When Mozart, Rossini, Wagner and Verdi were composing, they created operas that served as commentary on the life and times of the 18th and 19th centuries — epics of love and war, satire and sentiment.
South Florida composer Joey Bargsten and librettist Thea Zimmer have created a 21st century opera that serves the same function. However, MelanchoLalaland™, which premieres at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Sept. 13, turns traditional opera on its ear.
“When people think of opera,” says Bargsten, who is a multimedia professor at Florida Atlantic University, “they imagine a lot of stereotypes. A character is stabbed, and instead of bleeding, he sings. We’ve updated the subject matter, and we also show how an opera can be told through flashbacks and multiple timelines. There’s a lot of possibility.”
He and Zimmer call MelanchoLalaland™ a “transmedia” opera. It’s a story of corporate takeovers and power plays, disgruntled employees and workplace shootings, and dissatisfied women in unfulfilled relationships. To continue their commentary on the modern world, the couple uses a platform that encompasses today’s technology.
“‘Transmedia’ might be a phrase that you would use if there are multiple media types that start creating some sort of hybrid and create something that is beyond the individual parts,” explains Bargsten.
MelanchoLalaland™ is set in a not-too-distant future where global corporations specialize in anti-melancholia drugs and drive-through, self-pleasuring pods. The characters include Kenny Longtin, vice president of Melancuria Inc., whose target market includes the mobs of enlightenment-challenged Americans picketing outside its gates.
“Thea created this corporate dystopia,” says Bargsten. “She wanted to highlight some of the dysfunction that takes place in that world.”
The roots of MelanchoLalaland™ go back to 2005, when Bargsten wrote what he calls a “rambling, esoteric performance piece.” It was based in part on Robert Burton’s 17th century book The Anatomy of Melancholy, a collection of essays that examine melancholy via various fields of that era, from physiology to theology and astronomy. Zimmer, who is Bargsten’s wife, took that as a starting point.
“She crafted a narrative, expanded the characters, added a couple more, and basically created something that had a dramatic direction,” Bargsten says.
The production incorporates many different kinds of overlapping media. The singers interact with video, including a scene in which they sing words that appear on screen. It’s a reference to karaoke, which Bargsten calls “a populist form of performance.”
Being able to see the written text also gives it a stronger visual presence, he says: “It celebrates the text as the foundation of the production in addition to the music.”
While the professional opera singers — tenor Matthew Maness, bass-baritone Michael Angelo Gonzalez and mezzo soprano Vanessa Rose Rivera — perform live in MelanchoLalaland™, the score is produced electronically.
“The palette of sounds and genres that I use covers a pretty wide range,” Bargsten says. “There’s orchestral music, electronically produced rhythmic backgrounds, and experimental digital audio that intrudes into the landscape of sound.”
The mixture of live and electronic mediums in MelanchoLalaland™ also encompasses animation, and material from Bargsten’s video games and interactive websites. There are also two videos of dances featuring members of the Miami-based Nazmo Dance Collective and the West Palm Beach-based Demetrius Klein Dance Company.
Although Bargsten and Zimmer began MelanchoLalaland™ in 2005, winning a Knight Arts Challenge grant of $2,500 in 2013 propelled them to finish the project. Selections from the piece were also performed at the Filmgate Interactive festival last February.
“[The grant] was a big incentive for us to complete the work, and it gave us a very practical goal, that we would have to perform the opera somewhere in Miami-Dade County by the end of October 2015,” says Bargsten.
The title of MelanchoLalaland™ incorporates a trademark symbol to underscore a broader statement.
“I want to invite the viewer to examine commercial culture by using the trademark symbol,” Bargsten says. “This acknowledges that we as artists are creating products that are consumed by others, and that we are part of that ecosystem.”
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