Director James Darrah wants opera to be cinematic

Director James Darrah wants opera to be cinematic

A conversation with James Darrah

The opera industry has been given a shot of espresso in the form of director and designer James Darrah.

Fueled by his love of the art form’s ability to touch each of the senses, the 36-year-old Los Angeles-based artist wants audiences to see opera through the cinematic eyes of Hollywood by using film language and daring concepts of experience. He hopes these initiatives will invite new and diverse audiences, while also bringing into the fold collaborators who have been historically marginalized in the industry.

ALL ARTS spoke with Darrah about fusing screen and stage, digital “content” and what he’s looking forward to in 2021, a year that will see the roll out of his various collaborations with Opera Philadelphia, Boston Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Santa Fe Opera, and Long Beach Opera, to name a few.

What attracts you to opera?

I’m captivated by the fact that most non-opera people I meet think they hate it, but further conversation almost inevitably reveals that they’ve actually never seen an opera. It’s so bizarre to work in a field that I’d argue a general swath of the population either misunderstands or has open disdain or indifference toward. But, in my experience, when those same people encounter opera singers truthfully or in close proximity for the first time, it’s always an emotional and transformative experience for them.

I fell in love with opera’s excess and ability to hold me and others emotionally captive for extended periods of time — it’s real extremism artistically. I’m always telling my students that instead of trying to normalize opera, make it quotidian or common, they should be leaning into opera instead as a bizarre, odd and entirely surreal art form.

"The Threepenny Opera." Photo courtesy Jamed Darrah.
“The Threepenny Opera.” Photo courtesy James Darrah.

What sparked your curiosity to blend stage and screen?

I’ll admit to being a film and sci-fi nerd, and I think part of me definitely thought I’d eventually pursue some element of film instead. But as I started to direct opera, it was absorbing to realize there was an entire obsessively storied and odd history of tradition and performance practice in it — an entire world of the industry with a legacy, old rumors and drama, but also artistic achievement and breathtaking musical brilliance.

The cinematic ideas started to seem more and more appealing within the opera world where I had made my artistic life and more like something worth exploring, sharing and putting out into the world.

Conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas became an unexpected mentor for me, in a way, at a crucial point toward that curiosity. He’s really honest, but also is always trying to find the core idea — the most potent, but elusive, simple, theatrical idea to combust with the music. He’s entirely willing to take a risk, but really has taught me the value of getting over myself, avoiding stupid ideas and just putting on a “damn good show.”

Opera was often articulated to me as a student as this grand masterminded art form in which all mediums converge — music, dance, acting and performance, singing, design and visual art. I remember thinking a few years ago that those conversations and college textbooks never really, truthfully, involved certain aspects of cinema and film [in the art form].

So, I guess I’m curious if opera finally can incorporate the language of cinema in a more meaningful way. Can opera play by cinematic rules, instead of the other way around, consistently and on a larger scale? I think part of it is to bring emerging filmmakers into the form as well, and not force them to artistically adhere to opera’s imagined decorum.

How do you envision digital content playing a role in arts institutions going forward?

I think digital content should play a huge role going forward, and I honestly feel it is the next frontier for opera and classical music institutions.

But the other distinction for me in your question is the word “content.” An orchestra simply playing a piece in an empty theater in masks, or a simulated proscenium opera socially-distanced in an empty venue isn’t actually real original content for me. I don’t mean to say those don’t have a certain value or can’t be quite good, but I do think that value is pretty relegated to the audience that has already existed — the supporters (fiscal and otherwise) who want to be reminded of what they are missing and feel good about their chosen favorite arts nonprofit or be assured of the very survival of opera.

Still from "Vespers," Missy Mazzoli. Photo courtesy James Darrah.
Still from “Vespers,” Missy Mazzoli. Photo courtesy James Darrah.

I respect that desire and am glad audiences can see some of that content, but I would argue that this is the time to balance that content and also take bigger risks — both as companies and as viewers and listeners.

It’s more vital than ever to generate original content specifically developed for our consumption on an actual computer or television screen. New visual art, documentaries, art films.

How has COVID-19 affected your approach to your work?

To be honest, part of me stopped being so sensitive and so cautious. I’m exhausted by treading lightly. I feel this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment for an entire generation of arts leadership and passionate artists to vocalize the boldest of ideas, solutions and visions for the form that haven’t already been explored, and I want to be active in that.

Have the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – closures, seasons cancelled, artists being out of work – made you see the industry in a different way?

Absolutely, and it’s somewhat complicated now that I start to unpack the past few months. I think it first has revealed who I really want to make work with, and it’s helped me see who is leading organizations down paths or on journeys that I want to join. It has also made me really want to generate new jobs for designers and directors, and work with people who have passion and heart.

