Almost as soon as Boston Lyric Opera announced its 2020-21 season last spring, its future was put on hold with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cancellation of live events. The crisis was still fresh when company leadership resolved not to scuttle plans entirely. The show would go on in some way, shape, or form, which it has to an extent via the company’s roving Opera Truck and online recitals.
Now, with the Jan. 29 release of Philip Glass’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” on operabox.tv, the company will unveil its most ambitious and spectacular project of the season.
South Shore-based soprano Chelsea Basler, a BLO regular since 2013, had been cast as the mysterious, sickly Madeline Usher a few months before the pandemic began. “‘Stand by for a while’ were what the instructions were,” Basler said in a recent phone interview. “And then they said, if any of the shows are going to go [on], it’s going to be ‘Usher.’”
“Usher,” a spooky psychodrama based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, is not a walk in the park in terms of staging. Yet in Glass’s oddity of an opera, the BLO team found unexpected opportunities for COVID-era creativity. The 1988 score calls for only five singing roles and no chorus. Much of its 90 minutes feature no singers at all, as the chamber orchestra churns with anxious, pulsating interludes.
“I sometimes feel like, thank God, I didn’t have to figure out how to stage this in person!” laughed director James Darrah over the phone from Los Angeles. “The score is 50 percent orchestral music, and you really have to think about what the story you’re telling is.”
Various ideas were floated about how to do “Usher” and still be safe. Darrah initially hoped to film the singers in an empty theater. But then it “became clear that was deeply irresponsible in many ways,” he said.
To bring “Usher” to life on screen, BLO instead turned to one of the most demanding yet social distancing-friendly of mediums: animation.
To Poe’s gothic horror tale, screenwriter Raúl Santos overlaid a terrifying context ripped from the headlines. In BLO’s “Usher,” the fragmented, ambiguous Poe story (originally published in 1839) takes place within the imagination of Luna, a modern-day refugee child from Guatemala who is detained at a US border camp. Charcoal hand drawings illustrate Luna’s journey, while the Poe story is told through stop-motion 3-D animation. Archival and news footage evokes the United States that Luna sees on television.
“My lighting designer grew up in Mexico, and he told me … the mythology of what was coming through on American TV as a young kid was very potent and powerful,” Darrah said.
The production retained much of its original creative team — hired and assembled pre-pandemic — who worked in tandem with the animators. Darrah was floored when he visited Los Angeles stop-motion studio The Ancient Order of the Wooden Skull. “They actually built all these sets, all in miniature scale. It was uniquely painted, with molding, and flickering candlelight,” Darrah said. “My production designer loved that because she got to design a lot of that. And then our costume designer, who was supposed to do the live show, designed all the clothes for the stop-motion portion. They’re these pretty incredible period clothes that have all these buttons and details and little clasps. There’s little leather shoes. ... Things that people watching it probably won’t know how much work went into.”
All this was possible without changing a note of the music, Darrah added.
The recording process also took place at a social distance. Members of the orchestra recorded the music while using a click track, with BLO music director David Angus monitoring remotely from his home in England. Singers then recorded their parts in separate sessions at GBH while listening to the recorded score, a process that Basler characterized as “opera karaoke.”
“Because of Glass being the composer that he is, everything is very set,” Basler said. “It’s not like if we’re recording Puccini, where there’s a lot of push and pull. We were kind of able to just lock in with the prerecorded orchestra and make something of it.”
Because singers aren’t visible on screen, they also didn’t have to memorize the score. This came as a relief for Basler, whose part as Madeline is completely wordless with frequent repeats.
“This really is unlike any project I’ve ever worked on,” Basler said. “I’m super excited for the public to see it. Because it really is a testament to real creativity during — I don’t want to use the word unprecedented, but it is unprecedented times.”
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
Produced by Boston Lyric Opera. Available Jan. 29 via operabox.tv.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.