To solve the modern problem of performing during a pandemic, a coalition of regional opera companies across the country, including Duluth’s Lyric Opera of the North, is using the distant past as its muse.
Giovanni Boccaccio created a collection of stories within a story in the 14th century. In “The Decameron,” a group of people are sheltering together to avoid the Black Death. For two weeks, excluding weekends, each person tells a tale of love and life in all its chaos. One hundred stories are told.
“Tales from a Safe Distance” is a modern and original retelling of some of those stories — written, staged and recorded by each of the creative teams that are part of the new Decameron Opera Coalition.
Two to three episodes per night will premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays in October — starting Oct. 9. A livestream chat follows. One ticket allows access to all of the operas, which, after each installment goes live, are available on demand through Dec. 31.
It's a creative fix for Lyric Opera of the North.
As quarantine went on, it became apparent that it would be a while before they could create on traditional stages — or ask aficionados to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in an enclosed space.
“It was easy to fall into a little bit of despair,” said Sarah Lawrence of Lyric Opera of the North — which pushed a summer production of “Tosca” to June 2021. Lawrence, the company’s artistic director, is also a soprano with a calendar of canceled performances.
The company has at least twice produced short works by Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi, “Blue Viola” and “The Filthy Habit.” It was the same duo who approached Lawrence and company in April with the idea of working from “The Decameron.”
“Which made perfect sense,” she said. “Ten people quarantining together and telling stories.”
Eight other companies — including Fargo-Moorhead Opera, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and An Opera Theatre from Minneapolis — have signed on to the project, which uses Boccaccio's stories as a starting point.
Hilliard and Boresi wrote “The Happy Hour,” which sets the Zoom-y framework for the shorter stories to unfold. From there, a mix of scenarios and techniques have been born. An Opera Theatre has a short piece about domestic abuse, and The Bare Opera in New York City leaned sci-fi. Other companies dipped into clandestine love, childbirth, internet dating.
Lyric Opera of the North opted for dark humor-romance with dark humor specialists Margi Preus and Jean Sramek, comedy partners from the troupe Colder By the Lake. "Everything Comes to a Head" is an 11-plus-minute opera that opens with a phone call between friends: one among her plants on the balcony, one in a bubble-filled tub, another cooking in her kitchen. The conflict: Basil, Rosemary's boyfriend, has gone missing.
This story is the first piece of "Tales from a Safe Distance" that will air.
"It's opera," said director Christina Baldwin, who also leads Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, "but using all the best qualities of technology and all the traditional qualities and beautiful scenery you've come to expect from opera."
The singers, based as far away as Houston and Canada, have filmed their own sections alone and against a green screen. Violinist Erin Aldridge sent in a recording of her part. Artist Ann Gumpper created the watercolor sets in her signature style, pieces that have been snipped and layered and animated by LOON newbie Bill Munson, a software tech who is piecing together all of the singing, instruments and art, and who also played the piano on the piece.
During a recent phone call, Gumpper was deep in leaves — the final push of her contribution. In recent weeks, which started with a dearth of available art supplies, she has created French doors, potted plants, both hanging and on a railing, a kitchen and a bathroom, a balcony, mist and a bistro set.
"I wanted the scenery to not feel heavy or serious at all," she said. "I wanted to keep it light and fresh and quick."
Munson, for his part, offered an example of his work: in one case, he made 100 edits in a 90-second clip. Sometimes he animated steam or bubbles. Sometimes he cut out each tiny point on a leaf.
This project, he said, has turned a period of isolation into something amazing.
"Creativity is oozing out of everyone's pores on this project," he said. "This is the most truly creative and original project I've been involved with."
If you 'go'
What: Decameron Opera Coalition's "Tales from a Safe Distance"
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9, Oct. 16, Oct. 23 and Oct. 30
Tickets: $15 for access to all of the works available at decameronoperacoalition.com. Available for streaming through Dec. 31
Lyric Opera of the North's contribution, "Everything Comes to a Head," will be available Oct. 9. More info is available at decameronoperacoalition.com.