Losing work as a freelance artist is extremely hard, but there’s also an emotional connection to the operas or particular ideas for directors, designers and production teams that are anticipated as artistic outlets. Many of those are now lost.

"The Threepenny Opera." Photo courtesy Jamed Darrah.
“The Threepenny Opera.” Photo courtesy Jamed Darrah.

I also feel one of the effects of COVID-19 has been to draw closer to a lot of other aligned artists within the world of opera here in Los Angeles like Yuval Sharon, Jenny Rivera, James Lemkin and Nadia Sirota, Anna Schubert and others. A generous consensus is that the opera industry is ready for an even bigger collective overhaul and change.

There is a pretty formidable group of creators left in a strange limbo right now: so many artists ready and waiting to make spectacular new work, and a lot of them haven’t been given opportunities at all or lost their first big jobs. Singers, designers, crew members and stage management I know have lost work via a sudden, indirect company cancellation Twitter post, which I find actually quite cruel.

What role does opera play in our society?

I think it is about being in close proximity to an emotionally, intellectually and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) spiritually rich experience. Opera is something that uses all of the arts to overwhelm the senses. Opera should unapologetically stir up that which we don’t have the words to explain, lingers in the mind, and even remains unreconciled.

I personally also like my opera to really make me uncomfortable and mad. More microphones and more loud speakers and better design, less formality, conductors for the whole rehearsal period and darker lighting designs, please.

"REV 23." Photo courtesy Jamed Darrah.
“REV 23.” Photo courtesy Jamed Darrah.

What is the field of opera missing right now?

Missing? Oh boy: Real diversity and racial equality, gender equality, transparency in certain places from entrenched leadership, an entire younger generation of new leadership, digital media and social media-focused growth, LGBTQ+ activism that isn’t fleeting, government funding (!) and importantly the creation and existence of pipelines for what have historically been marginalized or ignored artists of color. Sounds like a daunting list, but I’m hopeful all of this can be actively addressed head on as opera enters this decade.

What do you hope for the future of opera?

I’d love to see the word “opera” come to mean “artistic possibility” and be an exciting word to a larger generational group. I want to see new musicians, pop stars and a rich diversity of voices from outside the siloed classical world commissioned and then encouraged, supported and guided. I want to see filmmakers working with the orchestras committed to investing in meaningful, original content.

Still from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's "Close Quarters." Photo courtesy James Darrah.
Still from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Close Quarters.” Photo courtesy James Darrah.

I’d love to see opera companies develop new partnerships with film or TV production studios and think about ways to integrate the live experience of opera (something that also is almost impossible to capture on film) into both live and digital seasons, eventually expanding that reach further into streaming services …

I’m also excited for the next generation of artistic leadership that realizes opera has to prioritize the current moment to an even greater degree in order for any of this to actually work.

What are you most excited about for 2021?

I made the decision during the initial shutdowns in March to not make work “about” this time, but rather use this time to start to evolve my own artistic DNA and help shape what opera might be in the next five or 10 years.

Composer and sound artist Ellen Reid was a great thought companion as the lockdowns started, and we both lost a show at the Kennedy Center in D.C. We talked about a desire to make new work that could be green-lit not in spite of the pandemic, but because the pandemic was prompting us to make bold decisions and propose wild daydreams as we grappled with new realities.

The result is something I’m really proud of: we are already in pre-production on an eight-part operatic television series that is part opera, part play, part television, part something-else-we-haven’t-yet-really-defined. That piece is totally re-writing the “rules” of commissioning new work in opera with a powerhouse writer’s room from the worlds of television that was able to happen remotely and (hopefully) goes into production in late spring 2021, if we can do so safely.

Animation storyboard from the Boston Lyric Opera's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Photo courtesy James Darrah.
Animation storyboard from the Boston Lyric Opera’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Photo courtesy James Darrah.

I’m also looking forward to my animated film adaptation of Philip Glass’ “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which will be released in 2021 and has a really incredible creative team of designers and animators behind it who have been able to work safely during this time. Both projects are with Boston Lyric Opera, a company that has boldly and radically started to fully reconceive and imagine its artistic identity not only in person but entirely also on screens.

The composer David T. Little’s opera “Soldier Songs” is another film project we shot under strict COVID-compliant conditions with Opera Philadelphia with a film industry creative team and crew. It is scheduled to be released in January [2021].

Still from "Soldier Songs," Opera Philadelphia. Photo courtesy James Darrah.
Still from “Soldier Songs,” Opera Philadelphia. Photo courtesy James Darrah.

And while this specific project enabled me to work more as a writer and producer, which I loved, it mainly helped contribute to what I was suggesting earlier about a new frontier of collaborative art making in opera with more than just conductors/stage directors always at the helm. I look forward to more of that!

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.