It feels like an eternity since audiences were able to safely sit down in a theater and watch a live opera play out on stage. But for the crew behind Boston Lyric Opera’s “desert in,” it hasn’t felt long at all.
The process of commissioning and producing a new work often takes three to five years, explained BLO acting general and artistic director Bradley Vernatter. But “desert in,” a made-for-screen BLO commission, took a fraction of that time. The initial ideas germinated in a conversation between Vernatter and composer Ellen Reid in March 2020, just one day after BLO’s “Norma” became one of countless events canceled as the pandemic spread across the United States. The final result, produced in association with Long Beach Opera, will be unveiled June 3 on operabox.tv.
“I didn’t believe that BLO should necessarily be trying to compete with sort of a Met-HD-broadcast style of video programming,” Vernatter said in a phone interview. “So I said to Ellen, if we’re not doing what we traditionally do and we’re not doing that very familiar sort of digital programming, what does that look like for an opera company?”
For Boston Lyric Opera, it looks like an episodic opera miniseries, combining the work of eight composers, eight writer-librettists, and four directors. “From an opera perspective, it was a very condensed period of time,” Vernatter said. “We were inspired by the pace at which TV works, and that sort of collective artistic body that the TV world sort of operates in... You’re working on a multitude of parallel tracks at the same time. Nothing about this was a linear process.”
The story is a lush and emotional multi-stranded romance in eight 10- to 20-minute installments, exploring mysterious occurrences at a motel in the American West where guests pay to be reunited with lost loves. Following an idea from Reid and director James Darrah, a past BLO collaborator, the libretto was crafted writer’s room-style with playwright christopher oscar peña and veteran TV screenwriter/director Joy Kecken (“The Wire,” “Cloak and Dagger”) taking point. Together, they introduced writers coming from the music world to the process of crafting an episodic series.
Though each writer took the helm for one episode, the process of creating the series’ world and mythology was extremely collaborative, Kecken said in a phone interview. “Let’s talk about characters, let’s imagine their backgrounds, their traumas ... or let’s imagine the love of their life, what does that look like?” she said. “We ended up moving very quickly because everyone picked up on it right away.” In return, librettist Roxie Perkins, who worked with Reid on the Pulitzer-winning “Prism,” gave television writers like Kecken a crash course on writing for singers.
At the same time, Reid was assembling a team of eight composers, while Darrah took charge of directors. Vernatter coordinated casting, leaning on collaborators to bring in experienced screen actors. Three characters — married innkeepers Cass (Isabel Leonard) and Sunny (Talise Trevigne), and the inn’s Lounge Singer (Justin Vivian Bond) — both sing and act, while others are portrayed on screen by one performer and given singing voice by another.
“It felt like everyone was just slightly out of their comfort zone,” said actor and director Raviv Ullman, who portrays hotel guest Ion onscreen while baritone Edward Nelson provides his singing voice. “In a way, that was just this incredible equalizer, where nobody was able to rely on ego. We all came to the table excited and grateful to be creating in-person.”
The story and its world remained a work-in-process even during final shooting on location, and something felt liberating about the unorthodox creative process, Trevigne said in a phone interview from her Atlanta home. “Normally in opera you come to rehearsal, you’re memorized, you’re off book. But there was a creative license ... We all sort of discovered together, and at times, even on set, we could change our minds, which was great.”
Ullman, who as a teen starred in Disney’s “Phil of the Future” under the stage name Ricky Ullman, came to the project at peña’s suggestion. “He said, ‘we’re putting this pretty wild thing together in the desert, there’s a few roles you might be right for, will you read it?’” Ullman recounted. Ullman was wholly unfamiliar with opera before the pandemic; while holed up at home in Los Angeles in 2020, he took in some of the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly archival streams and listened to a playlist of the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s favorite selections. But that did little to prepare him for what he found at “desert in,” which filmed on location earlier this year at a motel near Desert Hot Springs, Calif. (Some of the team, like Ullman, even stayed there for the duration of their time on set.)
“Not only was it the first big group I was around [since the pandemic], but also the first group creative collaboration that I think a lot of us had,” Ullman said. He was struck by the youthfulness of the whole team. “I don’t think I knew that young people were involved in opera.”
The series filmed in a closed “bubble,” taking another page from the TV playbook to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Rigorous testing was required, and different people belonged to different “zones” based on who they were interacting with, Vernatter said. None of the COVID tests administered on set came back positive.
“It’s a real testament to our health task force,” Vernatter said. “Everyone took this very seriously ... to protect themselves but also protect each other.”
All told, “desert in” cost about the same amount as a mainstage production of a repertoire opera such as “Norma,” Vernatter said. Commissions are typically more expensive, but because so much of the creative process on “desert in” happened remotely, the budget and its proportions differed from the usual.
“If you’re doing a typical process, and add in all the production costs on top of that and all the other personnel costs, it’s pretty significant. Because of the circumstances with COVID, we had to keep things in a lot of small units. So we had a small orchestra ensemble, a smaller unit of an ensemble of singers, but it allowed us to have a larger than usual unit of creators … writers and composers.”
And despite the unfamiliar ground entailed by such a collaborative project — or perhaps because of it — the persistent uncertainty of the future spurred the team into action, he said. “It’s really just so unique. We have this momentum that has propelled us forward and it just has kept us energized and determined.”
“I’ve found that I’m a big fan of opera. I did not know that till now!” Ullman said. “I’m hoping that this is not only a successful project ... but also a proof of concept. So many theater companies did Zoom readings and kept things going, but this felt like Boston Lyric Opera really committed to trying something new and out of their wheelhouse. And as a new fan to opera, I’m hoping there are many more of these.”
Available June 3 on 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.