When Aliana de la Guardia asks people what comes to mind when they think of opera, their answer is generally along these lines: “Very grand, extreme, heightened emotions,” she said. “And almost always, the word ‘large.’”
With big emotions and big voices come big sets and costumes, not to mention big rooms, big-price tickets, and big time commitments. There’s nothing wrong with that, said de la Guardia, a soprano and the artistic director of Boston-based chamber opera outfit Guerilla Opera. But there’s also no limit to what opera can do, or be — and for the past decade and a half, Guerilla has striven to prove that small doesn’t mean small-time.
“We want our audience to come in and have a really intimate experience,” said de la Guardia.
For the next few months, the company will try to create that kind of experience online. The 2022 season of The Guerilla Underground, a monthly “speakeasy experience and performance series,” will include livestreams, video-on-demand options, Zoom afterparties with artist Q&As, games, and giveaways, as well as a broader spectrum of artists than ever before.
This year’s Underground looks both inward, at the company’s history, and outward, at new connections. The series debuted earlier this month with the premiere of the animated film “Rumpelstiltskin,” which paired a newly released Guerilla recording of Marti Epstein’s 2009 opera with shadow puppet animation by Iranian actor, playwright, and visual artist Deniz Khateri; on-demand tickets are still available. Next month’s featured show (Feb. 11) is “The Cellos’ Dialogue,” performed by Khateri with music by Bahar Royaee and direction by Yekta Khagani; this is the first of five non-Guerilla productions that the company selected from an open call for videos, the others being “The Colony” by Anna Lindemann (March 11) and a trio of shorter operas by Jason Eckardt, Sarah Grace Graves, and Jo Reyes-Boitel (May 13). A double bill of two recent Guerilla productions, “Papillon” and “SALT,“ rounds out the series (April 8).
Now in its 15th season, Guerilla has settled into a distinct niche. The operas are typically custom commissions, and they’re often short; rarely does an evening with Guerilla run over 90 minutes. Rather than showcase one star singer, Guerilla’s operas center the vocal and instrumental ensemble, which usually consists of no more than four instrumentalists and four singers. Rarely does the ensemble use a conductor, and the instrumentalists are always visible, never hidden in a pit. “The idea is to bring [the audience] so close to the singers that you feel this kind of visceral vibration,” said de la Guardia.
When composer Epstein attended two early Guerilla productions — “Heart of a Dog” by Rudolf Rojahn and “No Exit” by Andy Vores — she was floored, she said. “I could not have imagined that opera could be like that,” she recalled. Epstein’s first opera, “Rumpelstiltskin,” premiered with Guerilla in 2009.
Epstein has watched Guerilla grow, and she sees the company’s COVID-era virtual programming as the spark for a new era of innovation. “They really had to figure out, are we going to continue and change the way we deliver content, or are we just going to stop? And I totally credit Aliana with this; she figured out how to present things online,” Epstein said.
“I think because they had to think of new ways to do things, that kind of pushed them in a direction of finding new ways to do live opera as well,” she said, referring to “ELLIS,” the opera by Gabriele Vanoni with libretto by Ewa Chrusciel that Guerilla staged this fall at Old South Meeting House.
But live opera was never part of de la Guardia’s plan for the winter. Pre-pandemic, winter was often a fallow period of planning and applying for grants rather than performing on the Guerilla calendar. And this year, “I honestly did not trust that COVID would be better during cold and flu season,” de la Guardia said. “Also, we’re a small organization, and I didn’t want to risk planning a production and then having to cancel it.”
It helped that Guerilla had been livestreaming productions since 2013, so audiences were used to watching online, she said. In addition, an audience poll at the end of the 2021 season (which included the first iteration of Guerilla Underground) revealed that 40 percent of respondents were watching from outside New England. At first, de la Guardia had planned on only including Guerilla videos in this year’s Underground project, similar to last year’s monthlong event. Then it occurred to her that she could do more. “I thought, you know, we’re not the only ones that have been making [opera] videos. And what does it benefit us to have this platform and not to share it?” she said.
So, the Underground expanded. “The ultimate mission of the Guerilla Underground is to build community with people who are doing something new; people who are doing similar work on the kind of scale that we’re doing, who are trying to say something important about who they are and the communities they represent,” de la Guardia said.
Most of all, Guerilla wants to spread the message that opera is more accessible than people may think. “I think people can have operatic moments at any point in their life, anywhere,” de la Guardia said. “A moment where you feel these emotions that are just bigger than you can express as a person … that’s really our job as artists: to feel these strong emotions and express them in such a way that the average person coming into our performances feels relief, to watch someone else go through something that they feel connected to.”