Opera Philadelphia challenges four composers to write short films

For its new digital streaming channel, Opera Philadelphia needs music conceived for the camera. It has commissioned new music from four composers.

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Opera Philadelphia

Randall Mitsuo Goosby, Khari Joyner, Myra Huang, Alexander Laing, and Lawrence Brownlee film Tyshawn Sorey and Terrance Hayes’ 'Cycles of My Being.' (Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia)

When Opera Philadelphia commissioned Angélica Negrón to compose a short work that will be designed for streaming video, her mind went in the opposite direction of opera.

Negrón is thinking about lip-synching.

“What happens when you take a medium, and take out the main thing that defines it?” asked Negrón. “For example in opera: the presence of the voice. What happens when that is taken out of the equation and someone else is embodying the voice? How can we create new narratives using that?”

Negrón grew up in Puerto Rico, where her mother was friends with several drag queens. She remembers going to house parties as a child where drag queens would pull a pool table into the living room and use it as a runway for performances. Negrón used to jump up on it with the rest of them.

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“At the time I didn’t think of it, they were just my mom’s friends,” she said in a phone interview from New York, where she has been living for 14 years. “I was extroverted as a child – I’ve changed a lot – but I used to dance opening numbers for them and be part of the shows.”

Negrón has built a reputation with outside-the-box thinking. Her compositions have included toy instruments and electronically triggered plants. Composing music for a video platform provides her with another avenue for experimentation. She is envisioning a drag fantasy scenario where the singing moves freely between live and lip-synch, as a vehicle to explore complex layers of identity.

She is one of four composers commissioned by Opera Philadelphia to write a short work that has to be written for both voice and video. Since the collapse of the 2020-2021 performance season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Opera Philadelphia has initiated an online-streaming video channel and begun recording music pieces as films. The commissioned works will debut on the video channel in 2021.

The unusual commission practically begs for an experimental approach. Normally composers are asked to just write music, then a director conceives its performance setting. Opera Philadelphia is asking these four composers — Negrón, Tyshawn Sorey, Caroline Shaw, and Courtney Bryan — to create both the music and its video. They must consider the ear as well as the eye.

“It’s exciting that they are thinking of the platform on which it will be seen,” said Negrón. “Many people are adapting their material for digital, but they were not conceived that way. These pieces are meant for digital.”

The cohort of four composers is comprised of three women, two Black composers, and a Latina artist. It’s significant for a classical genre that historically has lacked diversity.

Opera Philadelphia’s digital channel is scheduled to launch in November, with a film based on “Cycles of My Being,” a song cycle created by Sorey and tenor Lawrence Brownlee that Opera Philadelphia premiered in 2018. Sorey is adapting that work into a film, taping this week on the stage of the Wilma Theatre with the ensemble.

Sorey, a MacArthur fellow who joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania just this fall, will then deliver to Opera Philadelphia a new composition, one written specifically for the camera.

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Composer Tyshawn Sorey conducts a taped performance of his ‘Cycles of My Being’ at Opera Philadelphia. (Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia)


Another composer in the group, Shaw, is the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music and member of the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. Like the rest, she is being asked to go beyond sounds and consider how her music will be presented visually.

Despite its name, Opera Philadelphia is not asking these composers to write an opera. Bryan, a pianist and composer based in New Orleans, is not thinking of a narrative drama or a roster of characters that play out an action, like in a typical opera. Instead, she will be entering into an experimental process of working collaboratively with singers and filmmakers, creating vignettes and moods, and seeing where it leads.

“I’m thinking about the Bible verse, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth,’” she said. “So it has a starting place, and we’re all contributing to it to find the direction.”

Courtney Bryan (Photo by Arielle Pentes)

Bryan will lean on her creative partners to worry about the visuals.

“I have great collaborators,” she said. “I like to focus on the music, and I like to think about different artists I know in visual art, poetry, theater, dance. They are people I want to work with.”

She has until February to deliver something to Opera Philadelphia, which will then start shooting the piece for streaming in the spring.

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