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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Happy Birthday, Virtually Opera

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Thoughts on VO’s birthday, for the record. This is going to be a long one, I suspect.

PART 1: The Beginning

I’m genuinely surprised it’s been six years. Also that, somehow, an online-focused opera company has ended up hyper-focused on how to make live work more live. But to reflect in more depth:

The one thing, above all else, that I am proud of is that since it stopped being merely a student project, every single person on a VO project has been paid an Equity rate.

It’s massively hampered VO’s growth, but also means that a) we have succeeded in the right way and b) have artists who know we care about them more than chasing ‘success’.

The early films are… not good. Bad lighting, composition, and many other things. But we all learnt a lot from doing them, and I think that’s the point. If you’re just starting out, some of the advice I’d give is ‘do it, do it badly, and learn from doing so.’

PART 2: The Perfect Opera

The first not-student project was The Perfect Opera, a hiphop, foxtrot sketch comedy opera. And you can still watch it here.

I’m still really proud about The Perfect Opera’s relaxed performances at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. I'm pretty sure they were the first relaxed performances of an opera at the festival, and there were a few audiences who really loved the opportunity.

If you want to do a relaxed opera performance, two things that many places don’t do, but really worked.

1. Offer ear plugs (really cheap, really helpful, and a good way to make your commitment clear as people arrive).

2. Have a big red warning light onstage for loud bits before they happen. It’s not subtle, and that’s the point.

PART 3: Lockdown And Filming

In theory, VO should have been in a good position to use the limited (but greater than most) expertise in filmed opera it had during the lockdowns. It did not.

It is a source of bitter amusement to me that, pre-2020, I put in dozens of applications for filmed opera and was told nobody was interested in it. Many of those same funders have now changed their minds.

(An aside: please always google the name of your new opera company. One additional ‘virtual + opera’ name is misfortune. Three is carelessness, and a problem for everybody’s search engine ranking.)

Bigger names who hadn’t liked filmed opera before have stepped into the arena, and that’s good for the form. But I would urge them to think about it as *film*, not merely a second-best to live work.

Cinematically-filmed opera can be amazing. Now we’ve all accepted that sometimes screen opera is good, can we expect it to stop aping the view from a seat in the auditorium and embrace its ‘filminess’?

Having catalogued almost every pre-2017 opera film, I’d also suggest watching a few of them so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every few years.

PART 4: Interactive Immersive Opera

Anyway, VO doesn’t do much filmed opera any more. It makes work that, for one reason or another, has to be live. That might be because shared laughter is better, interactive elements, or something else.

The main thing is that, having made filmed work, we’re hyper-aware that canon work (often written for an audience who’d have been talking, eating, and flirting) often doesn’t really take advantage of the live *experience*.

What we’re trying to do is make work that is excitingly, truly live - the kind of show you go and tell your friends “no, I can’t really explain it, you had to be there.”

Or the kind of work where the audience buy-in is so strong that, on volunteering to make an offering to a supernatural creature, they pluck out their own hair.

Like I said, you had to be there. We weren’t expecting that at all.

By making experiences like this, we’re hopefully making work that is genuinely fun for people who’ve never been to an opera.

As always, opera’s financial models are… complex and occasionally frustratingly cautious. Then again, why put seed funding into an artform almost impossible to profit from?

If we really want to have a sector that’s a bit more exciting, we need to sort out the money. Other sectors do that by making work people want to see, and hopefully some of what VO’s doing will mean we can do shows that are both artistically solid and can actually break even.

PART 5: Some teachings from VO’s birthday.

“Fusion as conversation, not appropriation” is something I say a lot - having seen operatic “standup” which decided to appropriate the *form* of standup comedy, but forgot the *making people laugh* bit, I think it’s an important distinction.

There’s a lot to learn from other forms, but you do have to listen to what they want to be.

“Cake, not just vegetables.” Too often people talk about opera - especially new stuff - as though it’s something you should go to because it’s ‘good for you’. But if the form’s only tragedy and vegetables, it’s missing half of life. Give me cake.

“What is the ****ing point?” Always, always a good question. Opera and film are stupidly expensive artforms. Knowing why you’re making opera (as opposed to, say, writing a novel, which is very cheap) really helps.

Finally, have friends and supporters. Every audience member, donor, and collaborator has made a huge difference to VO, and I can’t imagine getting this far without them (especially the fans).

Especial thanks go to Erika Gundesen, VO’s long-suffering music director, early-draft commenter, and pragmatist. Few people would have agreed to be a tapdancing, camel-wrangling conductor, and I’m very glad she did.

So, to sign off: thanks to Rosalie Warner, Sam Dewese, Robin Horgan, Beth Jerem, Michelle Santiago, Peter Davis, Louis Stanhope, Hannah Gardiner, CN Lester, William Davies, Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, Knaive Theatre, Talos Festival of Science Fiction Theatre, and everyone else along the way. It’s been a special part of the past six years.


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