Zoom meetings have become a ubiquitous part of pandemic life. Business meetings, social functions -- really any gathering that used be held in person has moved to Zoom or a similar platform. Now that virtual world has become the setting of a new chamber opera being performed this weekend by Hartford Opera Theater -- live, on Zoom.
In Fortune’s Children: A Zoom Opera, three grown brothers meet on Zoom to discuss who will take care of their aging mother. The opera is set in the near future, at the onset of a new pandemic.
“You know for me, in the back of my head, it’s an allegory about the country,” said David Wolfson, composer and librettist of Fortune’s Children. “A family that has to deal with something and has to come together to do it, whether they like it or not.”
Most people think of opera as an art form steeped in convention, but in reality, new operas are written all the time that reflect current events or modern culture. But this goes even further -- an opera written for a performance on Zoom, set in a Zoom meeting.
Creating an opera for Zoom is not without its challenges. For example, as anyone who has been on a Zoom meeting can attest, if two people talk at the same time, it cancels out both speakers. Musically speaking that means no duets or ensemble singing, a staple of most traditional operas.
For Wolfson, the biggest challenge writing for Zoom was trying to compensate for lags due to the varying internet speeds of the performers. But he found a workaround.
“Which is to run a prerecorded track as the accompaniment,” said Wolfson. “And then each singer reacts to that track. But the track consists essentially of cues and vamps and drones and other things. The rhythmic events are singular. [The singers] are not trying to keep a beat. There are not trying to synchronize with each other. So even if they are late for an entrance because of latency, that is OK.”
Wolfson said the “cues and vamps” give the three singers time to sing their lines without falling ahead or behind the recorded soundtrack.
Wolfson presented Hartford Opera Theater with his idea for the opera, and the workaround, back in the summer. Michelle Fiertek, executive director of HOT, said she was intrigued by the notion of a Zoom opera but was not convinced that a seamless presentation could be achieved live on the app.
“What really convinced us is that David had sent us a score with his idea to deal with latency, and we were like, ‘We shall see,’” she explained. “So he said, ‘Why don’t you learn the first three pages?’ So we learned the first three pages ourselves and got on a Zoom call, and in that moment it came together, and we were having a conversation from different places. It felt revolutionary. We just made live opera happen in different spots, and it [came] together with one fluid score.”
With the latency issue behind them, they could focus on the other elements of live theater -- things like scenery and costumes. Despite the austerity of a typical Zoom meeting, the artistic team at HOT had to make sure that the audience got a peek into the imaginary lives of the three brothers in the opera through their Zoom box.
“We wanted somebody to direct our singers in their boxes,” said Lisabeth Miller, artistic director of the Hartford Opera Theater, “not only to discuss their character and the things you would expect a director to do, but also to dress their Zoom box -- deciding on the best angle, the best lighting, putting some specific objects within the foreground of the Zoom box or the background, deciding what they would wear, all of those things were very deliberate.”
Performances of Fortune’s Children: A Zoom Opera are this Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. For more information and tickets, go to hartfordoperatheater.com.