Old World opera meets new media

Syracuse Opera calls on College of Visual and Performing Arts students to create abstract video backdrops for 'The Flying Dutchman.'

Richard Wagner is considered a god among titans by opera aficionados.

His operas are grand opuses, largely inspired by northern European mythology and legend. Because Wagner operas call for such elaborate sets, staging one is an ambitious endeavor for any company — even one the size of the Metropolitan Opera. Syracuse Opera — the only year-round professional opera company serving upstate New York — has been a successful institution since its first season in 1974, but staging a Wagner opera remains a challenge.

Photo: Vernon Young
Members of the Syracuse Opera rehearse Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman."

In order to include Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman into this year’s season, the opera company decided to stage a concert of the opera, replacing a traditional set with a multimedia backdrop created by 14 students from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Fusing the work of students with Wagner’s opera has provided the students an opportunity to work directly with a client, and has afforded the company a cost-efficient way to produce it. Three drapes that hang from the stage to mimic the sails of a ship are the only concrete pieces of the set. The students’ videos will then be projected onto the fabric.

Catherine Wolff, the company's general and artistic director, said the minimalist set design has afforded them the means to recruit some of the world’s best performers. Most importantly, she said, it allows them the opportunity to stage an opera that they normally could not afford to produce.

“There isn’t a set anywhere near Syracuse that we can afford to rent for an opera of this scale,” Wolff said.

The opera was split into 14 segments — one for each of the 14 students. The videos are abstract and reflect each artist’s personal emotional response to the music. When initially informed by their professor Adam Brown (also the producer of the Urban Video Project) that they would be collaborating with Syracuse Opera and that their work would be projected for an entire opera-going audience, fifth-year industrial design student Nicolas Matarese admitted that the class was a little baffled at the prospect.

“We didn’t know what the project was going to be. All we were told was that it was going to be abstract,” said Matarese. " None of us had ever been to the opera.”

All 14 students were taken to Syracuse Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme. Following their first foray into the world of opera, each student was given his or her musical piece.

“I listened to my piece over and over again,” Matarese said.

Brown said that he approached the class for the first few weeks from a purely conceptual standpoint, teaching the contexts of abstraction and giving seminars on the history of film and video art.

“I wanted them to understand how to take solid, real-world feelings and emotions, or even pure action, and deconstruct that into abstraction,” he said.

Following the crash course in video art, the students got their hands on cameras and video editing software and soon began experimenting.

“We approached it as, ‘make your own personal reaction.’ So it’s more about the artist, the individual,” Brown said. “How do you feel when you hear this sound, this particular note?"

While the students enjoyed the freedom that came with the abstract nature of the work, Matarese admitted to one hindrance:

“The challenge of the whole thing was you’re in Syracuse and you have to film an opera that takes place in Finland...near water,” he said. "We didn’t have that.”

With 14 students of little or no experience in film work, and with the reputation of Syracuse Opera on the line, there were bound to be some hiccups along the way. Wolff said there was one section the company decided they couldn’t use. But the student artist was given the opportunity to try again, and succeeded in designing something more fitting.

“We pretty much said, ‘go wherever the spirit moves you,’ but obviously we’re looking for something that could assist us to tell this particular story,” Wolff explained. “We aren’t limiting them in style or saying it has to be the same style from start to finish. But they’re all using techniques that do seem somehow to fit together, even though what you see seems different from section to section.”

Enlisting a group of students to aid in bringing Wagner’s opus to the stage is a risky endeavor. Brown is aware of the project’s weight and his role in getting the best out of his students.  There's also the added pressure to deliver a product that Syracuse Opera will love. But throughout the process he’s kept his creative integrity intact.

“In some ways we wanted to challenge the tradition of the opera,” he said. “We’ve worked to produce something that is very high-energy, very visual and very cinematic. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to please everyone.”


Go to the opera

The Flying Dutchman will be performed Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Crouse-Hinds Theater of the John H. Mulroy Civic Center at Oncenter. Tickets start at $18 and are available at the Syracuse Opera/Syracuse Symphony Box office at 411 Montgomery St., by phone at 315-476-7372, or online at SyracuseOpera.com.

Student Rush

$10 Student rush tickets are available starting one hour prior to curtain for both performances!

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