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Opera Philadelphia's New Digital Channel Delivers Opera in a Unique Way

Kelly and Massa
Tenor Alek Shrader and soprano Lisette Oropesa in the beloved La traviata from 2015, streaming this fall on the Opera Philadelphia Channel

Although the COVID-19 shutdown has cancelled live performances, Opera Philadelphia has reinvented its 2020 season with a new subscription channel that uses a filmmaker's approach to opera's powerful music and theater. General Director and President David Devan talks with WRTI's Susan Lewis about the new Opera Philadelphia Channel.

Opera Philadelphia has become internationally recognized for its innovations in the art form—with original content as well as classics reimagined. Last season's Festival 019 scheduled four different operas in different venues over just under two weeks.

The company's goal, says Devan, is to be responsible authors of the future of opera, "to democratize it, and write, produce and reach for everybody in the community." 

When COVID-19 surged in the spring of 2020, Opera Philadelphia launched a Digital Festival, featuring five previously produced operas, with live streams on-demand from May through August.

Now, with the pandemic still a threat, Devan says, it's impossible to safely gather artists and audience, and reaching people feels more important than ever. If there was ever a need for an authentic connection between artists and audience, it's now.

And so, Opera Philadelphia is poised to launch its newest innovation to the artform: the Opera Philadelphia Channel—a paid, digital subscription that can be viewed on small and large electronic devices. The channel offers a host of new live stream performances, recorded and edited with a filmmaker's eye.

"We don't want people to look at a screen and be reminded or think about what they're missing, which is happening with a lot of the content in our field. So no pictures of the opera house that you used to go into, no empty halls that people are singing into."

Instead, says Devan, they want to create something memorable and authentic; "that it be its own artistic expression [with] its own relationship to you and the artist through the screen; [something] that is meaningful and touches your heart."

The goal is  to create a unique performance that prompts the viewer to say: "Wow, I'm glad I experienced that."

In our Zoom interview, David talks about how to do that, and previews some of the offerings coming up, including a recital on October 23rd, with tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who will be joined by sopranos Karen Slack, Lindsey Reynolds, and Sarah Shafer. 

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation: 

Susan Lewis: What's the philosophy behind this channel?

The Opera Philadelphia Channel offers a host of new live stream performances, recorded and edited with a filmmaker's eye.

David Devan: The way we think about it is, if we were to give the keys to the opera company to HBO, what would they do?  They would purposely create things for the screen that amplified the tools of the screen for expressive work. And that led us to this idea that we will have a channel and once a month there will be a new program put on that channel that will stay on it.

Most of it will be originally produced for the screen. There's one rebroadcast, which will be a La traviata production we did that was Lisette Oropesa's first Violetta. And she'll be hosting it and talking about what it was like to do her first Violetta, which she's done all over the world.

Everything else will be produced with film directors, on sound studios, not stages, or if we're using a stage, it'll be repurposed as a sound studio.

Susan Lewis: So the channel launches in October with Artistic Advisor Lawrence Brownlee curating a program of arias, songs, spirituals, and conversation. 

David Devan: The Opera Philadelphia Channel is a global product; that's the intention. We're hoping that as many people that come to opera in Philadelphia will also be part of the channel. And so we wanted to kick it off, and make sure that it's rooted in Philly.

And what better way, but to bring artistic advisor Lawrence Brownlee, who's had a long relationship with the company, who was going to be a festival artist, and to have him in a performance with some local performers."

Susan Lewis: What kind of works will we see during the season? 

David Devan: Opera Philadelphia is about exploring the future of opera. That's our beating heart. And we're completely committed to the canon, but like our La Traviata, it needs to feel like it's produced by 21st-century hands. The channel follows that same democratized range of activities. 

Credit Dominic M. Mercier
Lawrence Brownlee performs Cycles of My Being, a song cycle about the experience of being a Black man in America.

Larry [Brownlee] will go on to do Cycles of My Being, which we commissioned for him a number of years ago, with Tyshawn Sorey, the composer, who is one of our composers-in-residence, and Terrance [Hayes] who is the librettist.

It will be re-imagined for screen and film with multimedia. It's about what it's like being a black man in America. And nobody knows that better than Larry Brownlee. Giving voice to that on this channel is an important part of welcoming different voices into a creative space that's about self-expression.

We also will be doing David T. Little's Soldier Song, which is an opera for a one singer and five or six musicians.  

Here's a short video about the work when it was performed in 2018 at the Ford Theater: 

[Soldier Song] will be conceived of as a film, using film directing specialists, and cinematographers versus camera operators. And it will be produced with its own look.

El Cimarron, by Hans Vernera Henze, which was to be in the festival, is now being recreated in  film.  It's about a Cuban who lived into his hundreds and had lived through slavery industrialization in Cuba. 

We'll also have emerging voices, commissioning four digital shorts by composers that we've not yet commissioned an opera from. That, along with the LA Traviata, gives you a full menu, of what opera can be, with lots of different voices. There's an eclecticism to it that's intentional.

Susan Lewis: So programs are planned in consultation with artists?

David Devan: Jonathan McCullough has been developing Soldier's Song as a vehicle for him, and that's how it came to us. Larry wanted more people to see Cycles of My Being.  It's has been done in Carnegie hall and at Lyric Opera, Chicago, which were our co-commissioners, it was world premiered here. But when you add all those people up, it's still, you know, 2,000 people and we have an opportunity for thousands and thousands to see it.

Susan Lewis: What's ahead?

David Devan: Once we get to the other side of this, we can't wait to be in live performance. But the channel is probably not going away. It needs to be in parallel or an adjunct to our live work. And this year, we will gain lots of skills and experiences in doing that. 

Think about how many people have seen Hamilton since Disney Plus sold it to them for $6.99.  Our Opera Philadelphia Channel, our festival and our Stagioni season will be three different things, but they're all about celebrating and exploring the future of opera. 

We're stronger coming out [of the crisis] than we were going in. And by stronger, I mean that our artistry has greater agency. It's reaching more people.

Opera Philadelphia is helping to be a messenger for the City of Philadelphia to the world. If we can do that better in 18 months, we will have used this opportunity where there are no rules to, well, reinvent the rules.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.