When you go to the opera, what happens?
They sing, you sit.
Brünnhilde doesn’t stop and ask the crowd, “What should I do now? Throw this boulder or keep singing?” Never happens. It’s opera.
Not so in Ellen Fishman-Johnson’s new opera Marie Begins. Fishman-Johnson – who, besides being a working composer, is also head of the arts and new-media programs at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy – calls it an “operactive,” for “interactive opera.” It’s part of a new-media wave in opera that’s transforming the 400-year-old art form.
Fishman-Johnson explains how the concept works:
“Marie is celebrating her 30th birthday,” she says. “She’s single, stuck, and wants to break out, so she has decisions to make. Starting about four minutes in, you’re going to be asked to decide: Will she go this way or that way?
So, which will it be?
“You make the choice, you determine how the story branches. That’s part of the point: The seemingly inconsequential choices you make in life can take you down different paths.”
Marie was performed in January in a workshop at an Opera America conference, with live performers on stage accompanied by a digital projection showing the interactive choices. The audience used clickers to register their selections, voting en masse on Marie’s choices.
One filmed segment of Marie now lives online at mariebegins.com, produced by Simon Rogers (a former Springside Chestnut Hill student), directed by Stephen Skeel (another former student), and filmed by 7 Wonders Cinema of Gladwyne.
Marie, played by Tony-nominated singer/actor Lauren Worsham, is crooning around the kitchen about “a special new cure that ensures I get my life together,” when the prompt “Get ready to decide” pops on the screen. Then you’re asked: “What Should Marie Do Next?”
Choices: “Answer the Intercom” or “Open the Door.” If you click on “Answer the Intercom,” Marie does, and here’s her unwanted not-really-friend Lee (mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng). If you choose “Open the Door,” in comes Gabe, the guy she wants to ask out (tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts).
You can choose one way, then go back to the start and choose the other. And – this is fun – the video profiles you based on your choice. If you choose to open the door, you’re told “You’re a romantic who pushes your actors towards passion & excitement.”
Fishman-Johnson’s music is expressive and smile-inducing, combining jazz, modern, and pop. (She counts among her idols Laurie Anderson and John Coltrane.)
It also has a sense of humor, as does the libretto by Philadelphia writer Julia Curcio. Marie, for example, cooks herself a disgusting paleo-vegan pizza; the cast members scrunch their faces as they sing.
The tough crowd of 100 opera-industry people at the January opera conference loved it, according to Susan Ashbaker, general manager and artistic director of Tri Cities Opera. “The audience just erupted,” she said. “They enjoyed the clicker option and the participatory feeling.”
A mind ablaze
“New work is being created all the time,” Ashbaker said. “But Ellen has come up with an idea no one had ever come up with before. Her mind is ablaze with technology and music.”
Fishman-Johnson’s command of both music and new media is unusual, and Steve Druggan, head of school at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, says Fishman-Johnson has done wonders in her 21 years there.
“She’s a master in two very different domains,” Druggan says. “She is just as adept at choral direction and orchestra as she is at new media, coding, architectural drawing, fabrication, design. She finds new connections.”
She has collaborated with artists like choreographer Jeanne Ruddy, who first teamed with her in Oceans I: Wetlands, a 2007 dance work.
“When we worked together, it was like she was reading my mind,” Ruddy says. “She knew exactly what I was going for. She has mastered so many techniques, and whatever she does, it always works, somehow.”
Marie Begins is just beginning the long, long road to full operatic production. A 2017 Opera America grant for female composers helped Fishman-Johnson get this far, and the search is on for funding, a company, a venue.
Marie gets a workshop by Lyric Opera Theatre in September at Arizona State University. Ashbaker says she is trying to line up a full-on world premiere at Tri Cities Opera in January 2020. The Seagle Music Colony of Schroon Lake, N.Y., is interested in doing it that September.
Thinking aloud, Fishman-Johnson says: “The thing about Marie is that it could be presented in so many ways, by a large company, or on a Friday evening at a place like the Barnes, or at a bar. A company could charge for both the online version and for the in-person version. It won’t be same twice.”
Along with Fishman-Johnson’s Marie, Kamala Sankaram’s 2016 virtual-reality opera Parkland Murders is part of the new-media wave in opera. Other experiments out there involve 360-degree digital photography, drone tech, social media, and immersive theater.
“People are telling us that this is a great, accessible way to get people back into coming to opera,” Fishman-Johnson says, “and it seems to appeal to people of all ages. I never wanted to be a traditional composer. I always wanted to reach more people than that.”