After the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) was ushered off the stage suddenly last March – never to return to this point – they took their talents beyond the stage to produce and distribute an innovative operatic film, “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Philip Glass, that is visually interesting, musically refreshing and politically challenging.
Any yet, none of it is live – and all of it was recorded last fall with strict COVID-19 protocols in place that sometimes didn’t even allow all the musicians to be together at the same time in rehearsals or recordings. Added on to that was the fact that it was the first time many of the musicians had played with another musician for a real production since the abrupt March closure of all performance companies.
“It was a bizarre experience to be working in this way, but a lot of instrumentalists have had experience recording before and it took us only a few minutes before we were totally on the same page and like no time had passed,” said Brett Hodgdon, a JP resident who played synthesizer and was an assistant music director for the film. “It’s so strange to be apart from each other for so long and only interacting on screens. But after a few minutes of just getting used to it again, there’s something that’s really easy and invigorating about getting back that connection.”
Said musician Richard Flanagan, “Coming back in October to perform and them putting this together was such a surprise. It wasn’t planned. It came together and had all the pieces come together to make it work. They did a lot to figure out how to keep the opera company going and for us to make money we hadn’t made in months and months. It was a gift. That’s how I explain it.”
In addition to Hodgdon, Jorgeandrés Camargo of Mission Hill sings the part of the Servant, and Flanagan, of JP, plays percussion in the Orchestra.
The film is described as a gripping, ground-breaking new creation that launches Edgar Allan Poe’s Victorian gothic horror tale into modern times. Using hand-drawn and stop-motion animation techniques alongside curated archival footage, this version of USHER tells the mysterious story with Glass’ complete score and Arthur Yorinks’ full libretto, while building a new, cinematic framework around it.
Helmed by film and opera director James Darrah, and boasting a fresh treatment by Spanish screenwriter Raúl Santos that places the opera within the story of a young immigrant girl named Luna who is detained on the U.S. border, The Fall of the House of Usher debuted exclusively on BLO’s operabox.tv last month and will be available until June.
Watching the film is mesmerizing and intriguing, but the final product doesn’t begin to tell the lengths the company and the musicians had to go to in order to make the project happen. First of all, COVID guidelines prevented a huge orchestra from coming together close, and recording times were limited by time requirements, and singing in COVID times is a major no-no.
For singers like Camargo and musicians like Hodgdon and Flanagan, rehearsals were not the usual fair. In fact, much of it was done one-on-one with BLO Music Director David Angus – who was in the United Kingdom last fall. Musicians would go over parts individually with him, and they would use a pre-recorded “click track” to rehearse the voice parts. That went on for some time and was the way the musicians prepared for the recording sessions.
For Camargo, he actually had his first audition and rehearsal while in the middle of the woods in Minnesota – probably a first in history situation for the opera world.
The Mission Hill resident said he was helping a friend participate in an endurance road race in Minnesota when he got an e-mail from Angus wanting to do a rehearsal immediately.
“I was in the middle of the woods and on Zoom and not in a rehearsal hall like I am used to,” he said. “I was in the car in the woods singing with Brett (Hodgdon) in Boston and David (Angus) on Zoom back in the UK somewhere. We crossed 12 different time zones there and that was amazing. I would never expect a company to have to do that.”
Hodgdon said preparation was a challenge for the production, but one they overcame successfully.
“That was a challenge of this process because there were rules about how long we could rehearse with each other,” he said. “So the idea was to make it as streamlined as possible. We recorded a click-track which is basically a metronome synced with the entire score so everyone rehearsing would be at the exact same tempo at the exact right time. That allowed us to make a recording of the piano part that singers could use for the time. They didn’t need to spend hours and hours of prep time. They could do that in their own and then we were all on the same page when we came together.”
In two days last fall, the orchestra came to the massive GBH music studio in Allston and spaced themselves out and recorded the musical score. That was mixed and then the singers had to come in individually or in pairs and record their parts using the pre-recorded score.
“Singing was a very different experience alone with a recording, but it showed a lot of ingenuity on the part of the company,” Camargo said.
“It felt a little sterile, but it was a good sterile feeling,” he added. “Because we were in a pandemic environment, it was happy and sad at the same time. However, everyone was intensely excited to be able to perform.”
With the visual elements added after the musical score was finished, the final version of the film was prepared and released in late January.
It has been a curious endeavor as it has opened up a potential new possibility for the BLO. The project is certainly not just a video of musicians and singers doing opera, but a version of opera that challenges the previous notion of the art form.
Will it have a place after the pandemic, or just be a bit of crisis nostalgia.
Flanagan said he thinks it can be a permanent part of the BLO going forward – a supplement to their in-person performances when COVID-19 allows such performances.
“I have a feeling it could be used to a huge advantage for the BLO going forward,” he said. “It would really expand people’s love of music and keep music around another 100 years…This might be that perfect storm. It has a lot of upside because the production we did with Usher was fulfilling from many perspectives on every level…Every box was checked with a ‘yes.’ It was a home run really.”
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is made available on-demand ($10 for a seven-day rental) on the BLO’s operabox channel. Operabox.tv is available at the operabox.tv website and through branded apps available on Apple, Google, Amazon and Roku platforms.