Opera Philadelphia prepares binge-worthy moveable feast for fall

 Gotham Chamber Opera performed

Gotham Chamber Opera performed "War Stories" last year at the Metropolitan Museum. Opera Philadelphia will bring the two-part production to the Philadelphia Museum of Art next fall as part of O17. (Stephanie Berger)

Opera Philadelphia will kick off its 2017-2018 season in the fall with a 12-day festival of mostly new opera — six productions in six venues, over the course of 12 days.

Called O17, the festival is intended to match the way contemporary audiences consume culture. Whether it’s Netflix, Coachella, or opera, audience data shows people like a relatively short, densely packed experience.

“We binge-watch TV, we make plans over the weekend to do themed things,” said Opera Philadelphia executive director David Devan. “All the data was suggesting that living exclusively with the subscription model was not existing in the 21st century.”

Devan is top-loading the season with O17 — including three world premieres, two Philadelphia premieres, and a recital by soprano superstar Sondra Radvanovsky. The festival is designed to satisfy local opera fans and attract out-of-towners.

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“Something that was once seen as a liability — being so close to New York — is now an asset, because New Yorkers can come here,” said Devan. “They can’t get it in New York.”

The season will continue into the spring with two more productions at the Academy of Music:  the modern opera “Written on Skin” and the beloved chestnut “Carmen.”

Two world premieres in the O17 festival, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “The Wake World,” are intimately tied to Philadelphia. “We Shall Not Be Moved” is set in West Philadelphia at the site of the 1985 MOVE bombing — a botched police action against an entrenched commune that resulted in an entire block of houses burning down.

Set in contemporary time, the opera starts as a reaction to Philadelphia’s troubled public school system. A group of runaway teenagers on the lam from a failing school takes refuge in an abandoned house of Osage Avenue, unbeknownst to them as the site of the MOVE bombing.

The teenagers encounter ghosts of the children killed in that bombing 32 years ago.

“What I imagine is that there is as much to learn from ghosts — when the corpses begin to speak — as from a textbook,” said librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, founder of Brave New Voices, a national youth poetry slam.

“What might it be like if young Philadelphians were able to learn from a two-dimensional interaction with text — and also from the spiritual testimony of apparitions yearning to have lived their lives differently?” he said.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” is a hybrid of styles, including opera, hip-hop, R&B, and spoken word. Joseph, who is still working on the final draft with composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, described the story is part sociological tale, part paranormal sci-fi story a la Octavia Butler. It will be directed by famed choreographer Bill T. Jones.

“The baton has been passed to us, in terms of an eagerness to experiment with our classical training — with the Western canon — to reveal the black vernacular overlaid on these traditional forms,” said Joseph.

In a phone interview from his car in Manhattan, Jones said he got involved at first to reconnect creatively with Roumain, with whom he had worked in the past.

Then, the subject of the opera opened a “memory room” in his mind. In 1985, he said, everybody in New York was talking about the MOVE bombing, including a psychotherapist he was working with at the time.

“‘Be suspicious of authority. Look at Philadelphia, look at what happened to MOVE,’ she said,” remembered Jones. “‘The neighborhood gets burned down because certain people in the neighborhood trusted the police.’ That’s a very radical thing for her to say, but, as you can see, those attitudes did not in any way go away.”

After its Philadelphia premiere, “We Shall Not Be Moved” will be performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, then move to London for a run at Hackney Empire. All three organizations co-commissioned the piece.

The other world premiere with local ties, “The Wake World,” was inspired by the art collection at the Barnes Foundation, where it will be performed. The “hallucinatory” work features an imagined meeting between Dr. Albert Barnes and the infamous British occult guru, Aleister Crowley.

“We want to create a wide palette of operatic experiences that you can self-curate,” said Devan.

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