Sabrina Peña Young

5 questions to Sabrina Peña Young on her virtual opera “Libertaria”

In 2010, after winning the IAWM Genre Prize for her multimedia work Creation, Sabrina Peña Young immediately embarked on a new musical adventure. The Cuban/American author, composer and music technologist likes a challenge, and decided to create the first ever entirely animated opera, Libertaria. The entire project was realized in cyberspace, and most of the contributors have never met. In Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, Peña Young presents a dystopian future, in which the world can only be saved by a teenage girl, Libertaria. The world premiere takes place in Lake Worth on Saturday, October 5, yet the composer found time to answer five questions.

Libertaria is set in a post-nuclear world, controlled by scientists. Were you inspired by novels such as We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and 1984 by George Orwell?

‘I have to admit that 1984 inspired many of the thoughts behind the opera, like governmental control, brainwashing of the masses, and even willing ignorance. It’s interesting that as I was putting together the final opera, current events seemed to line up with it. For example, one of my animators, Kera Hildebrandt, had finished a scene and added slogans like “We watch because we care”, and other creepy Big Brother-ish quotes. I ended up editing that scene at the same time the Prism scandal came out. And while I was working on the scene “Invasion” – where the US are attacked by micro-drones – our President’s “kill list” hit the news.

Sabrina Peña Young

Sabrina Peña Young

How did you approach your theme?

On the one hand Libertaria is intensely personal—much of the text is from stream of consciousness journaling—and on the other hand it hits on our fears of war, the oppression of the poor, and the devaluing of life by the government. Many sci-fi writers/artists/etc. are obsessed with the future, often certain that today’s political actions will result in futuristic dystopia. Growing up in the US with a Cuban mother and abuelos who were part of the anti-Castro Resistance, I heard stories about how a charismatic leader took over Cuba, creating a country where brother spies on brother, religious expression earns you death, life is devalued, and poverty is for all but a very select few at the highest levels of government. My abuelo kissed the ground when he came to South Florida in 1965, yet even he started to see that American society in the 1980s was what he called “communism disguised as democracy”. In some ways the Underground militia in Libertaria is loosely based on those Cuban patriots that tried to fight back against Fidel. My hope is that Libertaria will cause the audience to think about our sociopolitical reality, where a select few percent in high office make the decisions for us all in comfort and safety, while the rest of us allow them to stay in power destroying the future for our children.

You auditioned the entire cast and crew through the internet. How many people responded and how did you select them?

At one point the Libertaria cast/crew list counted over two dozen mostly professional and student singers, actors, animators, and musicians. While individuals in South America and Europe were interested in the project, in the end the cast/crew consisted of people living in the US, with the core cast numbering eight singers and several musicians and animators. I auditioned through Music Xray or through e-mail. Singers and animators sent me samples of their work and I based my selection on talent and availability. They are art professionals or graduates starting their professional careers and Libertariafeatures a wide range of artists, such as music tech guru Perry R. Cook, indie rocker Matt Meadows, pop singer Joe Cameron, opera singer Jennifer Hermansky and pianist Yvette Teel.

Are you the sole author of the opera, or have others contributed music,too?

I wrote the libretto over several months, going to coffee shops and journaling like a madwoman in a dilapidated notebook. Normally it takes months for me to write a song, but for Libertaria I knew what I wanted immediately. I would close my eyes, sing the lines, and write. The music is a hybrid of experimental electronica, avant-garde classical, and film music. There is a definite “sci-fi” element in all my work. In Libertaria, the music was inspired by everything from Bernard Herrmann to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to Wagner to every cliché sci-fi score you have ever heard. My music twists your mind, makes you think,but is also fun.

In order to channel the different contributions, I used, to set up “Cast Rehearsal Albums”. These contained scores, an instruction packet, the script, and individual click tracks with piano for recording. Cast members recorded their individual parts, and sent me multiple takes to choose from. I then mixed these into the final score, combing through over 1000 takes for the mix. The roles of Simeon, The Nurse, and Libertaria each had two singers assigned to them, which gave me more freedom in editing. For example, Matt Meadows and Perry R. Cook have very distinct singing styles, and I was able to literally combine their voices for “Metal Ink” and “Absolution”, Simeon’s big solo numbers. Film composer Patrick Rundbladh did the final master.

Libertaria - The Virtual Opera

Libertaria – The Virtual Opera

Slogans in the trailer like “science controls humanity,” “one girl to save the world,” or “good versus evil” sound a bit one-dimensional. Is there any development in the characters, and why can only a teenage girl save the world?

I wanted to twist the usual stereotypes by making a nerdy girl the protagonist. When I was working on Libertaria I didn’t realize that the Hunger Gameswould make teen heroines a total cliché, but I also decided to create characters that reflect a diverse society. As a Latina and a woman I get tired of being presented with stereotype after stereotype in English-speaking media. Really, if I see one more Latina playing a maid I will puke! My characters are diverse and reflect a wide array of color, abilities, and ethnicity. They are also complex, for there are no clear bad guys or good guys in this opera: everyone has a little bit of good and a little bit of evil in them. Just when you think you know what is going to happen, it turns sideways. It is a story of good versus evil, but also about betrayal, family alliances, truth, and loss. I plan on expanding the story in a novel that will be out in 2014. Libertaria: The Virtual Opera is the first tantalizing taste of a fantastical epic.