Opera Philadelphia Festival O22: Operatic Films Take Center Stage

Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O22, running from September 21 to October 2, offers a diverse and exciting mix of live performances, operatic films, and more. Highlights include (sold-out) performances of Toshio Hosokawa’s monodrama The Raven, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, a new production of Rossini’s attractive but rarely performed Otello, and the world premiere of David T. Little and Anne Waldman’s Black Lodge, described by the festival as “part film screening and part industrial rock opera concert.”

In addition, the “Opera on Film” series, including three evenings of film shorts, forms a significant part of Festival O22’s lineup. The Philadelphia Film Center will host an exceptionally diverse array of operas on film, ranging from Carmen: A Hip Hopera, featuring Beyoncé, to a classic production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and an especially compelling performance of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine starring Patricia Racette, whose torturous descent into a desperate and lonely woman may resonate in a deeper way with audiences emerging from a period of pandemic-driven fears and isolation. In fact, solitude, the uninhibited expression of human emotions, and a dramatic suspension of time appear in many of the films featured at O22.

Over the last two decades, opera companies have increasingly included cinematic performances in their programming, from the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcasts in HD to newer innovations driven by bold visionaries at regional companies, including virtual reality operas, Zoom operas, opera shorts, serial productions, and more. The appeal is clear. Filmed performances offer the opportunity to preserve great stage moments forever and make it possible to connect with audiences at any time, in any place. They also offer interested neophytes an excellent gateway to explore opera and, perhaps even more importantly, they allow creators to expand the genre by using special effects and techniques that are impossible in live performance.

Festival O22’s opera film selections range from the surreal to the hyper-realistic, fantastical to mundane, expansive to obsessively hyper-focused. They are provocative and engaging examples of a new type of operatic experience that challenges its own classification. Is it visual art? Film? Opera? Can it be all those things at once? How do we define the most fundamental parts of opera, and can we dare to call a piece “operatic” if singing voice(s) are not at the very center of a work? Does it even matter?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph in 'After/Glow'--Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

Marc Bamuthi Joseph in ‘After/Glow’–Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

All philosophy aside, there is much to look forward to. Among the Flowers, an Instagram opera created and directed by Patrick Eakin Young, is part of Festival O22’s evening of film shorts titled “Like, Share, Follow.” Pulsating club beats accompany a range of pictures that flicker from one to the next, including colorful birds emerging from flashes of flowers. The bouncy electronics morph into an eerie song for soprano amidst a mixed media backdrop where cut strips of printed text reveal the plight of a female protagonist and are sometimes echoed by the singer. In the end, the flowers return, and the woman, whose face we never see, departs, smiling.

Two standout opera films come courtesy of the Opera Philadelphia Channel, which commissioned a series of short, made-for-streaming new works in 2021. Caroline Shaw’s We Need to Talk, featuring the captivating soprano Ariadne Greif, centers on a woman, alone. Greif croons, sighs, and groans as she reassures herself. She is “a young woman in conversation with herself, reminiscent of our isolated days of quarantine: days of frustration, joy, and grief.” The composer’s voice, recorded in layers to provide an electronic chorus, combines with old film score samples and the occasional interjections of a narrator to heighten the tension. While the protagonist may not travel far, the scene is anything but static. TakTakShoo, by former Opera Philadelphia composer-in-residence Rene Orth, features the energetic mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi and an engaging quartet of dancers. Combining opera and K-pop, marimba, electronics, and dance, TakTakShoo creates a unique sound world that moves fluidly from one style to the next, with little warning of what will happen next.

Festival O22’s “Opera on Film” series will also present an emotional double bill on October 1: Obscura Nox, a modern retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi, and After/Glow, a reimagining of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, directed by Ryan McKinny. dwb (driving while black), an adaptation of Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s one-woman opera performed by soprano Karen Slack, will be screened on September 29. dwb (driving while black) incorporates dance, video, and storytelling into a powerful testimony of a Black mother’s experience as her son comes of age in modern America.

In total, Festival O22 will present over 30 unique film offerings from dramatic shorts to evening-length productions. To discover new works by these and other composers at the cutting edge of operatic film composition, don’t miss the three “Shorts” performances at the Philadelphia Film Center. “Like, Share, Follow” takes place on September 28, at 6 p.m.; “The Opera We Made” follows on September 29, at 6 p.m. Finally, on October 2, at 1:30 p.m., the collection of shorts “Opera Boldly Goes…” is performed. Learn more about all of the works on Festival O22’s “Opera on Film” series here.


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