During the days last June, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis was marching and calling for justice with thousands of others in the streets of Los Angeles following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. But at home, by night, she was rehearsing “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto,” an aria from Gaetano Donizetti’s 1837 opera “Roberto Devereux.”
In the aria, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, is hiding her tears from everyone but the audience as she beholds in the tragic tale of the Fair Rosamund a reflection of her own lovelorn grief.
As she sang Sara, first onstage for LA Opera’s at-the-buzzer production in February 2020 and afterward, at home, as concert halls shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic and all of her outlets for expression dried up, Bryce-Davis started to see in Sara a reflection of her own turmoil.
“I came to this realization that the sorrow that she felt and the sorrow that I felt could express the same message,” she tells me in a phone interview.
The result was “To the Afflicted,” a short film Bryce-Davis created with filmmaker Jon Goff and pianist Esme Wong that not only captures the singer’s exquisite control of the aria’s lucent bel canto colors, but also the fear, anxiety, mourning and rage happening outside of the aria, in the summer of 2020.
In its caption, Bryce-Davis describes the short as “a clenched fist around the [reins] of destiny, an open hand raised in praise” and a dedication to “those in opera and those fighting on the front lines for justice and equity.”
It also was one of the first examples of what has become something of a vanguard in opera shorts. What might at first sound like inappropriate attire for the Kennedy Center is actually the product of a surprisingly symbiotic relationship between the good old-fashioned music video and good even-older-fashioned opera.
And the harvest of this unlikely hybrid is a range of short films that showcase top talents in American opera, highlight contemporary composers and recruit other artists (including costume designers and cinematographers) as well as tens of thousands of new viewers.
Opera Philadelphia recently debuted “The Island We Made” a hauntingly beautiful collaboration among composer Angélica Negrón, drag superstar Sasha Velour and filmmaker Matthew Placek, which includes the most emotionally satisfying application of peanut butter to graham crackers that I’ve ever seen.
“We Need to Talk,” another Opera Philadelphia short, features a new setting of an Anne Carson poem by composer Caroline Shaw, sung by soprano Ariadne Greif, who stalks the camera, hauls around furniture and attempts to claim some control of her unstable frame: “I tame you,” she sings. “No, you don’t,” another voice answers. (Both shorts clock in at about 10 minutes each.)
UrbanArias recently released “DWB (Driving While Black)” a powerful 40-minute film adaptation of Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s one-woman opera, directed and choreographed by Du’Bois and Camry A’Keen. It’s an examination of Black motherhood in America that more people need to see than could come together in a theater in the foreseeable future.
D.C.’s own IN Series has been getting into the game as well, most recently premiering “King Harald’s Saga,” Judith Weir’s 1979 monodrama for unaccompanied soprano (in this case, Maribeth Diggle, who performs all nine roles across the opera’s three acts plus epilogue). This tension between epic narrative and miniaturized scale is but one source of the 18-minute short’s urgent energy — its setting at the disused power plant of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center may be another.
And as I write this, a team of artists from Boston Lyric Opera and Long Beach Opera have converged in Palm Springs to film “Desert In,” an ambitious operatic miniseries from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Reid, playwright Christopher Oscar Peña and director James Darrah, that features music from Reid, Nico Muhly, Nathalie Joachim, Vijay Iyer, Wang Lu, Emma O’Halloran, Shelley Washington and Michael Abels. I’ve been paying virtual set visits over the past few weeks and marveling as cabaret icon Mx. Justin Vivian Bond comes to radiant new life as an otherworldly Lounge Singer onstage at a fog-flooded Melvyn’s Restaurant, and I will be dutifully tuning in when it premieres on June 3.
Shorts may, by nature, shorten the opera experience; and every stream reduces the real to a procession of bits that will never live up to the real thing. But the advantage of a well-made opera short is its dispensation with the expectations of the real (even by operatic standards), its indulgence in virtuality, its overdue embrace of the dormant chemistry between cinema and opera, so rarely consummated.
But the opera short is also a nimble form. Opera is seldom a first-responder to contemporary culture; full productions can take years to stage. With shorts, operatic artists are immediately able to reimagine old material in new visual and cultural contexts; give a virtual, portable stage to new works that address the headlines head-on; and accommodate demands for diversity and inclusion with which the bricks-and-mortar opera world continues to struggle.
Bryce-Davis is a founding member of the Black Opera Alliance, a group established in the midst of the pandemic to “empower Black classical artists and administrators by exposing systems of racial inequity and underrepresentation of the African diaspora in all facets of the industry and challenging institutions to implement drastic reform.”
From an artistic standpoint, that mission translates to urging major opera companies to cool it with the “Porgy and Bess” for a bit and make space for stories from Black creators. It also means widening the scope of the Black experience onstage past the brutality of American history.
“In all of these scenarios, it’s just like, ‘Let’s just make trauma porn about Black people,’ ” she says, “That’s just most of the things that are out there. And I wanted very strongly to negate that messaging and show Black people as being beautiful, as being powerful, as being happy, as being in love. You know, all of these things that we don’t so often see in the media.”
Or in opera, for that matter. Bryce-Davis accomplishes this as well as another key goal — recruiting a team of Black creators — for her latest short, “Brown Sounds” — co-produced by LA Opera and Aural Compass Projects.
Based on a piece she had commissioned from composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson (a setting of the titular poem by Henry Dumas) and filmed at locations around Brussels (where Bryce-Davis was performing in January), “Brown Sounds” assembles the talents of filmmaker Jérémy Adonis, dancer Lateef Williams and fashion designer Allan Virgo.
Bryce-Davis and her soaring, here-and-there aching voice are kept front and center (accompanied by pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers), but the film feels like a deft balance of its contributors’ visions. For a short, it feels whole.
And there’s some gathering consensus among unlikely audiences for opera, as “Brown Sounds” has stormed the festival circuit: It recently scored awards for best music video cinematography at the New York Cinematography Awards, as well as best music video honors at the New York International Film Awards, the Silk Road Film Awards Cannes, the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival and the Anatolian Short Film Awards.
Refreshing browsers might not be any substitute for raising curtains, but in this extended meantime, the nascent promise of the opera short has offered Bryce-Davis and others necessary space, both to keep their audiences engaged and the art form alive.