Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser evolved over the course of 20 years or so, as it changed from a traditional three-act opera into a new episodic streaming-video format that’s now available to be streamed. Composer Lisa Bielawa and librettist Erik Ehn met at a workshop in New York City, and began writing a work about a young girl who has visions, and whose story stretches through history. For the past two years they’ve been filming it scene by scene.
You can watch the complete opera at the KCET website. (It’s also streaming today on Apple TV and Roku, and will be broadcast on Link TV on Tuesday, June 13th at 8pm.) There’s more information on the Vireo website.
Freed of the confines of the opera house, the production has filmed in a variety of locations (including Alcatraz) and with many guest artists appearing in each episode. The first includes Kronos Quartet, mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which Bielawa is the Artistic Director. In the title role is Rowen Sabala, who was 16 when they began, and a student at the Orange County School of the Arts. “What we’re doing is we’re focusing on this very time in young girls’ adolescence,” Bielawa says. “Because the story itself is based around teenage girls who had visions (who were around Rowen’s age) who had these sort of visionary experiences over the course of hundreds of years of western history. So it’s definitely an opportunity for us to let that speak through a real girl.” This is a new approach to opera, but for all of the technical hurdles, it actually makes some aspects of the performance easier. “If there’s a chorus in an opera, and you’re in an opera house, then the same 24 people or however many… has all these different costumes, and has to function as all these different crowds of people. But if you have a different crowd in every episode, you can actually have a different crowd. It can be a cast of thousands while still being light on its feet. In fact, suddenly it flips it on its head. It makes it easier for it to involve more people than to involve the same people.”