As fall theater season collapses, Opera Philadelphia pivots to film

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Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia will shoot and edit its first original film production, “Cycles of My Being” to debut through its new streaming service in November. (Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia)

Opera Philadelphia canceled its fall performance season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of producing opera for the stage, the company will turn operas into original films and release them on the company’s own online video channel.

The Opera Philadelphia Channel will be an on-demand, subscription-based content portal that can be streamed on mobile devices, computers, and televisions via Chromecast, Roku, Amazon, and other platforms.

Opera Philadelphia President and General Director David Devan said the film productions will be designed and performed for the camera.

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“So we’re using sound stages, we’re not using theaters. We’re using film people. We’re using film editors,” he said. “If HBO were to take over an opera company it would sort of look like this.”

“The artistry that is going to be explored on this channel is different in its delivery than the artistry you’re going to see on stage,” Devan said.

The first production to launch the channel in October is an exception. It features an archival stage performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” with soprano Lisette Oropesa, shot in 2015. They plan to augment the old footage with new interviews with Oropesa, who has grown in prominence since then.

That gives Opera Philadelphia some time to shoot and edit its first original film production, “Cycles of My Being” with tenor Lawrence Brownlee.

Brownlee co-created the song cycle with composer Tyshawn Sorey and librettist Terrance Hayes in 2016 and performed its premiere in Philadelphia in 2018.

“‘Cycles of My Being’ is kind of like an entryway of what it’s like to be a Black man in America,” Brownlee said.

The cycle of six songs begins with “Inhale, Exhale”:

America, I see you hiss and stare.

Do you love the air in me as I love the air in you?

“It talks about oppression. It talks about how we love this country. As a Black man I love this country. I’m proudly American. But sometimes it seems like the country doesn’t love me back,” Brownlee said.

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At the time of its creation 2016, Brownlee was thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Waking up every day and seeing stories of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, and so many other names synonymous with police brutality, it was troubling for me,” he said. “During that time I was inspired to try to use my platform to speak out on something that is important to me.”

In four years little has changed. Brownlee said “Cycles of My Being” is as relevant as ever in 2020 as the police killing of George Floyd sparked millions to turn out for Black Lives Matter protests around the country.

For the Opera Philadelphia Channel, Brownlee and a small chamber orchestra will congregate in Philadelphia to shoot the song cycle, enhanced in post-production with editing and green-screen digital overlays.

“Cycles of My Being” will roll out in November. Every month thereafter, Opera Philadelphia will add a new production to the channel.

Opera Philadelphia is planning fully costumed and designed productions that have more narrative drama, like “Soldier Songs,” about World War II, and “El Cimarron,” a 1970 German opera about a runaway slave in Cuba, which Opera Philadelphia presented on stage last year.

Opera Philadelphia is also commissioning composers to create new, shorter operas specifically for the video channel to debut early next year.

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