quarantine they tell stories, much like Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims. The medieval resonance parallels our modern dilemma with stunning clarity. In all ways, DOC is an unbridled success – edgy, novel, richly detailed, musically intriguing.

There are four episodes in Tales, released every Friday in October: Both Gladsome and Grievous (October 9), Prompted by Appetite (October 16), So Noble a Heart (October 23), The Bolts of Fortune (October 30).

Ten singers meet on a Zoom chat to say hello and reconnect during Covid-19. As in Boccaccio, to pass the time and relieve their boredom during lockdown, they tell stories: some comic, some Twilight Zone, and some tragic (this is opera, after all.) There is a Sondheim-esque prologue and epilogue to each series – a tenth little opera – composed and written by Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi.

With nine world premieres, some works are better than others, but each one so far has had its own temperament, style, and exemplary design. Pittsburgh's Resonance Works, who created DOC, is a “multi modal” company, mixing every art in the book, so it's no surprise that the operas have their own visual flair.

The comedy Everything Comes to a Head from Minnesota's Lyric Opera of the North seamlessly blends cartoon and live action with the insouciance of South Park. Dinner 4 3, from Fargo-Moorhead Opera, is a sex farce involving wayward spouses who make an assignation with the same man over their cell phones; this is grownup Doris Day/Rock Hudson territory and is delightful.

So far, the most intriguing entry has been Elizabeth Blood's haunting Orsa Ibernata from Milwaukee Opera Theatre. Not only did Blood compose the music, to a libretto by Danny Brylow, but she sings it, too. It's a weird phantasmagoric piece, as Blood plays a woman who's lost her love, also played by Blood. All sorts of sexual tensions arise as they sing to each other in an enchanted forest. Under Brylow's Green Mansions direction and Christal Wagner's silky, vine-laden videography, it's a real dream opera.

Except for the prologues and epilogues which are in Zoom mode as befits the situation of the ten isolated singers, all the operas are shot like movies. There's no social distancing between performers. How each company accomplished this I don't know. Perhaps each cast stayed together for two weeks during the filming of their segment. There is some lip-syncing involved, which is understandable, as the chamber orchestras are scored lush and vibrant. Like in Hollywood, there's no way to put an orchestra on a sound stage, or on exterior, and then film it live with actors. It's terribly impractical and, most important to the bottom line, prohibitively expensive.

Currently, the only monologue in the three episodes is Opera in the Height's entry, Jarrar's Seven Spells, radiantly performed by mezzo Kaarin Cecilia Phelps. Using only piano and electronic effects, Jarrar weaves a spell of surreal mystery around this woman on the edge. In this seven-minute mini drama, a compressed Liaisons Dangereuses, Elena, to get her lover back, relies on the services of her former lover whom she jilted. To humiliate her, the former lover locks her naked out of her house. Neither he nor the other lover is ever seen.

Jarrar's music is as spiky as her theme, but the lush cinematography, and dreamy direction from Abbas Padilla, weaves through the out-of-focus hanging garden lights like stars in the firmament. The technical facility seems more dangerous than the opera. Phelps is incandescently possessed, though, radiating from within as she haunts the terrace. In one shot, her eyes go transparent from the reflections. Eerie enough.

Jarrar's own program notes suggest “hints at mental health issues brought about by public humiliation of female celebrities such as suicide, depression, and slut-shaming. In this adaptation the tower is metaphorical, symbolizing the pedestal on which we put women in the spotlight and our expectations of them being perfect examples for our society’s girls and women.”

Nice try. None of this is anywhere extant in the opera we are watching. We see a woman steadily decline because her lover hasn't shown up for a date. A fleeting glimpse of a selfie doesn't exactly shout celebrity (although Phelps looks mighty glamorous at her makeup table at the beginning), and her gauzy wandering after the door shuts behind her hardly makes us think of slut-shaming or her being an exemplar for young girls. I think Jarrar wrote her synopsis before she wrote the score and, by then, had forgotten all the salient plot points.

But, like the other works in Tales, this opera stays with you visually. It's looks like an Antonioni short, very chic in a '60s Italian way with its jagged editing and filtered light. But there is one glaring error in the libretto. Amid all her high-highfalutin' talk about “dreams of firelight and ashes,” Elena declares, “If it’s love that we are making/I don’t wanna love in fear.” Never would a woman so regal, one so jilted even in her fever dreams, say “wanna.” This stands out in bold bas relief with all the force of a ex-lover's slap, or, maybe, a rap on the knuckles from a high school English teacher.

Tales is a beautiful experiment, though. It's certainly not what we want opera to become – something we watch on a computer screen – but for now, while we're forced inside and not allowed to go to the theater where the real magic resides, this coalition of forces is magic in the making. For the present, we, too, must make do.

Tales from a Safe Distance. Streaming through December 31. For information, visit decameronoperacoalition.org or operaintheheights.org. $15 for access to all four episodes.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover