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On the heels of a successful opening weekend and rave reviews for live productions of Rossini’s Otello and Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven, Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O continues this week with the first Opera on Film series, featuring more than 30 cinematic operas presented in 12 screenings at the Philadelphia Film Center.
Opera on Film, presented from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 2, is a big-screen binge of the operatic art form’s cinematic possibilities, gathering both feature-length and short-form films featuring an array of artists crossing time and genres: artist and director William Kentridge; opera singers Patricia Racette, Karen Slack, Zachary James, Lester Lynch, and NBC’s The Voice finalist John Holiday; film directors James Darrah, Pedro Almodóvar, Joseph Losey, Mary Birnbaum, and E. Elias Merhige; composers Tyshawn Sorey, Rene Orth, Missy Mazzoli, Terence Blanchard, Paola Prestini, and Amanda Feery; drag superstar Sasha Velour; actress Tilda Swinton; and pop superstar Beyoncé.
The series opens on Tuesday, Sept. 27, with the first theatrical screening of Opera Philadelphia’s GRAMMY-nominated 2021 film of David T. Little’s Soldier Songs. Baritone Johnathan McCullough directs and stars as the Soldier. This theatrical premiere of the film the New York Times called “a worthy addition to the far-too-slight catalog of opera presented in cinematic form” will be followed by a talk with the artists.
Among the series’ highlights:
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 8:00 p.m.
Joseph Losey (1909-1984), director of such diverse films as The Servant (1963), Boom! (1968) and The Go-Between (1971), directed this internationally acclaimed film of Mozart’s masterpiece, hailed by critics as the superior of even Ingmar Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute (1974) in successfully meeting the demands of two art forms. Shot on location near Venice, the film called “sinister and sumptuous” by the New York Times, stars baritone Ruggero Raimondi as opera’s patron saint of toxic masculinity, with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira, soprano Edda Moser as Donna Anna, and soprano Teresa Berganza as Zerlina.
dwb (driving while black) + Soul (Signs): Opera
Thursday, Sept. 29, 9:00 p.m.
Filmmakers Du’Bois and Camry A’Keen’s 2021 adaptation of Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s one-woman opera incorporates elements of dance, music video production, and intimate storytelling. dwb (driving while black) is a montage of poetic and haunting moments examining the trials and triumphs Black mothers experience as their children come of age in a society plagued by racism and inequality. In the central narrative, we meet the Mother (soprano Karen Slack) in her home. The dangerous world outside, however, is out of her control, and anxiety builds in her mind and heart as her “beautiful brown boy” approaches manhood and the realities of modern life as a Black person in America. Produced by UrbanArias.
Soul(Signs): Opera is a series of three 2022 short films exploring the intersection of opera and American Sign Language. In a queer, ASL spin on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Dickie Hearts signs the role of Papageno and Brandon Kazen-Maddox signs the role of Papagena, with a new audio recording by baritone John Taylor Ward and countertenor Jordan Rutter. Brandon Kazen-Maddox signs the role of Emile Griffith in an ASL version of the aria “What Makes a Man?” from Terence Blanchard’s opera Champion: An Opera in Jazz, also featuring Andrew Morrill and Alberto Medero, and a new audio recording by baritone Markel Reed. In an ASL reimagining of “His Name is Jan” from Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves, Monique Holt signs the role of Bess as she confronts a chorus of church elders — signed by Seth Gore, Dickie Hearts, Andrew Morrill, and Zavier Sabio. Featuring a new audio recording by soprano Kiera Duffy and students from the University of Notre Dame. Created by Up Until Now Collective, and commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Omaha, Opera Columbus, and Portland Opera.
Sibyl + Polia & Blastema (World Premiere)
Friday, Sept. 30, 6:00 p.m.
South African artist William Kentridge has achieved a worldwide reputation with his powerful animation films, charcoal drawings, large-scale installations, and opera stage direction and designs. Sibyl is a 10-minute film conceived in 2020 as a companion piece to Work in Progress, the only stage work conceived by the U.S. sculptor Alexander Calder for Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in 1968.
Polia & Blastema (2022) is the first foray into opera for American film director E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire). This sci-fi opera film is a gnostic creation myth told through a visual tapestry which journeys into immensely desolate hellscapes of the inorganic as organic folding back onto itself in ever spiraling, fractally superimposing cataclysms of wormhole network (be)longing.Aesthetically tempered by aspects of decay, rot, earth, and the meta-myth structure of human cognition, the multi-leveled world of Polia & Blastema is informed by the visual imagination of David Wexler, a celebrated visual artist who has been the mastermind behind the live performances of Flying Lotus, The Weeknd, and The Glitch Mob, among many other artists. A Q&A with the artists will follow this World Premiere screening.
Carmen: A Hip Hopera
Friday, Sept. 30, 8:00 p.m.
In 2001, Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) directed this MTV adaptation of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, quoting from the classic opera’s music and melding it with a new hip-hop score performed by a cast of recording artists including Mos Def, Wyclef Jean, Lil’ Bow Wow, Da Brat, Rah Digga, and Beyoncé Knowles in her acting debut as Carmen. Set in Philadelphia, with Mekhi Phifer also starring as Philly cop Derek Hill (an update of Don José), the film debuted to mixed reviews. Two decades later, it has a loyal fanbase thanks to its provocative exploration of hip hop on an operatic scale, called “fun and fascinating to watch because of its intelligent direction and heartfelt performances at its core” (The Spool).
La voix humaine + The Human Voice
Saturday, Oct. 1, 1:00 p.m.
Two films based on the same Jean Cocteau play come together for a fascinating double feature, as James Darrah’s 2021 La voix humaine starring Patricia Racette is paired with Pedro Almodóvar’s 2020 The Human Voice starring Tilda Swinton. Darrah’s adaptation of the Poulenc opera, produced by Opera Philadelphia, tells the story of one woman (Racette) as she grapples with grief, denial, and anger in the face of unrequited love, all shared through a one-sided telephone call. In Almodóvar’s first English-language film, called “the most rewarding 30 minutes you could imagine” by Rolling Stone, a woman (Swinton) watches time passing next to the suitcases of her ex-lover (who is supposed to come pick them up, but never arrives) and a restless dog who doesn’t understand that his master has abandoned him.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Sunday, Oct. 2, 4:00 p.m.
Composer-librettist Gordon Getty’s new opera, reimagined for film in November 2021, is based on the popular 1934 novella by James Hilton. Goodbye, Mr. Chips tells the story of a teacher at Brookfield, an all-boys English boarding school to which “Chips” dedicates most of his adult life. The film chronicles Chips’ story of love, loss and learning over his decades-long tenure at Brookfield. Directed by Brian Staufenbiel, the film stars tenor Nathan Granner as Mr. Chips, soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Kathie, baritone Lester Lynch as Merrivale, and bass-baritone Kevin Short as Ralston and Rivers.
The full Opera on Film lineup can be found here.