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Opera Philadelphia's Festival O22 stretches definitions and horizons

Black Lodge
Film still by Matthew Soltesz courtesy of Beth Morrison Projects
Trapped in a nightmarish Bardo, a place between death and rebirth, a tormented writer (Timur) faces down demons of his own making in 'Black Lodge,' premiering Oct. 1 and 2 at the Philadelphia Film Center.

In addition to serving as Weekday Morning Classical host, John T.K. Scherch sings in the Opera Philadelphia chorus. Here is his preview of the organization's Festival O22.

Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O series has consistently presented some of the most daring and forward-thinking bills available at a major American opera house, and this year’s is no exception.

From a rarely heard bel canto opera with new frontiers for its stars to an interactive journey into one of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic works to the myriad performances onscreen, Festival O22 will be a treat for longtime opera lovers, first-time opera goers, and those who especially appreciate the unusual and the new.


The festival’s headliner presents a familiar story, but in a different (though no less familiar) composer’s voice. The name Otello in opera is often associated with Giuseppe Verdi, but Festival O22 will present the much less heard version by Gioachino Rossini, which provides a role debut for star tenor Lawrence Brownlee and a first performance stateside for tenor Khanyiso Gwenxane in the title role. The staging is reminiscent of PBS’s Downton Abbey, complete with an upstairs and downstairs and the drama that ensues between the classes. Brownlee and Gwenxane stopped by our studio at WRTI to sing a couple excerpts and talk with me; check out that performance here. Otello also features Daniela Mack as Desdemona, Alek Shrader as Iago, Christian Pursell as Elmiro, and Sun-Ly Pierce as Emilia. Opera Philadelphia Music Director Corrado Rovaris conducts. September 23-October 2 at the Academy of Music.

The Raven

“I just love playing crazy ladies,” says mezzo Kristen Choi. She’s the star of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem depicting loneliness descending into madness. The opera is a monodrama for mezzo-soprano, chamber orchestra, and a group of dancers that portray the environment around the singer, as well as her thoughts. “Lots of things can come from grief,” adds Choi, “like memories of happiness, anger, sadness, joy, excitement. And I think we portray all of those emotions throughout the opera.” Among the vocal sounds she creates in the role are whispers, shouts, “what feels like vomiting words,” and something like yodels. “It’s really exciting.”

The Raven

The production incorporates elements of Noh theater, a centuries-old Japanese style blending drama and dance. Director Aria Umezawa noted that these elements, in addition to what’s on stage, can be largely found in the text, which conductor Eiki Isomura expanded on. “I think where Hosokawa found inspiration from Noh seems to come from an animal, a non-human entity, confronts our protagonist and sort of brings the world into something other than a natural world,” Isomure says. “Oftentimes Noh will bring in either a god or a spirit, and animals [will] take on a supernatural quality.” As an example, the raven itself is portrayed by a dancer (Muyu Ruba).

There is action beyond the stage in this production: Opera Philadelphia has partnered with Obvious Agency, a Philadelphia-based organization that produces interactive and immersive theatrical experiences. Umezawa says “they have helped us to devise a pre-show that will give more context for what's happening in the opera.” This is where most of the cast listed on Opera Philadelphia’s page for The Raven gets involved; you’ll notice most of them are named Lenore. “Lenore is a sort of MacGuffin for the poem,” Isomura says. “Each audience segment is going to have the opportunity to interact with a different version of Lenore that will then carry them into the opera, so that when they watch the show and Lenore is referenced they have a more complete picture of who this person might be, and who Kristen might be referencing when they're grieving.”

The interactive pre-show and the show itself will both be integral parts of this experience. The first performance is Sept. 21, and it runs until Oct. 1. As it stands, the entire run is sold out, so keep an eye on the production’s page to see if that changes.

Black Lodge
Film still by Matthew Soltesz courtesy of Beth Morrison Projects
A woman is at the center of all Timur's afterlife encounters. She is the subject of his life's greatest regret, and she materializes everywhere in this Otherworld in 'Black Lodge,' premiering Oct. 1 and 2 at the Philadelphia Film Center.

Black Lodge

A large portion of Festival O22 will be on screen (more on that in a bit), but composer David T. Little and librettist Anne Waldman’s Black Lodge will be the only live-scored production. Its world premiere will be Oct. 1 at the Philadelphia Film Center.

The structure of the piece is akin to a song cycle, with a mood inspired by the surrealist writer William S. Burroughs and through a lens similar to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Little notes that “there’s not necessarily a story [the music and libretto are] telling. They’re exploring feelings — states of consciousness and existence — they’re very poetic in that sense, rather than narrative.”

In the story, a writer finds himself trapped in the darkest moments of his life, the “black lodge,” unable to escape his demons or a woman who is the subject of his life’s greatest regret. He goes through multiple emotions in the opera, which are largely expressed in different vocal styles by the singer Timur. “There are definitely three different timbres — one of them is a baritone, another one is a tenor, and the third one is a countertenor,” he says. He also lists growling and whispering among the “huge palette” of sounds he gets to make.

Discussing the overall sound of the piece, bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein, and Alice Cooper come up, even referring to the Black Sabbath song “War Pigs” and French Baroque opera shortly after each other. The trailer gives one idea of where the piece goes musically:

Thinking about opera audiences, Little is sure to note that he approached this piece as a classical composer, and Timur notes that entry points are everywhere; he approaches the work as an opera singer with a classical foundation, and does at some points in the piece actually sing in an operatic style. But as Timur adds: “It’s certainly not Cats.” There will be two screenings on Oct. 1 and 2 at the Philadelphia Film Center, and the film will be available to stream for a period of time afterward.

Opera on Film

In addition to Black Lodge, the Philadelphia Film Center will be screening various opera films, mostly of new works; highlights include dwb (driving while black); Goodbye, Mr. Chips; the Beyonce film Carmen: A Hip Hopera; and the Joseph Losey production of Don Giovanni. Screenings run from Sept. 27th to Oct. 2; the full list and more information can be found at Opera Philadelphia’s website.

Afternoons at AVA

Internationally acclaimed soprano Latonia Moore and bass-baritone Andre Courville headline a sold-out pair of recitals which will also feature current resident artists at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Courville’s recital is on Sept. 24, and Moore’s will be Oct. 1; more information is available at the series’ page.

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.