Pushing the envelope: drag queens and saints on the Opera Philadelphia Channel

United StatesUnited States Courtney Bryan’s Blessed & Angélica Negrón’s The Island We Made: Available to stream until 31.5.2021 on the Opera Philadelphia Channel, 30.3.2021. (RP)

Janinah Burnett in Blessed

Blessed (world premiere 26.2.2021)

Filmmaker – Tiona Nekkia McClodden
Sound design – Robert Kaplowitz
Creative Producer – Sarah Williams

Soprano – Janinah Burnett
Vocalist – Damian Norfleet
Piano – Courtney Bryan

The Island We Made (world premiere 19.3.2021)

Lyrics & Electronics – Angélica Negrón
Filmmaker & Director – Matthew Placek
Sound design – Robert Kaplowitz
Creative Producer – Sarah Williams

Narrator – Sasha Velour
Vocalist – Eliza Bagg
Harp – Bridget Kibbey

There is a lot of talk about the future of opera in the US at the moment, but Opera Philadelphia isn’t spinning its wheels worrying about what comes next. It has a job to do on its digital channel, keeping the content fresh with a mix of grand opera and cutting-edge commissions. Granted, it had a head start with the annual Festival O: audiences and critics embraced exciting new works, traditional ones in brilliant productions, a diverse array of performers and the variety of venues that Opera Philadelphia co-opted in which to present them. In spite of the pandemic, Opera Philadelphia is still pushing the envelope, and the pace hasn’t slackened.

Video and technology have played a great part in the Opera Philadelphia Channel’s success to date, whether in the talk-show format of Lawrence Brownlee & Friends in Philadelphia (think Merv Griffin or Michael Parkinson as opposed to the current crop); or by presenting a film adaptation of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, which was conceived, directed and performed by baritone Johnathan McCullough. With Courtney Bryan’s Blessed and Angélica Negrón’s The Island We Made, Opera Philadelphia is off in an entirely new direction.

Film and opera have gone hand and glove since the beginning of cinema. In 1893, Thomas Edison spoke of bringing opera into people’s homes through a combination of photography and electricity. Blessed and The Island We Made, however, are different from what we have grown to expect on television or in the movie theater. Rather than capturing what is transpiring on stage and in the pit, film is an integral part of the work. It is a bit like the early 1980s, when MTV first combined pop and video and the music world was never the same, although this time the genre is opera.

In her works, composer and pianist Courtney Bryan draws on various musical styles, including jazz, traditional gospel, spirituals and hymns, as well as experimental techniques. Blessed is a meditation on two pivotal events in 2020 in the US: the response to police brutality against Black men and women and the November election. She took as her inspiration a passage from the Gospel of Matthew known as the Beatitudes, specifically the words ’Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’.

The pandemic prevented Byram and her collaborators – filmmaker Tiona Nekkia McClodden, soprano Janinah Burnett, vocalist Damian Norfleet and sound designer Rob Kaplowitz – from being physically together, so they improvised. Recorded and filmed in New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia, Blessed is a deeply personal, collective reflection on the tumult of the past year from the five artists.

Byram’s twin themes of darkness and light are reflected more in the music than in the visual imagery, although both are equally provocative. The visuals don’t tell a story: rather, they capture a moment in time. Burnett and Norfleet stare defiantly at the camera as their voices are heard. Their backdrop is the barren, gray, wintery landscape of New York City, while Byram is filmed playing the piano and organ in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans. (The church’s organ has a stop, the Byram Trumpet, named after her grandfather.) Footage of sound designer Robert Kaplowitz’s studio and pages from the musical score are also seen.

There is pain and a modicum of hope present in the music and the imagery. Few institutions are as racially segregated as America’s churches, and Blessed strikes at the divide. Idealized religious figures from the European tradition as well as those of the Holy Family and other Biblical figures are presented as people of color which, of course, they were. The camera lingers on the shrine of Frances Joseph-Gaudet, who was born in poverty during the Civil War and ministered to New Orleans’s prisoners. She was recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church in 2007.

Angélica Negrón creates beautiful music. In The Island We Made, she combines electronics and harp to create a shimmering, ethereal soundscape that cloaks her exploration of family in a gauzy, aural cloud. Her score is at one with the cinematography of Matthew Placek, who envelops a stylized, sterile mid-twentieth-century apartment in soft, diffuse light into which an exotic bird of paradise, the gender-fluid drag queen Sasha Velour, has alit.

Sasha Velour in The Island We Made

Velour is draped in a flowing, floor-length, mustard-colored frock, seemingly inspired by the American minimalist fashion designer Halston, who rose to international fame in the 1970s. Her death-defying platform shoes and long gloves are adorned with silver sequins and jewels, as are her ears. A Lladró figurine of a mother and child serves as the launch pad for an exploration of the bonds of mother and son in which Velour lip-syncs to music sung by vocalist Eliza Bagg. Velour’s face is a mask through which emotion flows as readily as it does via Negrón’s music, Bagg’s voice and Placek’s camera.

Rick Perdian

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