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What it takes to build a ‘modular’ opera

Soprano Victoria Davis takes the spotlight in Helios Opera's "Stardust."
Soprano Victoria Davis takes the spotlight in Helios Opera's "Stardust."John de los Santos and Keith Browning

The typical trappings of opera are incompatible with life during a pandemic. But for the new Boston-based company Helios Opera, which delights in smashing the usual confines of the genre, there have only been opportunities for innovation — if not under ideal circumstances.

Helios’s Modular Opera Project, which launched this summer, provided artists with audiovisual training and other support necessary to perform from their homes or other safe venues. Now, with the multimedia song cycle “Stardust,” Helios is proving that modular doesn’t necessarily mean modest. The digital production premiered in December and is now online at productions.heliosopera.com.

With dreamlike music by New York City composer Felix Jarrar and a fantastical libretto by London-based poet B.L. Foxley, the visual extravagance of the final filmed version of “Stardust” belies its microbudget. Filmed entirely on smartphones, soprano Victoria Davis takes the spotlight in a journey through mythological archetypes and haunting multi-hued split-screen images. The mind behind these striking tableaux was director John de los Santos, whom the Globe reached at home in New York City to talk about taking a medium designed for big stages and making it play nicely on miniature screens.

Q. What happened to your daily life when COVID hit?


A. Basically I just spend more time in front of my computer. Since COVID has been going on I’ve been lucky because I’m also a librettist, and that’s mostly what I’ve been doing. I’ve written and directed two pieces now for digital consumption, and also just caught up on a lot of libretto work. The funny thing is even though I Zoom for most of the day I still have a hard time figuring it out.

Q. To you, what makes for a compelling production or performance in the digital space?

A. I think there are a number of things. If you think about music videos, ever since the ’80s, they’re little dramas, even if it’s just footage of a band playing on stage. The music video format really opened up a whole new world of interpretation where the visual narrative did not have to tie in completely with the lyrical narrative. I think that’s what I really wanted to achieve here where I didn’t want to make this a literal interpretation of the poetry, but to create something that tied in with some of the same themes and the author’s intent ... but that [also] was a completely different visual direction. And also we were dealing with a small budget, a very small amount of time, and COVID. But I always try to make limitations into challenges that enhance the work.


Q. The piece was shot entirely on smartphones; were you present for that?

A. It was just myself, my assistant lighting designer Keith Browning, and our singer, Victoria Davis. We all got tested. We rented a room in New York City and met there with some lights and some really inexpensive material from Michael’s, and got our phones out and shot it. Victoria was amazing, with a great knowledge of the piece and just so open to everything. We developed a rapport. There wasn’t a lot of time to “Hi, how are you?” It was just “Hey, here’s the idea, let’s get it going.” But we had a lot of fun, and we laughed through our masks as much as we could.


Q. Besides music videos, what else influenced the staging?

A. A couple things. The first inspiration that I really had was Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls,” a film from the ’60s. It was two screens simultaneously that had nothing to do with each other. [Another inspiration was] the painter Francis Bacon, who did a series of triptych portraits. And in addition, the idea of Zoom, the idea of how we’re all imprisoned in these boxes.

John de los Santos's staging was inspired in part by "the idea of Zoom, the idea of how we’re all imprisoned in these boxes."
John de los Santos's staging was inspired in part by "the idea of Zoom, the idea of how we’re all imprisoned in these boxes."John de los Santos and Keith Browning

But yeah, one of the main things was the Greek myth of the Moirai, or the fates. When I was reading the poetry at the beginning, I noticed that B.L. had many references to myths and fantasy in the poems. The poems were not written to be performed together; Felix took those three poems of hers and decided to set them to music, but there was no common thread. So I thought: What about contemporary myths? Each one of the three had a contemporary myth that I used as a visual starting point. To me, the best song cycles have some kind of a through line, whether it’s musical or narrative. And I had to really figure out a way to make that work visually as well.

Q. When you’re only meeting a select few collaborators in person and doing the rest over Zoom, how do you create a connection with your creative team?

A. Honestly, I do it over the phone. I’ve always been a phone person anyway; call me old-fashioned. There’s always this pressure on Zoom to have the right lighting and to clean your room and everything. Whereas I’m just interested in the voice and the conversation. That’s actually why I was glad that we were doing this conversation over the phone rather than Zoom, because we can talk and get to the root of what we wanted to deal with rather than having to perform, which is what Zoom kind of dictates. Even if it’s just your friends, you’re like oh, God, my room is a mess, or my hair looks terrible. For me, phone conversations have been a great way to check in with artists and talk about the future because we have to look to the future to keep the juices flowing, and to remind ourselves why we’re in this business.


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.